A Tale Of Two (Backup) Point Guards

The Dennis Smith Jr. Revival Is Here

It’s always fun watching players take advantage of a second (or third) chance. Dennis Smith is still only 24 years old, but it feels like he’s been teetering on the edge of the league ever since the Dallas Mavericks, Smith’s original team, were shockingly gifted fellow point guard Luka Doncic by the Kings and Hawks in the draft right before Smith’s second year.

The Charlotte Hornets, at 2-2, have surprised with rampant competence even without their two best players from last year, LaMelo Ball (injured) and Miles Bridges (domestic abuser), and their leading scorer this year, Terry Rozier (who has missed two of their four games). They even have the seventh-best net rating in the league, with the fifth-best offense (surprising, but understandable) and an exactly average defense (beyond comprehension)! The quality of play is due in no small part to Dennis, who is posting career-best numbers in turnover rate, shooting percentages, assists, and steals while playing a starter’s load. And those stats aren’t empty calories: the team is legitimately better with Smith on the court, primarily thanks to his… defensive presence?

That’s not something I ever expected to say about the flighty (physically and mentally) Smith, who has been a porous point-of-attack defender for most of his career. He can still get roasted in isolation, but he’s generally doing a much better job getting through screens and sticking with ballhandlers to bother them. Watch here as he navigates past the pick — twice! — and snakes the ball away from Jalen Brunson:

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Smith hasn’t magically become a lockdown defender. But where he’s traditionally been a liability, he’s now acceptably mediocre, and his legitimately great proclivity for deflections (4.5 per game, sixth in the NBA as of this writing) and turnovers (2.3 per game, tied for sixth) boosts his defensive value to the point where Dennis has become a net positive on that end.

Like the man he’s replacing, Smith loves to look for the Hornets’ leapers on alley-oops, and he aggressively hunts for his dunkers in transition. Of course, he’s still more than capable of throwing it down in his own right, but there’s a better balance between pursuing his own shot versus passing to teammates than he’s ever shown before. Smith’s also doing a tremendous job of avoiding turnovers, a fundamental tenet of coach Steve Clifford’s coaching philosophy. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s been shooting unsustainably well.

I genuinely worried Dennis might be done with the NBA, and he did too. As he told HoopsHype, he planned to try out for the NFL before the Charlotte Hornets came calling. It’s a good thing they did, as Smith has improved leaps and bounds since his disappointing years in Dallas and New York. There just might be a place for him in the league after all.

Derrick Rose is out of the rotation (for now)

Derrick Rose was one of the best players on the Knicks last year. Rose is also 34 with terra cotta knees on a team filled with intriguing young guards. With coach Thibodeau favorite Evan Fournier manning the starting shooting guard slot, and after the addition of Jalen Brunson in the offseason to fill the bulk of the point guard minutes, I was worried Thibodeau would continue to highlight Rose at the expense of younglings Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes.

Well, Grimes is hurt, but even with Brunson, Quickley is still averaging his usual low-20s in minutes. Derrick Rose, however, dropped from 25 minutes per game last season to 12 this season, a surprising drop. He’s cool with it, too. Quickley’s improved play this year on both sides has made Rose a back-rotation guy who is only on the court when starter Jalen Brunson is off, whereas Quickley has spent a few minutes each game playing with the starters. And best of all, the Knicks are 3-1!

Despite struggling with his outside shot, Quickley has played at career-best levels to start the season, ratcheting up the playmaking (7.5 assists per 36 minutes — well above his career high thus far) and defense. Per Synergy Sports, he is only giving up .78 points per possession as a defender in these early games, a superb mark. Here he is ably sticking with the shifty Tyus Jones and contesting Jones’ patented floater:

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Quickley has a clearer role this year, primarily playing backup shooting guard and only running point guard occasionally. Rose is popping in for the brief moments Jalen Brunson rests; he has overlapped zero minutes with Brunson.

The return of Grimes will complicate things. Despite barely playing last season, Quentin famously was the sticking point in a Donovan Mitchell trade, and hopes were high after a fantastic Summer League. A sore left foot has prevented him from playing so far, however.

Given Quickley’s improved two-way play, it’s unclear whose minutes Grimes will eat into when he returns. Hopefully, it’ll be Fournier, but Thibs named Fournier the starter over Grimes in training camp (despite his reputation as a defensive-minded coach, Thibs has always found big minutes for at least one no-defense gunner: Jamal Crawford, Nate Robinson, old-ass Rip Hamilton, etc.).

Quickley could take even more of Rose’s minutes at point guard to make room for Grimes, or perhaps Grimes will become the backup small forward behind RJ Barrett. Where Cam Reddish, another young wing playing 22 mins per game, will fit in after Grimes’ arrival is also foggy.

Brunson has been all the Knicks could’ve asked for to start the season and will rightly command the lion’s share of point guard minutes. Thibs seems determined to keep Evan Fournier on the floor, too. But putting Grimes’ 3-and-D-and-a-little-more skillset into the starting slot and allowing Quickley to continue in his high-reserve role will better serve the Knicks’ present and future. It’s time for the young guys to shine and Rose (and Fournier) to take well-deserved rests.

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.