On Tuesday night, Marc Stein broke the news that the Mavericks are expected to sign Frank Ntilikina, late of the New York Knicks. If you recognize that name, it’s likely because Dallas was heavily linked to the French point guard ahead of the 2017 NBA Draft, when they held the ninth overall pick. The Knicks instead snagged him one spot earlier, and thus we were all deprived of one of the NBA’s greatest nicknames—Frankie Smokes—gracing the American Airlines Center.
For the time being, there isn’t a ton to dive into regarding the move itself. We don’t know the contract terms or who might get shuffled off the roster to make room if Ntilikina winds up making the team. His profile at 23 years old is broadly similar to what he was at 19: 6-foot-4 with Gumby arms, legitimate defensive chops and some fleeting playmaking ones, too. But still no jump shot to speak of. (Yes, I’m aware that he made 23 of his 48 3-pointers last season; I’m just going to need to see a far greater sample size before taking that as legitimate progress versus small-sample weirdness.) This is a fine bet for the Mavericks to make, both for Ntilikina’s legitimate talent and because one of Dallas’ proven skills over the past 15 years has been leveling up other team’s leftovers into useful rotation cogs. But, in the here and now, we know absolutely nothing aside from the fact that Frankie Smokes still slaps as a nickname.
And so here I am, thinking about the guy drafted after him instead.
Whether or not Dennis Smith Jr. was expected to be the Mavericks’ savior, he seemed like a safe bet to save them from boredom. He arrived firmly in Dirk’s golden years, when the roster’s most effective offensive weapon was the steady Harrison Barnes, and so a spring-loaded ball handler controlling the offense figured to be a change of the most welcome kind. It was easy to dream on him as post-Trump Steve Francis, a pre-pandemic Ja Morant: explosive and exciting and violent every time he drove at the rim.
Aesthetically, there had never been a Maverick quite like him. And make no mistake: he delivered plenty of breathtaking moments as a rookie:
Smith wound up making the all-rookie team that year, and the idea was that those moments would coalesce into something more consistent over time. In so doing, defenses would have to reckon with his downhill play, which in turn would free up shots on the perimeter for Dirk, Barnes, and the gang. The prospect of harnessing that raw talent was why a lot of people — me very much included — preferred him to Ntilikina on draft night.
None of this happened, of course. Luka Doncic arrived the following year, and the pair never gelled on the floor; it took a dozen games, tops, for it to become obvious who the Mavericks’ real savior was. Smith couldn’t find his footing in New York, either, upon being shipped there in the Kristaps Porzingis/Tim Hardaway Jr. trade, at least part of which owes itself to the awkward idea of planning a future around him and Ntilikina rather than just one of them. Two and a half years of trying begat a trade to Detroit this past year, whereupon he mostly underwhelmed in a 20-game audition.
Smith doesn’t turn 24 until November, and he still jumps high and plays fast. Hope remains. But it is tricky enough for players who only shoot or defend to carve out a spot in the NBA, much less ones who don’t do either especially well. Ntilikina, who falls into the former camp, has had to wait until the offseason’s doldrums to ostensibly land an opportunity. Smith, for now, is in the latter, and will try to secure a job with the Portland Trail Blazers out of training camp.
Only four years ago, it was trendy to imagine Ntilikina as a future All-Defense player and Smith a potential All-Star. Both of those ideas feel more distant by the day, but they’ll always be linked in my mind. And so, no matter what Frank Ntilikina does in Dallas, I’ll probably always find myself remembering what Dennis Smith Jr. did not. The highs were too spectacular to ever forget entirely.