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Dennis Smith Jr. return brings instant benefits to Brooklyn Nets

Dennis Smith Jr. was the Brooklyn Nets top target in free agency and now that he’s back from injury, he’s proving why.

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Denver Nuggets v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Dennis Smith Jr. matters.

Signed to a one-year, vets minimum deal in the off-season, Smith has become a veteran presence despite his youth (turning 26 a month ago) and solid defender on a team that surprisingly has not played well on that end of the court. A strained lower back had kept him out for 14 games through last week, but now he’s healthy and is showing what he can do.

Start with the numbers. As Zach Braziller writes Monday for the Post,

[T]he Nets are 8-7 when he’s active and 6-8 when he is sidelined. The Nets have won three of the past four games Smith has played in, with the lone loss on Friday to the defending champion Nuggets.

Although his scoring numbers are nothing spectacular — 6.7 points and 3.5 assists in 18 minutes per game — when he’s not on the court, he’s missed.

“So it’s definitely a piece that we were missing when [Smith] was gone. There’s a physicality that he plays with. There’s an edge that he plays with, that he gives to the rest of the group,” said Jacque Vaughn.

“So the more he can stay healthy, the better we are. And then you look at the minutes since he’s played. I don’t have to extend Spencer. We were playing [Trendon Watford] out of position and so those things have a trickle-down effect when [Smith] doesn’t play.”

His teammates understand his importance he is when he’s on the court.

“Big time. I think his energy and effort are contagious,” said Spencer Dinwiddie when Smith returned. “What he brings on the defensive end is unique to anybody on this roster. He’s an impact player.”

Smith understands his role as well. Despite being younger than half his teammates, he has assumed a leadership role, particularly after the team’s five-game skid that included the recently concluded West Coast road trip and losses to the Knicks and Nuggets. Some blamed the schedule. Smith blamed a lack of toughness.

“I felt like we weren’t competing at a high level,” Smith told reporters. “Honestly, I just feel like we went out there and we were just going through the game, almost like we’re just trying to get the games over with, you know?

“We’ve got to come in every game and feel that we can win, and understand that ain’t nobody gonna give anything to us. Everything’s got to be taken. So we get that mentality back, I think we’ll get back on the right track.”

Smith has had a checkered career. The Nets are his sixth team since he was drafted in 2017. After a strong rookie year in Dallas, Smith experienced a deep slide brought on by a series of injuries but also because of limited skills outside of defense and distribution. He was sent to the Knicks in the 2019 Kristaps Porzingis deal then moved again less than two years later to the Pistons as part of the Derrick Rose trade. He later signed with the Blazers but played in only 37 games before being cut in late February.

He was so down on his NBA prospects at that point that he considered working out for the NFL rather than play overseas. However, he was invited to Hornets training camp in September 2022 and was eventually signed to a standard NBA deal. He has reinvented himself as a point-of-attack defender and played a leadership role on a young Charlotte team as well. Sean Marks has said Smith was his top target in free agency.

The North Carolina State product has also improved his 3-point shooting since joining the Nets, getting his early number up to 32.1% from 21.6% last season. It may not be great but it’s his best percentage in three seasons and will help keep defenses honest. With Ben Simmons out, Smith’s contributions and health have become more important to Vaughn.

Smith remains optimistic about Brooklyn’s success and his role in it despite the back issues that have plagued him so far this season.

“It’s the NBA season, man. It’s like life: ups and downs,” Smith said. “I don’t look at it as tough. S–t, I’ve been blessed with enough strength to deal with it. I’ll be alright.”

Meanwhile, The Athletic quotes Smith on his dunking and how it exacts a physical price.

Smith, the ninth pick in the 2017 draft, entered the league with a record-tying 48-inch vertical — and with a dangerous habit of coming down on one leg. While recovering from knee surgery, he learned to land on both of them. “I don’t even think about it now,” he says. But he still does thoracic therapy to treat scar tissues in his wrist from his childhood dunks, which he believes has had an effect on his shooting form.