Dennis Smith Jr. has returned the Knicks with a new set of eyes.
The point guard left the team three games into the season to mourn the death of his stepmother and the Knicks gave Smith as much time as he needed to grieve and be with his family back home in North Carolina. He took them up on it, not coming back until Thursday in Dallas, after 11 days away.
That Smith had not been playing well early in the season suddenly mattered little once tragedy struck. Whenever he does get back on the court — he was held out Friday against the Mavericks and again Sunday night against the Cavaliers — he will do so with a new perspective.
“It’s eye-opening,” Smith said Sunday at the Garden before tipoff. “Just been very eye-opening.
“Just being able to spend that time with family. I appreciate the staff and [coach David Fizdale] and my teammates, they supported me. They allowed me to spend that time and really take a step back and evaluate everything that’s going on. So I appreciate that.”
The 21-year-old decided he was ready to come back while the Knicks were in Dallas, which was not a total coincidence. Smith did not get to play against his old team, the Mavericks, which traded him as part of the return package in the Kristaps Porzingis blockbuster last January, but his old home provided a place of comfort.
“I got a lot of people I’m really close with there,” Smith said. “So that kind of helped. I got to speak to them, I got there a day before the game. So I got to speak to a lot of people I knew, hang out with them. So that helped, too.”
That included a special visit to a family that was not far removed from a tragedy of its own. After arriving in Dallas on Thursday, Smith reunited with the family of local teenager Shavon Randle, who was kidnapped and murdered in June 2017, the Dallas Morning News first reported. Smith had taken the family on a shopping spree last Christmas and kept in touch even after getting traded. He arrived in time to pick Randle’s siblings up from school and hung out with them before giving them tickets to Friday’s game at American Airlines Center.
“I built a special relationship with them,” Smith said. “They’re extended family. So that kind of brightened my mood up seeing them. That was major for me.”
Smith said he worked out every day while he was away from the team, but it wasn’t the same as practicing or playing in games. Sunday marked the seventh straight game he missed, and with the Knicks not practicing Saturday after flying back from Dallas, Smith still has not practiced in nearly two weeks.
“I feel like the biggest part is getting the wind back,” Smith said. “You can’t simulate the game or really practice for real.”
Fizdale said he “slightly” considered playing Smith on Sunday, but ultimately decided against it. He was noncommittal on his status for Tuesday’s game against the Bulls.
“That’s a long time to just throw a guy out there in an NBA game with the talent that’s on the floor,” Fizdale said. “We don’t want to put him in a bad position.”
In his only three games this season, Smith was ineffective, averaging just one point and one assist per game while playing a total of 26 minutes. With Smith on leave and Elfrid Payton battling a hamstring injury, Frank Ntilikina took over the starting point guard duties and it appears to be his job to lose.
But Smith will bring a different perspective with him whenever he does return.
“I’m excited to rejoin the team,” he said. “It feels good being around the guys.”
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