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The rehabilitation of a reputation: How the Brooklyn Nets have helped Dennis Smith Jr. find his game

Dennis Smith Jr. has had an up-and-down career with some seeing him as less than a culture guy in previous stops. Now, though, he’s found his niche as C.J. Holmes writes

Miami Heat v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Dennis Smith Jr.’s first time in New York was not positive. He was traded by the Dallas Mavericks to the New York Knicks in the 2019 deadline deal that famously sent an unhappy Kristaps Porzingis to the Mavs. Smith had wanted to be in Dallas forever, but circumstances intervened and now he was in New York, an afterthought.

It was a bizarre time for him. The No. 9 pick in the 2017 NBA draft, taken ahead of Donovan Mitchell, Bam Adebayo and Jarrett Allen, he had had a solid season in his rookie year but fell out of favor with Mavs coach Rick Carlisle as Dallas reset with Luka Doncic. The rumor, which many laid at Carlisle’s feet, was that culture and chemistry was secondary to Smith’s physical attributes

As C.J. Holmes of the Daily News writes, Carlisle had been a problem for Smith for a while.

The backcourt pairing of Smith and Doncic did not seem ideal on paper. There was only one basketball and both guards were high-usage players. But they quickly formed a bond committed to making it work. But former head coach Rick Carlisle and the Mavericks organization reportedly had other plans.

“I had every intention of being a Dallas Maverick for good,” Smith said.

It was no secret that Doncic needed the ball in his hands to maximize his offensive potential. That obviously conflicted with Smith’s point guard role. According to an ESPN story from 2021, Carlisle placed all of his focus on Doncic and wanted Smith off the team. The article said Carlisle, now coaching the Indiana Pacers, did everything he could to diminish Smith’s sense of worth. He wanted to tear apart Smith’s relationship with Doncic. Smith even confirmed those reports on social media when the story was first published.

“They ended up creating a narrative about me and then they moved me,” Smith said. “Now there’s a lot of dirt on my name. But I just kept working. I didn’t let it faze me. I started leaning heavily into my work.”

The Knicks back then were in one of their famous funks, winning 17 that season, then 21 in the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season. Smith was relegated to the bench on a bad team and his prospects seemed dim, at best, a draft bust perhaps. A coaching shift with the hiring of Tom Thibodeau the next season didn’t help his situation either.

So hungry for a role, he asked to be sent to the G League, the Westchester Knicks, but before a decision could be rendered, he was shipped off to Detroit for Derrick Rose and his personal spiral spun even faster. In the summer of 2022, he said he considered trying out for a cornerback job, even put on some weight.

Then, the Charlotte Hornets gave him a chance and he made the most of the opportunity when LaMelo Ball went down. By last summer, he had become the Nets top off-season priority, a back-up point guard, an insurance policy that would pay out only if Ben Simmons went down. Well...

Now, in his second tour in New York, he’s become a favorite of both the fan base and coaching staff and he’s happy for it. He contrasted his pre-Brooklyn days with where he is, a sparkplug that Jacque Vaughn can rely on. As Holmes writes, he may have finally found the “place where his career can potentially blossom.”

“They tried to act like I was a bad person,” Smith told Holmes. “I don’t think it was ever too much about ability. They tried to paint me as a bad guy. Now I get praised for being myself, so that’s just how life works. It is what it is. I couldn’t do anything about it then. I can’t do anything about it now but just keep being me.”

In Brooklyn, he also reunited with his “brother,” Dorian Finney-Smith who he played with in Dallas. DFS talked about how Smith reminds him of a Southern pit bull left out in the summer time.

“It’s like that pitbull you leave out,” Finney-Smith said. “Dogs tend to be outside in the South. They’re friendly with the kids until the wrong person tries to come pet them. In the South we grew up with dogs that sleep outside. They have to get out and get it. They have to hop the fence. You have to get it out the mud.”

Finney-Smith also said DSJ was wronged in Dallas.

“Dennis was still playing good basketball. We were losing, but I would say more of that was probably because we still had Dirk on the court and he could barely move, and that’s no disrespect to Dirk. He’s the GOAT, don’t get me wrong. But in those years I would say he was on the decline,” Finney-Smith told Holmes.

“I learned a lot about the league through that situation. I was able to learn through my brother’s experiences and he learned, too. I think that’s the reason why he is who he is today, just by going through that.”

Smith is averaging 7.2 points, 3.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists across 26 games for the Nets this season. More than that, he’s a glue guy, a veteran presence who despite being only 26 is someone players look up to. His coach is grateful to him.

“I think it’s a great story that needs to be told,” Vaughn said of Smith. “A lot of guys that are currently in the league, thinking about being in the NBA, they think it’s just a linear path that you take and you just get better and everything is great every year. It’s not that way. There’s scaffolding. It’s ups and downs and how you handle it.”

Smith is on a vets minimum deal and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, like a number of Nets bench players. The plan has always been to throw them all out on the court and see who does well then figure out contracts in the summer. At this point, it seems that both Smith and the Nets see a future together.