Dennis Smith Jr. Still Has 2019-20 Goals

Howard Megdal

GREENBURGH, NY — This hasn't been the year Dennis Smith Jr. envisioned. When he checks into the game Friday night against Indiana, know that changing this season's arc is front and center on his mind.

He's played just 30 games due to injuries. He's started two. His field goal percentage is 34.1 percent. He knows what you're seeing. He's living it.

"Things happen," Smith Jr. told reporters about the season to date. "Ups and downs. But you've got to take it all in stride. You can't let it break you."

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Smith Jr. visualizes, though. He sees not just what has been, but what can be. It's something he's utilized since his high school days, through his time at NC State. 

"I came into this league with a vision of who I'm going to be," Smith Jr. said. "I know what my goals were. And I can't let that be shaken by something that's happening."

He spent the All-Star break getting refreshed. He worked out with T.J. Warren, the Indiana Pacers forward who has carved out his place in the NBA, playing starter minutes for a playoff team.

Smith Jr. has goals, too, even for this season, coming off the bench for a Knicks team that isn't likely to make the postseason. And it matters that he reaches them, not only for himself, but for a team that has already committed to him for 2020-21. That he'll be in New York, what role he'll have on a team that needs his athleticism, that feeds off his ability to penetrate and find teammates or finish, brief glimpses of what made him a lottery pick not that long ago: all of this is on the table as the NBA calendar turns toward March. 

These are not, to put it mildly, meaningless games.

"I've got personal goals that I've set in mind," Smith Jr. said. "I'm not going to share them. But I've got personal goals, and I believe I can reach them."

So when Dennis Smith Jr. checks into the game on Friday night, it's worth remembering that it is more than a simple substitution in a basketball game. A man who has found himself adrift from the very vision of himself is taking advantage of vanishing opportunities to rediscover that Dennis Smith Jr., the one he's always imagined. He's doing this deeply personal work in public, at the world's most famous arena.

"We've got five back-to-backs in these last 27 games, too," Smith Jr. said. But he wasn't tired when he said it. He looked inspired. "But I'm ready for it."

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