"I think that was important for me, with everything that was going on," Smith Jr. said after scoring eight points and handing out six assists in his first game as a Knick. "... I knew about [Knicks head coach David] Fizdale from the Grizzlies. I was a fan of him. I feel like it's a big opportunity for me. I've just got to make the most of it."
Dallas sent Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews Jr., DeAndre Jordan and two future first-round picks to New York in a trade for Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke. The trade created significant cap space for New York; the Knicks project to have roughly $70 million in cap room to spend in free agency this summer.
But New York is also excited about bringing in Smith Jr., who was selected ninth overall in the 2017 NBA draft. Under then-president Phil Jackson, the Knicks passed on drafting Smith with the eighth pick, taking guard Frank Ntilikina instead.
"I want to put the ball in his hands a lot and get him out in the open court and get him a lot of space. Give him some freedom to make some mistakes," Fizdale said after the trade. "At the same time, I want to challenge him to do more defensively. To think more of himself defensively. But man, there's no doubt about it. The kid's a talent, and hopefully we can bring it out consistently."
Smith Jr.'s final days in Dallas were filled with speculation about a potential trade and the organization's commitment to him. The 21-year-old was away from the team for two weeks as his name surfaced in trade rumors. While the Mavs chalked up the six games missed to back soreness and an illness, Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle later acknowledged that "business stuff" was behind the absence.
Smith Jr. will likely start at point guard for the remainder of the season for the Knicks. Fizdale said Sunday that he plans to pair Smith Jr. with Ntilikina, who is currently sidelined with a groin injury.
"It's on me to try to mesh these guys together," Fizdale said. "... Frank can take the bigger guy defensively. And I think Frank is comfortable playing with the ball or without the ball in his hands."
Jordan started at center on Sunday in his first game as a Knick. Fizdale said he will lean on Jordan to teach the young Knicks the intricacies of NBA defense.
"I'm trying to build a top-five defense while developing these kids," Fizdale said. "If anybody can help us get better defensively it's DeAndre Jordan."
With Jordan in the starting lineup, Enes Kanter was out of the rotation on Sunday, despite the pleas of the crowd at Madison Square Garden. The home fans chanted Kanter's name throughout the game. At one point, Fizdale called for Smith Jr. to enter, but Kanter heard his name instead. The crowd cheered when Kanter ran to the scorer's table and booed when he went back to the bench. The Madison Square Garden crowd has started "We want Kanter" chants several times in recent home games. Kanter, who has been benched in five of the Knicks' past seven games, said Sunday that the chants have become "embarrassing" for the club.
"I don't know if the organization wants to hear that every game because it's a little embarrassing," Kanter said. "Because after all this [Porzingis] trade and everything that the fans still want me to go out there and play. I don't know if they wanna hear that chant every game."
New York will likely continue to try to trade Kanter ahead of the Feb. 7 trade deadline.