CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Point guard Dennis Smith Jr.’s starting stint is over, as Elfrid Payton is expected to return from a two-game absence due to an ankle injury Wednesday when the Knicks face the Hornets at Spectrum Center.
But with Frank Ntilikina still dealing with groin soreness that has haunted him since last season, Smith, who started in Houston, will get his minutes as the primary backup point guard.
With 25 games to go and the Knicks on a four-game losing streak, Smith’s progress is about as important as any other on-court issue.
Incoming president Leon Rose won’t be as tied up in Smith’s success as the Steve Mills/Scott Perry regime that traded away Kristaps Porzingis for a chance to develop the 2017 Dallas lottery pick into a standout. That means Rose could trade Smith on draft night.
Minutes have been hard to come by for Smith with Miller’s insistence that Payton starts and finishes. Ntilikina mostly has been the second point guard off the bench when his groin is not hurting.
As the 17-40 Knicks ride out a seventh straight season out of the playoffs, it would seem natural to jack up the minutes of a player like Smith, who is shooting just 34 percent from the field. Miller has been resistant to go with the youth movement. That could change when Rose takes control sometime next week.
“I’m sure everyone feels like that,’’ Smith said when asked if he anticipates his minutes will rise in the season’s late stages. “I know what I’m capable of, whether the coach plays me or not. That’s on him. I know what I can do. I know I’m a player that belongs in this league. I can’t worry what I can’t control.”
When drafted ninth overall, Smith was regarded as a scoring point guard who could penetrate at will with his elite athleticism. However, Smith hasn’t been consistent with his outside shot or on defense and has been turnover-prone.
Smith had strong moments in Houston on Monday and put up gaudy numbers: 15 points, five assists, seven steals and seven rebounds. But there were some defensive missteps and three turnovers, and he finished a minus-19.
“I think he did a good job [Monday] night,’’ Miller said. “He had assists, steals, scored the ball. He executed the game plan. We just continue to build and play to his strengths. As we do that, we keep adding things on there on how to help his teammates.’’
Ntilikina’s groin is still an issue — and not an unexpected one. The Frenchman, who missed 32 of the last 34 games with a groin strain last season, told The Post he knew he’d still have to manage it this season.
The Knicks’ 2017 lottery pick sat out Monday night and will likely miss the three-game trip, with the 76ers on tap Thursday. Ntilikina has missed five games this season because of the groin.
“It’s the same, but it’s not the same thing,’’ Ntilikina said. “An injury like that which took me off the court for the rest of the season last year takes time, especially a young body, to recover from it. Some specialists say it takes the same amount of time for when you’re injured to be fully healed. It’s a long season. My body has to fully grow and I have to stay on top of it.”