New York Knicks: Aggressive Dennis Smith Jr. shows up in training camp

New York Knicks, Dennis Smith Jr.
Dec 7, 2019; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks guard Dennis Smith Jr. (5) dribbles the ball against the Indiana Pacers during the second half at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Dennis Smith Jr. is on a mission this season. In a lot of ways, he mirrors the New York Knicks.

Smith Jr. is trying to rebuild his shattered confidence. He’s hoping to regain the old form that made him a lottery pick and a member of the All-Rookie Second Team in 2018.

The Knicks have been trying to rebuild for years. They’ve brought back Tom Thibodeau, a coach who’s been part of their glorious past, hoping to recapture it once more.

“You see that with a lot of players — a young player who usually finds some bumps on the road, and he had those and find a way to rise above them and become successful,” Thibodeau said of Smith Jr. on his zoom call Wednesday.

Road bumps

Smith Jr. experienced road bumps in his career that stemmed off the court last season when his stepmother died. He wasn’t mentally locked in, and he fell off the rotation. His confidence took a massive hit.

In 22 games last season, the Knicks point guard put up career-low numbers — 5.5 points on 34 percent shooting, 2.3 rebounds, and 2.9 assists.

He was considered a special talent despite the lack of shooting coming into the NBA. With his burst of speed and athleticism, he was the Dallas Mavericks’ apple of the eye before Luka Doncic came. As a rookie, he averaged 15.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and a steal. The only thing that kept him from really shining is his 39.5 percent field goal shooting.

On the night before he was traded to the Knicks, he turned in a triple-double special (13 points, 15 assists, 10 rebounds) as a parting shot to the Mavericks in the Madison Square Garden.

It went downhill from there.

A way back

This summer, Smith Jr. has started to find a way in the hopes of rising above the road bumps. He linked up with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, one of the best NBA shooters in history, to repair his shooting mechanics and, in part, his confidence.

He showed up in the training camp a renewed man.

“He’s been very aggressive. I think each day. He’s gotten better and better. That’s what we’re asking him to do — to run his team, keep us organized, take advantage of what you’re strengths are, your ability to get downhill, force people to collapse, and then make the right play,” Thibodeau said. “He can score the ball. He’s shooting the ball pretty well right now. But he’s making good plays also.”

Confidence comes from preparation

Thibodeau has always preached the importance of practice. To him, confidence starts in those games played in empty gyms.

This season, that’s where Smith Jr. and the Knicks will play — in empty arenas with the global pandemic has yet to slow down in this part of the world.

Thibodeau is looking forward to seeing Smith Jr.’s brand new confidence and shooting in the games, starting with their preseason on the road in Detroit on Friday.

“That’s what you’re hoping to see, and we’ll know when we get into the games. A big part of shooting, of course, is your confidence and concentration,” Thibodeau said.

“So if you put the work in, obviously, you’ll get more confidence from doing that. And of course, being in great shape is a big part of being successful in this league. So he’s got to continue to work on conditioning, continue studying the league, and just concentrate on getting better every day,” he added.

Whether Thibodeau is genuinely giving Smith Jr. a chance to play heavy minutes or shot up his trade value is immaterial.

Smith Jr. is in the last year of his rookie deal. He has to find a way to rise above the road bumps, or his NBA journey could end up turning the wrong way.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo