Dennis Smith Jr. wants a role on the Hornets’ backcourt

Just days before training camp began, the Charlotte Hornets added some depth to their backcourt rotation with the signing of former Lottery pick-point guard Dennis Smith Jr.

The Fayetteville native, Smith, who played his only collegiate season at NC State, averaged 5.6 points on 41.8% shooting, 2.4 rebounds, 2.4 rebounds, 5.6 points in 37 games – four starts – at Portland last season in Portland. 3.6 assists and a career-high 1.2 steals. He suffered a season-ending elbow injury in mid-February and was released shortly thereafter.

Originally drafted ninth overall by Dallas in 2017, Smith averaged 15.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.0 steals in his freshman season, leading to All-Rookie second-team honors . He was traded to New York as part of the package for Kristaps Porzingis in January 2019, then again to Detroit in February 2021 before signing with Portland last September.

Gifted with sensational athleticism — he reportedly clocked a 48-inch vertical during a pre-draft practice — Smith’s shortcomings revolved mostly around some inefficiencies on offense. He is a career shooter with 40.2% shooting, 44.2% on 2-point attempts (45.1% last season), 31.2% on 3-point attempts, and 65.2% from the free throw line. Lately he has been working to become more of a defensive oriented defender who is on the ball and is of good height (6ft 2in and 205lbs) and physicality.

Smith recorded a career-low 0.7 3-point attempts per game last season (6-of-27 overall; 22.2%). So it appears that he is slowly phasing out that component of his game. Using his agility and speed to blow past defenders and get in the basket is now his best option for scoring, as does an encouraging 53.9% restricted conversion rate (48 out of 89) in the last one season occupied.

For reference, LaMelo Ball shot 54.0% in the restricted area (170 out of 315) over the course of the 2021-22 campaign. Terry Rozier got 59.9% (154 of 257) from this zone and James Bouknight 47.4% (27 of 57).

According to CleaningtheGlass.com, Smith died in 98th Percentile the percentage of shots made at the rim last season (52%) relative to his position. His play structure has also evolved in recent years – he ended up in 92nd placeSt percentile in support-to-use ratio (1.45) and 91stSt Percentile of Support Percentage (31.2%) for the Trail Blazers. Another interesting number associated with Smith was a 14.8% foul draw rate on shot attempts, good for the 97th percentile.

The Hornets don’t currently have a definite backup point guard on the roster, so Smith certainly has an opportunity to get his foot in the door. Ball and Rozier alternated as lead ball handlers between first and second units for much of the season. This momentum eventually became unsustainable as the calendar progressed, leading to the signing of Isaiah Thomas.

There’s still a long way to go, but running a quick three-guard lineup featuring Ball, Rozier and Smith could be an interesting rotational crease for Hornets head coach Steve Clifford to incorporate. During the final season of his debut breakout in Charlotte, Clifford tinkered with similar lineups with Kemba Walker, Malik Monk and Jeremy Lamb.

Still only 24 (he turns 25 in November), Smith has been searching for the right fit after bouncing through the league in recent seasons. Perhaps, if all goes well, he’ll find it fittingly back in his home state, where his basketball journey began.

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