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Former Blazer Dennis Smith Jr. Stepping Up in Charlotte

John Hollinger of The Athletic spotlights Smith as one of the NBA’s best early-season surprises.

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NBA: Golden State Warriors at Charlotte Hornets Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

After being waived by the Portland Trail Blazers last February, Dennis Smith Jr. is pumping new life into his NBA career.

Now with the injury-ridden Charlotte Hornets, Smith Jr. has stepped into the starting lineup and offered steady production at the point guard spot, averaging 11.8 points, 6.2 assists and 3.7 rebounds through six games. The 24-year-old has played so well, The Athletic’s John Hollinger gave him praise in a recent piece spotlighting players who have delightfully surprised in the early NBA season.

In the piece, which came out Friday, Hollinger highlighted Smith as a great underdog story and example of somebody seizing an unexpected opportunity.

Dennis Smith Jr. is one of the more remarkable stories that nobody is talking about. A lottery pick out of N.C. State in 2017, he seemingly had fallen out of the league after a faltering stint in Portland a year ago. Charlotte signed him on a make-good contract, and Smith claimed the team’s last roster spot out of training camp … then suddenly was thrust into the starting lineup when the Hornets’ top three backcourt options —LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier and Cody Martin — all were injured.

Lo and behold, Smith’s done a solid job as the Hornets have surprisingly stayed afloat despite the injuries. Smith has become one of the toughest defenders at his position, something he showed even last season with the Blazers, but it was undermined a year ago because he couldn’t make a shot.

Although it’s been a small sample size, Hollinger wrote Smith has coupled his pesky perimeter defense with a respectable shot this season.

This season, he’s straightened out his stroke, hitting five of his 10 3s and more than half his midrangers, while also averaging three dimes for every turnover. He doesn’t need to be a lights-out shooter to provide value to the Hornets because of his defense, but with the offensive upgrade, he’s done a convincing impression of a starting NBA point guard in the first four games. Even if the shooting regresses a bit, the defense and floor general-ship seem very real, and at 24, his revived career still could have a long way to go.

The high praise from Hollinger came before Smith’s solid performance against the Golden State Warriors last night. In a thrilling 120-113 overtime win against the defending champs, Smith tallied 13 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists. He also shined in this critical sequence that forced the game to OT:

The Blazers waived Smith last season shortly after the guard suffered a partial tear in his right ulnar collateral ligament (UCL).