Dennis Smith Jr. looks reborn with Pistons ahead of Knicks matchup

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With the Pistons losing starting point guard Delon Wright to a groin strain and the Knicks losing Elfrid Payton to a hamstring strain, Sunday’s Motown point guard matchup was set.

Derrick Rose vs. Dennis Smith Jr. at Detroit’s Little Caesar’s Arena.

Rose and Smith were swapped for each other three weeks ago and it’s worked out splendidly for the Knicks.

Rose, in his second straight game since Payton went down, went for 17 points, 11 assists and four steals in Saturday’s big win over the Pacers to move them to .500 (17-17).

It’s also been enlightening for the Pistons as Detroit looks to revive the Knicks outcast Smith. Pistons coach Dwane Casey made Smith the starting point guard four games ago and he’s found his mojo.

In that span, Smith has averaged 12 points in 21.6 minutes and shot 50 percent — 46.7 from 3. He’s averaged four assists and 1.5 steals.

“Truth be told, you never want to get too comfortable because you end up being complacent,” Smith said on the eve of the Knicks showdown. “But you can definitely tell when the feel for the game starts to comes back, especially from the situation I was coming from. I can feel my feel coming back for me.”

Smith, once the centerpiece of the Kristaps Porzingis trade with the Mavericks, played just three early games for the Knicks — two in garbage time. Then he hurt his quad and never made it back on the court before the trade. He ultimately asked to get reps in G-League training camp for Westchester.

It was in the Atlanta G-League bubble on Supoer Bowl Sunday when Smith learned he was moving to Detroit. After the trade, Smith said on a Zoom press conference he was “smiling all day.”

Three weeks in, Smith is still smiling.

“A lot better,” Smith said when asked how his conditioning is now compared to the day of the trade. “Shout-out to the trainers and everybody that’s on the staff. They’re always looking to get some work in. After every game, we get a postgame workout — which is new to me. They take time out of their night. So I appreciate it.

“I think I just came in and be myself in terms of my presence,” the 23-year-old former North Carolina State guard added. “I came in and be me. I feel like I genuinely like everyone here. I feel like it’s reciprocated. I just continue to be a building block for this team and try to lead as much as I can.”

The Pistons own the worst record in the East at 9-24 — still smarting from losing their lottery pick, point guard Killian Hayes, to a major hip injury. Hayes may return before season’s end.

“He’s a guy we’re definitely looking at for the future to see where he is,” Casey, the Detroit coach, said of Smith. “He’s stepped up and shown some good things – getting where he wants with the basketball. He’s been a model citizen. So far so good. I’m really impressed with him how he approaches practice. His attention to detail, how he approaches film. He’s been a model teammate. We’re excited to see where this goes.”

On Friday against Sacramento, Smith threw down a monstrous driving dunk in traffic — something out of his college days. When told he hadn’t dunked in a game in a year, Smith said he already knew.

Dennis Smith Jr. Pistons Knicks Derrick Rose
Dennis Smith Jr. dunks against the Kings on Feb. 26, 2021.
NBAE via Getty Images

“It’s crazy thinking it has been a year,” Smith said. “The last one was in Charlotte because it popped up on my Facebook memories. It was an energizer for the team.”

Meanwhile, the Knicks are smiling, too, because of the Rose-Smith transaction.

Rose, who wanted out of Detroit to play with coach Tom Thibodeau again, has been almost everything as advertised in his first nine games. He’s been a floor leader — and playing better defense than in his first Knicks stint. He’s averaging 13.5 points and 4.5 assists.

Having played in Detroit just two seasons, he’s trying not to get sentimental.

“There’s no thought,” Rose said of his return. “I’ve been getting over them feelings whenever I went back to Chicago. That kind of helped me get in the mindset of knowing it’s a business and understanding that you can’t play in a way that is going to be detrimental to the team.

“This is my first time. I don’t talk about it unless somebody brings it up. I try to leave that in hindsight, just be working on my craft, trying to learn the guys every day and try to put my imprint on the team whenever I can, but I can’t look back.”

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