If Dennis Smith Jr. was bothered by his name once again being linked to the federal case involving corruption in college basketball, he didn’t act like it Saturday afternoon at the Garden. For the first quarter of the Knicks’ noon-start game against the Kings, Smith was the best player on the floor.
Smith scored 11 of the Knicks’ first 27 points to get the home team off to an early 13-point lead. Of course, the Knicks couldn’t hold on to the early advantage, losing the lead at halftime and collapsing late en route to a 102-94 defeat.
When you’ve won just 13 games on the season, you look for positives, even in glimpses, and Smith’s early burst was one of them Saturday. He finished with 18 points on 7-of-19 shooting and added five assists.
“Dennis is a talent,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “It’s just a matter of time before he starts to see the game more and get comfortable with his teammates. Good things are going to start happening for him.”
Then there was that ill-advised technical foul he received with 2:12 left in the game. Smith converted a layup to close the Kings’ lead to 96-94, but thought he pushed by Nemanja Bjelica. Smith got in Bjelica’s face, drawing the technical. The Kings made the free-throw as part of an 8-0 run to end the game.
“I shouldn’t have did it,” Smith said. “They knocked down the free throw and it changed the game a little bit.”
Smith came to the Knicks as part of the trade of Kristaps Porzingis to the Mavericks. Amid all the talk of how much cap space the Knicks created with the trade, the acquisition of Smith could be the answer to their revolving door at point guard. If he plays like he did in the first quarter, then Fizdale will finally have a reliable point guard like the Kings have in De’Aaron Fox, who had 30 points and eight assists.
Smith plays an up-tempo game that forces his teammates as well as the opposition to get in position and his penetration often creates open looks for others. He figures to be part of the Knicks’ long-term future. His past, well, who really cares?
Smith’s name earned national news when former North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried became the first head coach directly connected to the federal investigation into payments made to college players. According to federal prosecutors, former N.C. State assistant coach Orlando Early said Gottfried gave him envelops containing what he believed to be money to give to Smith, ensuring his commitment to play for the Wolfpack. The envelopes, according to various reports, were allegedly given to Smith’s trainer, who in turn handed it to Smith’s father, Dennis Smith Sr.
Gottfried has denied the allegations and Smith Jr. shrugged it off when questioned about it after the game. “It is what it is,” Smith said. “I didn’t read [the report].”
Look, I’ll never blame a college recruit for taking money if a coach or an assistant is offering cash, cars or a no-show job. The hypocrisy of the NCAA ensures that practice is going to continue as long as the coaches are making millions while the “student athletes” make nothing.
Between shoe deals, camps and NCAA Tournament appearances, college coaches and their universities can make a fortune, while their players can lose their eligibility by accepting nearly any kind of financial support. It doesn’t make sense.
It’s always a bit after the fact when players in the NBA are linked to unscrupulous practices in college. If Gottfried, now coaching at Cal State Northridge, and his assistants were desperate to funnel cash to Smith, then frankly, that’s on them.
The payment is basically chump change now for Smith, who is in the second year of a three-year deal worth $11.5 million. And the NBA isn’t going to suspend him to help clean up the NCAA.
The illegal payments are Gottfried’s problem. Smith achieved his dream of reaching the NBA and isn’t looking back. It is what it is.