Dennis Smith Jr. taking new approach to this Knicks opportunity

Frank Ntilikina’s path forward faces a familiar roadblock.

Coming off his best scoring effort in more than six weeks, the 21-year-old Frenchman could be sidelined Monday in Houston with a sore groin. Ntilikina, who is listed as questionable after scoring 14 points in Friday’s loss to the Pacers, missed back-to-back games in 2020 on two separate occasions because of the oft-recurring injury and missed 32 of the final 34 games last season due to the same ailment.

“I’m not sure he really did anything today that set it off,” interim coach Mike Miller said following Sunday’s practice. “He was just feeling it a little bit. … We’ll just have to see how he feels.”

Starting point guard Elfrid Payton (sore right ankle) is also listed as questionable after missing the team’s first game back from All-Star Weekend.

Should neither suit up, Dennis Smith Jr. would be in line for his third start of his dreadful third season. It was during his promising first two seasons — including a rookie campaign in which LeBron James labeled the former ninth-overall pick a “diamond in the rough” — Smith started 119 of 122 games.

Dennis Smith Jr.
Dennis Smith Jr.AP

“It’s definitely an adjustment,” Smith said. “I’m starting this game and then there’s some games where I don’t play, so it’s weird, but the big thing is being present-minded and embracing the situation.

“I’m still confident in my game. Whenever I’m out there I need to take advantage of the opportunity and make the most of it. I can’t focus on the past or really what’s gonna happen down the road. I just need to take advantage of the moment.”

The moments have been few.

An oblique injury and a return home to mourn his stepmother’s death have left Smith inactive for 20 games. There were also gives when the 2018 All-Rookie Second Team selection didn’t play at all, the most recent insult coming Jan. 26. In the Knicks’ two contests prior to the All-Star Game, the 22-year-old played single-digit minutes.
After averaging at least 28 minutes in each of his first two seasons, Smith has averaged just 15.5 minutes this season, while posting a career-worst 5.1 points, 2.9 assists and 33.5 percent shooting from the field. Upon arriving as the most tangible prize of the Kristaps Porzingis trade, Smith averaged 14.7 points, 5.4 assists and 41.3 percent shooting in 21 games with the Knicks last season.

As his struggles mounted this season, Smith often looked back to find what had gone wrong.

“I did for a while because things can happen and your thoughts can be wild sometimes and go anywhere,” Smith said. “I did look at that, like I’ve done this against whoever at a high level. Now I look at it like just being present. There’s no doubt in my mind if I belong in this league or if I can play in this league. That’s not even a question for me.”

Before Friday’s game, he spent half an hour speaking with his father, Dennis Smith Sr., who emphasized the need to narrow his vision to 48 minutes and 94 feet. Smith followed with six assists, two steals and one turnover in 16 minutes.

“He’s really the reason I’m so keen on this present-minded things … just being locked in on the moment,” Smith said. “I can’t dwell on the past whether it’s good or bad. I can’t control the future. Anything can happen.

“[I’m] 22 years old. My life is great. I’m gonna keep saying it’s about being present. I’m gonna take one game at a time and focus on this game.”

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