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Dennis Smith Jr. emerges as Brooklyn’s camp darling in 2023

Dennis Smith Jr. is a Brooklyn Net, and he and his teammates couldn’t be happier about it

Brooklyn Nets fans, understandably, take training camp optimism with a grain of salt. They've been through it before, whether it was reassurance that a young Richard Jefferson was becoming a deadly 3-point shooter or that the Clean Sweep Nets were entering a season with limited off-court distractions. Hell, all the noise coming out of HSS Training about the rejuvenation of Ben Simmons sounds awfully similar to last season’s training camp.

And yet, the praise being thrown Dennis Smith Jr.’s way cannot be overlooked. The former NC State standout is an obvious fit on the court, starting with his rigid perimeter defense. Smith Jr. is playing on his sixth team in seven NBA seasons, but only recently has his defense come into the limelight.

“The biggest thing for me was just checking the ego,” said DSJ at Friday's practice. “I checked the ego and just learned how to shift my mental into being able to fit whatever role I needed to play and finding a way to stay in it. It’s paying off for me, I’m in a really good spot now.”

As a result, Smith Jr. has steadily transformed from a high-flying, five-star recruit known for his raw athleticism and scoring ability to a nightmare matchup for opposing NBA guards. With Jacque Vaughn repeatedly emphasizing a focus on implementing different defensive schemes, namely drop coverage, Smith Jr’s point-of-attack defense becomes a hand-in-glove fit.

“You can sit the big back there but you’ve gotta have dudes who can navigate, who can shed screens and not get screened, because if not, then you’re playing four-on-five,” said Vaughn on Friday. “So I think we will take advantage of...Dennis’ strength, his ability to get through screens and be physical and get under sometimes, all of the above we’ll need....There’s a premium of not getting screened when you are in that coverage.”

This is, of course, a bit reductive, but pairing an elite guard defender with Nic Claxton, who finished second in the NBA in blocks (both per game and total,) suddenly brings into focus a tantalizing alternative to the switch-heavy coverages Brooklyn often deployed last season.

According to Smith Jr., that “was actually something I discussed with [Vaughn] during my free agency meeting...That’s what makes me unique on defense, I can get through ball-screens with navigation and things like that. We gotta understand, that ain’t really no pressure for me.”

That quote is the DSJ experience in a nutshell: realistic and self-assured. (I explicitly acknowledged the supposed “pressure” that drop coverage places on guards in getting through screens is my question.)

Smith Jr. is eminently likable, a journeyman who’s been through the NBA ringer, from a high draft pick with even higher expectations to falling out of a rotation and requesting to be sent to the G-League just to hoop. At one point, when he was waived by the Blazers two years ago, he considered trying out for the NFL. He speaks about these experiences openly, being unabashedly playful with both the media and his teammates while locked in on what’s gotten him to this point:

Players who provide media members with made-for-Twitter soundbites will be covered more favorably, even by the most well-intentioned bloggers and writers. It’s unavoidable. This is especially true for players whose stories qualify as “feel-good,” and that’s most certainly Smith Jr. Who doesn’t root for the journeyman?

DSJ’s appeal is not fluff, though. Replacing the slow-footed perimeter shooters that adorned the 2022-’23 Brooklyn roster with an athletic, paint-piercing, perimeter-defending point guard makes plenty of basketball sense, but so does adding a 25-year-old vet to a roster in transition.

“The energy that he brings is contagious, the competitive nature,” said Vaughn of his backup guard. “I think he’s really done a good job of bringing out the best in Cam Thomas, bringing out the best in Day’Ron Sharpe. They’re talking more on the defensive end because of him. So those things have really come to light. I think he is a tough-minded individual which I love. So there’s some grit to him, some nastiness. We needed it.”

“I’m gonna be a dog every chance I get. I’m going to compete, I’m going to fight, and I want to win games. I don’t want to lose,” added Smith.

Adding to his prominence, the Nets social media team has featured Smith prominently this week...

There is an obvious pathway for the seventh-year man to impact the Brooklyn Nets, despite being signed to just a one-year minimum deal. A team with a starting five built to switch can throw a curveball at opposing offenses with the sudden introduction of drop coverage off the bench headed by Smith Jr. On offense, his most noteworthy skill is either speeding down the floor in transition — a noted focus for Brooklyn in camp — or throwing pocket passes in the pick and roll. Run and gun. Indeed, he will likely fill the role Vaughn did on the Jason Kidd Nets 20 years ago, a defensive stopper and glue guy.

It’s not hard to imagine Smith Jr. playing his way into serious minutes. In fact, it’d be surprising if he didn’t, given that he alluded to more lucrative contract offers from other teams this summer before he signed with the Nets. One doesn’t have to be a tea-leaf expert to imagine some sort of minutes guarantee from Brooklyn’s brass.

Should DSJ staple himself into the Nets’ rotation, however, one hopes they can reap the benefit of an excellent locker room presence. If you let Vaughn tell it, the off-season singing has already paid dividends:

“It takes a little sometimes, of how you can impact a team, and not impact it just for your sake, but for the sake of the group. And without a doubt, Dennis Smith Jr. has had an impact on our group every day of camp.”

BONUS: During his Media Day interview, Smith Jr. revealed to us that he swore off the NYC Subway system during his time with the New York Knicks, and that nothing has changed in his brief time as a Net. Out of morbid curiosity, I followed up with him on that thread on Friday. The answer will probably not surprise you:

Then again, the Nets marketing team featured him in a subway setting looking at fellow passengers, perhaps warily...

Fan favorite? Definitely.

Availability is the best ability

Jacque Vaughn revealed that other than Cam Johnson, recovering from a mild hamstring strain, and Dariq Whitehead, slowly working his way back from foot surgery, everyone else will be available. That means Ben Simmons will be available. Will he start? Vaughn was non-comital on who he’ll send out Monday when the Nets face the Lakers in Las Vegas on Monday, but what he said Friday would seem to indicate there’s nothing holding him back.

“What we’ve seen is his ability to push the basketball, to do it over and over again, play with an extreme amount of pace, get to the rim, play with force,” said the head coach, adding,
“All the things that we were asking and I was searching for last year that got revealed why they weren’t happening, the good thing is those things are happening now... So far, he’s had some really good days...

“Everyone’s been full-go, 100 percent in practice. You know how preseason games are, I haven’t even scripted who’s gonna play what games,” said Vaughn. “By the second day of practice in Vegas, I’ll sit down and know who’s playing when for how long, and I’ll be pretty detailed with that.”

Dorian Finney-Smith became the latest teammate to offer a positive take on what Simmons has looked like in camp thus far.

“He’s bouncing on his toes. He’s back to being the top two, top three fastest person on our team, and he’s 6’10”. So it’s been good. We’ve just gotta keep up with his pace,” said DFS.

Simmons has said he’s doing a number of things to keep him healthy.

“Treatment. Pilates. Lifting. All the boring stuff, but it becomes a part of the routine,” Simmons said Wednesday. “You start to learn. That’s the great thing about it. You see your progression. I want to wake up every day and be able to stand up and be able to compete every day. I don’t want to have a day where I just can’t go. That’s not a good feeling.”

Roster keeps rotating

Within a six-hour period Friday, the Nets signed, then waived, Kameron Hankerson and Trey McGowens, two guards who played for Long Island last season and will likely wind up there again this season. Hankerson and McGowens become the fifth and six Exhibit 10s who’ve been signed and waived in rapid succession. Long Island will open its camp October 30 with their own Media Day. Expect other similar moves in the coming days.