Omari Sankofa II | Detroit Free Press
If Dennis Smith Jr.’s goal was to win favor with Detroit Pistons fans in his first few days with the team, his strategy was sound.
He said he was “smiling all day” when he heard the news the New York Knicks traded him to Detroit over the weekend, and struggled to sleep that night. It’s nothing personal to the Knicks, whom he thanked after playing 58 games in parts of three seasons. But the Pistons are offering him something that eluded him in New York — a chance to play, and to potentially show his best basketball is ahead of him.
He had to quarantine for several days before practicing for the first time Wednesday, but read the playbook while quarantined. He is familiar with much of coach Dwane Casey’s terminology, due to their shared connection with the Dallas Mavericks. Smith was drafted ninth overall by the Mavericks in 2017, and Casey was an assistant under Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle from 2008-11.
[ Blake Griffin may not have ‘it’ anymore, but has enough to boost rebuild ]
Smith, 23, has also been familiarizing himself with the Pistons’ culture, both past and present.
“Even my first night here in Detroit, me and my girl stayed up watching the Bad Boys documentary,” he said, referencing ESPN’s Bad Boys 30 for 30 documentary that aired in 2014. “It was my 10th time watching it, but it’s her first time. That’s about the culture. It’s about the city and how the city embraces tough basketball in Detroit. I can tell the guys we got on the team, they’re about the same thing, so I’m fully aware of what they’re building here.”
Smith’s first opportunity to play is Thursday, when the Pistons host the Indiana Pacers. It isn’t clear how much he’ll play, since he has played three games this season. But Casey said he’s a “full go,” and will be eased into the rotation while his conditioning catches up.
“He’s a versatile guard, he can get to where he wants to get,” Casey said Wednesday. “He’s a lot like Derrick (Rose). Derrick is an accomplished player, this young man is trying to get there. He has a lot of his skillsets and speed and quickness and athleticism. There’s a lot of things we can use him in within our offense.”
UPDATE: Pistons center Jahlil Okafor has knee surgery, out 6-8 weeks
BEER ME: Pistons’ horsepower logo returns on Budweiser special edition can
A former lottery pick, Smith’s playing time has steadily decreased each season after a promising rookie year. He averaged 15.2 points, 5.2 assists, 3.8 rebounds and earned All-Rookie Second Team honors in 2018. He has long struggled with his shooting efficiency, however, and Casey will challenge him to rise to the occasion as a playmaker.
It’s an opportunity for Casey to revive another career. Former lottery pick Josh Jackson, who was drafted fourth overall in 2017 by the Phoenix Suns, is in the midst of the best season of his career in his first season in Detroit. Christian Wood had a breakout season with the Pistons last season, and has emerged as one of the NBA’s best scorers with the Houston Rockets this season. Those cases could provide a blueprint for Smith.
“I think the Pistons organization, the people they have in place is a large part of that, just giving him the opportunity,” Smith said of Jackson. “They believed in him, I always believed in him. It’s great to see what he’s doing.”
With Rose’s departure to the Knicks, there appears to be an immediate role available for Smith as a backup point guard. It could give Smith, who was at the end of Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau’s bench, more responsibility than he has had in nearly a year. He played 28 minutes in New York this season and had his request to go to the G League accepted Feb. 1.
[ Meet Dennis Smith Jr.: New Piston has 48-inch vertical and funny J. Cole stories ]
A quad injury cost Smith several games at the beginning of the season, and Casey believes it factored into his inability to establish himself. With Killian Hayes rehabbing a hip injury, the Pistons don’t have the logjam at point guard that existed in New York. And it could be beneficial for Smith’s development.
“I think one thing, he got out of the rotation when he got an injury, and never quickly grew, and those guys kept rolling and he couldn’t get back in,” Casey said. “I don’t think it was anybody’s fault, the Knicks fault or whoever. It was just a situation where he had guys in front of him and he couldn’t get back in. I think that injury had something to do with it. Had nothing but great things to say about coach Thibs and the team, the organization, the city. Sometimes it just doesn’t work.
“Christian Wood had how many teams? Sometimes a change of scenery is good for everybody. … He was spirited in practice today. Like I told him, we’re starting off with a clean slate. Don’t care about what happened in New York, don’t care about what happened in Dallas. Don’t care about what happened at North Carolina State. It’s what happens with the Pistons.”
Contact Omari Sankofa II at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.