New York Knicks: Dennis Smith Jr. struggling to find on-court breakthrough

Dennis Smith Jr.’s struggles have not disappeared since returning to the New York Knicks on Nov. 12.

When the 2019-20 season began, Dennis Smith Jr. and Elfrid Payton were expected to compete for time at point guard after they split the starting duties in the preseason. Neither opened the year in the New York Knicks’ starting lineup, given coach David Fizdale’s failed experiment with RJ Barrett, but the on-court time trended towards this duo afterward.

Five weeks later, neither are in the starting mix at point guard, with Frank Ntilikina‘s emergence in November. Payton has been out with a strained hamstring since the fourth game of the season, but Smith has returned for nine games since a death in the family. The results have not been noteworthy.

Since Nov. 12, the North Carolina State product has averaged 6.4 points, 2.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game on 39 percent shooting and 36.8 percent on three-pointers. He owns a negative plus/minus in all but one of the nine appearances off the bench.

The bright spot came in a Nov. 14 win against Dallas when Smith Jr. had 13 points, six rebounds and eight assists in 30 minutes. That seemed like the game to announce the return of his old self, but it’s been a struggle since, especially to find more than 20 minutes per game.

For someone, not even one year removed from being a centerpiece of the Kristaps Porzingis trade, these numbers have only depressed the Knicks’ return. The Philadelphia 76ers’ Trey Burke, who was part of that deal to the Mavericks, said he has taken notice of New York’s usage of the 21-year-old guard, per the New York Post:

“I’ve seen that [Smith] hasn’t been playing a lot,’’ Burke said. “You look at it now. Well, what was the point of it? You traded away our Unicorn, Tim [Hardaway Jr.] …”

Smith isn’t the only young Knick to take a smaller role this season, as Kevin Knox and Allonzo Trier have struggled to find time, and Mitchell Robinson is no longer starting. Ntilikina has the point guard job, sure, and that’s who Knicks fans shouted from the Madison Square Garden rafters to have a bigger role, but Smith Jr.’s role sometimes drops below Damyean Dotson and even Wayne Ellington — when he plays.

Payton’s eventual return makes it an even trickier situation for Smith Jr., especially if Fizdale only plays two of his three point guards. Ntilikina has improved off a poor 2018-19, so it’s difficult to see his role disappearing. If Fizdale wants to see what his injured guard can offer, it potentially comes at Smith Jr.’s demise, featuring a downward spiral of playing time or even a “DNP-CD” next to his name in the box score.

Smith Jr. is just one of a few, young New York Knicks trying to find his way in the NBA. The on-court play is a problem, but as this team continues to drift away from relevancy, will Fizdale give players like this a bigger opportunity?