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Why signing Dennis Smith Jr. was a smart move by the Hornets

Charlotte needs a backup point guard and Dennis Smith Jr. needs an NBA home.

Los Angeles Lakers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Last week the Hornets signed point guard Dennis Smith Jr. on a one-year nonguaranteed contract. From a roster construction standpoint, the move makes a lot of sense given the Hornets glaring lack of depth at the point guard spot. Yes, LaMelo Ball will likely play somewhere around 32-34 minutes and there can be times when he’s on the bench and Terry Rozier leads the offense, but even then they need a more capable backup at the point.

Last year Ish Smith played 37 games as backup point guard with the Hornets and averaged about 14 minutes per game before being traded. Mid-season acquisition Isaiah Thomas averaged about 13 minutes over 17 games, but Charlotte didn’t re-sign him.

The lack of depth at point guard should be setting off alarm bells for Hornets fans. James Bouknight isn’t a point guard and still has a lot to prove. Jalen Crutcher played well in the G League last year but isn’t NBA ready.

The Hornets signed Dennis Smith Jr. with the hopes he can contribute 12-14 minutes of capable backup point guard play. With so few viable remaining free agents left on the market, taking a gamble on Smith was a good move by GM Mitch Kupchak.

I just want to be clear up front - I don’t think Dennis Smith Jr. is a franchise savior. I don’t think he’s going to the NBA’s Most Improved Player after joining the Hornets. I don’t think he’s even an above average NBA guard. But what I do think is Smith was probably the best option among a very weak list of available free agents.

Smith’s background

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound point guard was a high school phenom at Trinity Christian in Fayetteville, NC. He was a consensus five-star prospect and was ranked as the No. 7 overall recruit by 247sports. He signed with NC State and was a one-and-done player who as a freshman averaged 18.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.2 assists, and 1.9 steals per game. He was the ACC’s Freshman of the Year and was voted Second Team All-Conference.

The Dallas Mavericks selected him at No. 9 in the 2017 NBA draft. Smith has a solid rookie season playing in 69 games and averaging 29.7 minutes, 15.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 5.2 assists. He was named to the NBA All-Rookie Second Team and participated in the Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star Weekend. The following year the Mavs drafted Luka Doncic and with Smith now expendable they traded him to the New York Knicks during the 2018-19 season in the Kristaps Porzingis blockbuster deal.

His time with the Knicks was disappointing for everyone involved. After being traded to New York in the 2017-18 season he played fairly well for the rest of the season, appearing in 21 games and averaging 28.6 minutes, 14.7 points, 2.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 1.3 steals. But in 2018-19 he was relegated to a sporadic bench role behind Elfrid Payton, of all people, and averaged just 15.8 minutes over 34 games that year.

In February 2021 he was traded by the Knicks to the Detroit Pistons for Derrick Rose. In 20 games with the Pistons he averaged 7.3 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 3.7 assists but they did not re-sign him after the season. He signed a free agent deal with the Portland Trail Blazers last year and played in 37 games averaging 5.6 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 3.6 assists. His season ended in February when he was diagnosed with a high-grade partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

The good

Okay, so let’s think positively for a moment about the Hornets new acquisition. First, Smith has a great mix of both youth and NBA experience. He’s still only 24 years old and has played in 216 games over five seasons. Thus far in his NBA career he has averaged 23.9 minutes, 10.7 points, 2.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.1 steals.

Smith’s an explosive athlete, too. Just watch this dunk highlight reel and you can see his elite athleticism.

Over the last two seasons Smith’s advanced stats have been just fine as well. In 2020-21 he had a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 13.6 where an “average” player is 15.0, and Smith’s Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) of a +0.3 was above replacement level. Last year his PER was 13.2 and VORP was once again positive at +0.1. His advanced stats over the last two seasons compare similarly to last year’s results from PJ Washington (13.6 PER, +0.9 VORP), Cody Martin (12.7 PER, 0.7 VORP), and Jalen McDaniels (12.7 PER, -0.1 VORP).

When purposefully looking for the good in Smith’s resume, you can definitely find it. There aren’t many 24-year-olds with three career triple doubles or who have scored 20-plus points in more than 20 times like Smith has. Last year with the Blazers he started just four games, but in those four games he averaged a healthy 15.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists, and 2.0 steals.

There’s also zero risk to the Hornets with the one-year non-guaranteed contract he signed if things don’t work out. Again, the Hornets waited way too long to address the backup point guard position and the free agent market quickly dried up. With the team waiting until late September to take a swing on a player, Smith is probably the best available option.

The not so good

The former No. 9 overall pick is about to join his fifth team in six seasons. If he was capable of living up to his lofty draft status, then he would have done so already. There’s usually a reason talented guys like Smith bounce around the league.

While Smith sports a double-digit NBA career scoring average at 10.7 pointer per game, he’s a really inefficient scorer. He’s a career 40.2% shooter who hits just 31.2% of his 3-pointers and 65.2% of his free throws.

He can essentially only score at the rim. When looking at his career shooting percentages by distance, Smith has made 58.3% of his shots from 0-3 feet, but that plummets to 31.1% from 3-10 feet, 27.1% from 10-16 feet, and 32.9% from 16-feet and beyond, per Basketball Reference. He has no mid-range game. Opposing teams can just sag off him and dare him to shoot which severely limits his ability to blow past guys with his athleticism while simultaneously clogging up the offense for his teammates.

At this point in his career we can disregard his high school prospect ranking, his college accolades, and his lofty draft status. He is what he is by now - a five-year veteran who has been given multiple chances with multiple teams, and in the end none of them saw enough to hang on to him for the long term.

The summary

Overall, there’s only upside in the Hornets giving Dennis Smith Jr. a chance. He’s experienced enough to contribute but he’s still young to improve. He has demonstrated that he can play at an NBA level, though more as a reserve than a starter. He’s coming home to North Carolina, which we can only assume will be a positive. He has the potential to be a great reclamation story by the right franchise, and hopefully Charlotte is it.

The Hornets need a backup point guard, so if not Smith, then who? Run back 33-year-old Isaiah Thomas? Settle for Avery Bradley? Michael Carter-Williams? Another dance with D.J. Augustin?

If the Hornets kick the tires on Dennis Smith Jr. and realize he’s not the answer, Charlotte can just release him. If he flashed some potential but still has some kinks to work out they can assign him to the G League and see where things go.

But there’s also legitimate reason to hope that Dennis Smith Jr. can come off the bench and play a serviceable 12-14 minutes per game. He’s a no-risk, medium-upside signing and definitely a player for Hornets fans to monitor through training camp and the preseason.