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Former Knick Dennis Smith Jr. almost transitioned to the NFL before Hornets chance – Boston Herald

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Jobless and frustrated over the summer, Dennis Smith Jr., once considered the top prize for trading Kristaps Porzingis, began training for the NFL.

Seriously.

“I told my previous agent, ‘I’m not going overseas,’” Smith Jr. said. “If sh— don’t work out, I’m just going to the NFL. And I was dead-ass serious. I put on hella weight. I was gonna try.”

Smith Jr. said he starred in high school and would’ve played college football if he hadn’t been one of the top basketball prospects in the nation. His NFL aspiration was to play defensive back, but it never got that far.

“I was going to get there, though, I swear to God I would,” he said.

Instead, the 24-year-old was picked up by the depleted Hornets and entered Wednesday’s game against the Knicks as one of the early season’s surprising success stories. Smith Jr. not only took a starting spot because of LaMelo Ball’s injury, he was averaging 13.3 points while shooting 71% on 3-pointers.

Smith Jr. also dropped the weight from his football training.

“Some guys figure it out late, some guys figure it out right away,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “He’s a talented guy. Even though with the injuries he’s not the athlete he was, he’s still a really good athlete even for this league. I don’t see that he’s doing anything that he can’t continue to do, frankly.”

It’s a feel-good story for the former lottery pick who had a rough time in New York and subsequent stops. With the Knicks, who acquired Smith Jr. in the 2019 trade for Porzingis, the defining moment was probably getting booed by a Garden crowd that preferred backup Frank Ntilikina.

Smith Jr.’s stepmother unexpectedly died soon after the crowd’s negative reaction, and he never regained his confidence or shot. Two seasons ago, Smith Jr. was out of Tom Thibodeau’s rotation when he requested to play in the G League.

Then he was traded to the Pistons for Derrick Rose.

“A lot of that stuff beyond my control. Fans’ reaction. Step-mom passed. Slipped disc in my back. Just random sh— that I can’t control,” Smith Jr. said. “Only thing that matters to me is how I react to it. Bounce back, take the punches and keep rolling. Sh— it got me where I’m at right now so I’m thankful for it all.”

CONTRACT MOVES

Former first-round picks Obi Toppin, Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes had their contract options for next season picked up Wednesday.

The moves were formalities before the Oct. 31 deadline. Toppin, the eighth overall pick in 2020, earns $6.8 million next season, a raise of 23% from his current salary. Quickley, the 25th pick in 2020, gets $4.2 million next season, up from $2.3 million. Grimes, the 25th pick in 2021, bumps up from $2.3 million to $2.4 million.

If the Knicks didn’t pick up those options, the players would’ve hit free agency this summer.

The bigger decisions are before next season concerning Toppin and Quickley. They’re both up for extensions and would enter 2024 free agency with no agreement.

Toppin is an interesting case. He’s a fan favorite and offensive sparkplug but doesn’t have a clear path to playing time with Julius Randle also on the roster. He averaged just 16 minutes in the first three games this season with 9.3 points and 3.7 boards.

Thibodeau has been reluctant to play Randle and Toppin together, preferring lineups with traditional centers.

Thibodeau said he’d experiment in preseason with smaller lineups featuring Toppin and Randle but it never saw the court.

“It’ll work itself out,” Thibodeau said Wednesday. “Some games will be more and Julius will play a little less, and that’s what I like about the team. Obviously, you have a finite amount of minutes for everyone, so how do you balance that. Performance, something’s going good, so you’re going to ride that a little bit longer. The willingness of everybody to sacrifice for the team and put the team first, I think that’s a big part of winning.”

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