Dennis Smith Jr. is finding his mojo with Detroit Pistons and showing he belongs

Detroit Free Press

Omari Sankofa II
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Dennis Smith Jr. got his first signature moment as a Detroit Piston on Friday. 

Shortly before halftime, he raced into the lane and finished an explosive dunk in traffic. It feels inaccurate to call it a “vintage” Smith play — he’s only 23 years old and in his fourth NBA season. But after earning first team all-rookie honors in 2018 and competing in the 2018 and 2019 Slam Dunk Contests, Smith had been absent from the limelight for nearly a year. 

The dunk was his first in exactly a year, his last coming with the New York Knicks against the Charlotte Hornets on Feb. 26, 2020.

He fell out of favor with the Knicks before arriving in Detroit in early February. Friday showed his best days in the league could still be in front of him. The dunk was his first two points in what ended up being his best performance of the season, as Smith finished with 17 points and six assists, both season-highs, and made seven of his 13 shots during Detroit’s 110-107 loss to the Sacramento Kings at Little Caesars Arena.

He has been the full-time starter at point guard this week with Delon Wright nursing a groin injury, and he’s beginning to thrive. 

“He had a good game,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “The other night it was Saben (Lee) and tonight it was Dennis Smith. I thought he had a good game offensively. Defensively, I don’t think we did a good job on De’Aaron Fox. Offensively, I thought Dennis did an excellent job of running the show, handling the pick-and-roll, getting into the paint and caused some problems. Between those two, we’ve had some good play out of the two young point guards.” 

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In his past three games, Smith is averaging 14 points, 4.7 assists, 1.3 steals and a block in 23.7 minutes per game, shooting 52.9% overall and 45.5% from 3.

Smith scored 11 of his 17 points in the third quarter Friday. He scored seven straight to give the Pistons (9-24) their first lead of the night with a long 2-pointer and a 3 for a 73-71 edge late in the quarter, then followed with a scooping layup.

He checked back in midway through the fourth, and hit his second 3-pointer over Fox’s outstretched arm to break a 91-all tie. 

It has been a good week for the Pistons’ point guards. Saben Lee, on a two-way contract, scored 46 points on 17-for-26 shooting in his previous three games, and tallied eight points and four assists Friday. 

READ: Saben Lee a revelation, Dennis Smith Jr. improving as Pistons young PG duo excites

Lee and Smith held down the fort for the Pistons, who are awaiting Wright’s return from a Grade 2 right groin strain. Wright is set to be re-evaluated during the All-Star break, and was on an offensive hot streak before suffering the injury in the fourth quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies on Feb. 19. 

It could pose an interesting rotation decision for Casey, who will also soon have to account for Killian Hayes’ return. Hayes will be re-evaluated in late March after suffering a torn hip labrum in January.

“I’m worried about tomorrow, I’ll worry about it when that comes,” Casey said. 

“We’ll see what happens and make some determinations as far as the lineup is concerned. One night it was Saben, the other night it was Dennis. It depends on what night, who has what going. We’ll see how it goes down the stretch. We’ll be glad when we get everybody back and healthy.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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