The Knicks (2-4) started Smith and point guard Raymond Felton in the backcourt alongside Iman Shumpert, Carmelo Anthony and Andrea Bargnani on the front line. Smith took Pablo Prigioni's place in the starting lineup.
"Just see if we can get off to a better start," coach Mike Woodson said of shaking up his lineup before Wednesday's game. "I thought in the Charlotte game on the road we got off to a better start and sustained it all the way through.
"I'm still trying to get defense and some offense, too, where we've struggled in the early part of the season. Maybe get him going, and I know he'll give me effort defensively as well."
Smith said that Woodson expects him essentially to be a spark plug for the team.
"Just bring the energy level up, be very aggressive on the defensive end as well as the offensive end," Smith said of his instructions from Woodson. "Try to not put us in a position where when the second unit comes in we've dug a hole for ourselves. ... Try to push the pace as much as possible."
The Knicks have trailed by double digits in the first quarter of three of their last four games.
Shumpert started the first four games of the season at shooting guard before Woodson elected to change his lineup when Tyson Chandler suffered a fractured right fibula.
"I heard some rumors," Woodson said. "It's part of our business. I always try to tell young players if your name is being floated out there, that's a good thing. It means somebody wants you.
"Guys get traded. The best players have been traded, but at the end of the day you still got to play. You're still in a Knicks uniform, you're representing what we're trying to do here. You can't worry about what's in the paper. You've still got to perform."
The Knicks used their third starting lineup of the season Wednesday.
Smith missed the first five games of the season while serving a suspension for violating the league's anti-drug policy. In his first game back Sunday, Smith had five points on 1-for-9 shooting and turned over the ball four times.
The Knicks hope Smith can help spark an offense that entered play Wednesday ranked 25th in the NBA in points per 100 possessions.
The 28-year-old averaged 18.1 points and 5.3 rebounds per game last season and won his first career Sixth Man Award.
Woodson admitted that Smith may not be physically up to par as he's recovered from a knee injury.
"I'm just looking for some veteranship out of him," the coach said. "I don't think he's where he was before he got hurt, but again we've got to be patient with the process and let it happen with him."
Smith, however, said he sees a benefit to starting rather than coming off the bench.
"I think from the warm-ups straight to the action ... it's better being warm than having to wait six or seven minutes [to play]," Smith said. "It's kind of hard to jump-start your body, especially coming off the surgery. So it will be easier for me, I think."
ESPNNewYork.com contributor Matt Winkeljohn contributed to this report.