Through their push towards extending their playoff streak to a league-high ninth-consecutive season, the Portland Trail Blazers have remained as “competitive” as ever. It just so happens that in 2021-22, they’ve been competing in an entirely different way. On a week-by-week basis, they’ve managed to out-do themselves through uncertainty and negativity, a potential foreshadowing in what could be one of the more consequential seasons in franchise history.
Here’s a briefing on what they’ve endured in just this past week: the loss of a longtime general manager Neil Olshey, a collapsed lung for star guard CJ McCollum, Round 10 of Damian Lillard’s “he say, she say” social media battle with NBA insiders over his loyalty … oh, and how about a four-game losing streak, just for the heck of it? And odds are, we’ve missed something. Amidst the negativity, though, are some noteworthy on-court storylines, Dennis Smith Jr.’s (potential) resurgence at the forefront.
In each of Portland’s last three matchups, Smith Jr. has logged more than 30 minutes, something he hadn’t done since his sophomore season in 2018-19. Given the Blazers’ rocky injury situation, it doesn’t feel presumptuous to suggest that the former No. 9 overall pick has become a staple in Chauncey Billups’ rotation. He’s become particularly active over Portland’s last five games — in which he’s averaged 12.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.6 steals, and 0.8 blocks on 45-25-86 percentage splits — and in the process, crafting the case for his career resurgence. It’d be rather fruitless to predict the 24-year-old’s future beyond this season, or any Blazer for that matter. Though for the time being, the ultra-athletic guard is putting some plays on tape that deserve note.
DEFENSE — Energy in Abundance:
By now, you’re likely well-versed in the stories of Dennis Smith Jr.’s 48-inch vertical leap. In looking over his 15-game Blazers tenure, that’s no longer the No. 1 thing that, well, jumps out on film. The energy that he’s attempting to provide on a nightly basis, especially in comparison to his teammates, has stood out.
Defensive intensity was the ticket that helped Smith Jr. re-enter his way back into the rotation as a member of the Detroit Pistons. Through simple acts such as full-court pressure, fighting over screens, and defensive positional versatility, Smith Jr. positioned himself to earn a chance somewhere around the NBA. He’s put each of those acts on display thus far with the Blazers.
The one thing you have to appreciate is that Smith Jr.’s energy hasn’t wavered, regardless of whether the Blazers were down 30 or down five. On-off and advanced numbers will compete side-by-side when it comes to Smith Jr.’s impact; he’s No. 1 on the Blazers in defensive box plus-minus (+1.3), though his net rating doesn’t paint him as positively.
From a situational standpoint, Smith Jr. feels almost must-play because of where the Blazers’ weaknesses lie. It makes sense that Billups has entrusted him with a consistent role. Among guards to play at least 200 minutes, Smith Jr.’s 4.2 deflections per 36 minutes rank fifth out of 172 players, trailing only noted defensive specialists such as Gary Payton II, Matisse Thybulle, and Alex Caruso. Portland’s long-noted Achilles heel, 3-point defense, gets tangibly better with Smith Jr., too, opponents dropping from 38.9 percent to 35.8 percent when he plays, per PBP Stats.
Perhaps what’s most likable about what he’s contributing defensively, especially lately, is that he’s taking on challenges of all shapes(?) and sizes. 6-foot-8 forwards Paul George and Marcus Morris are a combined 1-of-7 against him, but he pairs it with spirited defensive efforts against guards such as Stephen Curry and Reggie Jackson. It certainly isn’t perfect, and some of the habits that reared their ugly head during his time with the N.C. State Wolfpack will surface on occasion, but normally, the effort’s been there.
From a leadership and intangible standpoint, you have to live with those results on a perennially-poor Blazers defense. A few days ago, Smith spoke in his presser about how he was pressing the issue defensively in an attempt to set the tone, and thus, he got into foul trouble as a result. It’s been rare to hear a Blazers player speak on that being the focus.
OFFENSE — Floor General Potential, Hot-and-Cold Shooting:
In some ways, it would appear that Dennis Smith Jr. is what he’s historically been on offense at the pro level: a 40-ish percent shooter with a jump shot similar to that of a flickering light. He’s a combined 9-of-33 on either pull-ups or catch-and-shoot situations to kickstart the year, and remains better as a rhythm shooter, as opposed to a stand-up one.
That being said, it’s been an enjoyable process watching his development as a floor general. The assists per 100 possessions (8.9) are nearly a career-high and there’s a noticeable chemistry between Smith Jr. and Nurkic, something that should continue to develop in the coming weeks. To highlight a few examples:
Since his playing time has upped five games ago, Smith is one of just 28 players with at least 50 potential assists. Among that list, he’s tied for seven in secondary assists — or hockey assists — and ninth in passes made. The ball appears to be moving around a bit more under Smith Jr.’s watch. In searching for positives in this difficult season, that’s been noteworthy.
As for his own scoring, Smith remains at his best when defenses aren’t set, shooting 16-of-29 (55.1 percent) when he shoots in the first nine seasons, compared to just 35.2 percent in other situations. It certainly helps that he’s stealing the ball as often as he has, turning takeaways into breakaways. Arguably, his numbers could be on the uptick now that he’s playing with legitimate offensive threats 1-through-5, and he’ll likely earn an excellent opportunity to showcase that moving forward.
On a night-to-night basis, the Trail Blazers have struggled to put together watchable basketball, particularly on the defensive end. Anything that assists in getting that back to normalcy feels like a welcome sight in this unusually-odd season.
With Smith Jr., it can sometimes be difficult to remember that he’s only 24-years-old. To boot, consider some of the difficult obstacles he’s overcome already: four different head coaches over a 714-day span in New York (essentially a new scheme every half-year), being traded just one day after becoming the second-youngest player to record a triple-double at Madison Square Garden, and injuries to his back, oblique, and lower body.
As long as this version of the Blazers’ roster — among the smallest in the NBA — remains as currently constructed, there will always be an argument that Portland already has too many guards. Though, in assessing Smith to this point, and especially over the last few weeks, it feels safe in saying that he has the requisite tools needed to consistently contribute somewhere, be it in Portland or somewhere else beyond 2021-22.