With freshman guards like possible first overall draft pick Markelle Fultz at Washington and Lonzo Ball at UCLA and the tandem of DeAaron Fox and Malik Monk at Kentucky all taking college basketball by storm, NC State freshman point Dennis Smith Jr. has yet to receive his fair share of the spotlight. If you’ve heard of Fultz because he’s considered the top of the class or watched Ball, Fox, and Monk because their teams are more relevant, but haven’t had a chance to enjoy Smith yet, you’re missing out.
Listed at a solid 6’3, 190 pounds, Smith has the body of an NBA point guard as a 19 year old. Add in the kind of athleticism Smith showcased while stealing the ball and throwing down an emphatic dunk to beat Duke at Cameron, and Smith has all the tools.
At North Carolina State this season, with limited talent around him, Smith has needed to do everything, tallying the second highest usage rate in ACC play. Smith has taken 136 shots inside the arc this season, with only 14 of those buckets coming via a teammate assist. Conversely, Smith has been everything for his teammates, as his 37.4 assist rate is top 15 nationally and leads the ACC. If the Wolfpack are going to succeed on offense, it is on the shoulders of Smith. This was particularly evident in Wednesday’s overtime loss to Syracuse. Smith had 13 points, 11 rebounds, and 15 assists (with only two turnovers). The triple-double was his second of conference play, making him the first ACC player to ever (*EVER*) record two triple-doubles against ACC opponents in a season.
Yes, he accomplished something Michael Jordan, Len Bias, Ralph Sampson, Tim Duncan, James Worthy, Chris Paul, and every Duke Blue Devil of all-time were incapable of. To top it off, he finished this nifty up-and-under layup:
Smith impresses with an inside-out game. Aside from Fultz, the rest of the prospects atop this June’s draft class have limitations. Fox, Kansas forward Josh Jackson, and Duke guard Jayson Tatum can’t shoot well from the outside, while Monk has been accused of only being a shooter. Ball has shown himself able to attack the rim and shoot, but scouts worry about his slingshot shooting motion. Smith, meanwhile, attempts 39% of his shots at the rim, the vast majority of which are contested and come from his own creation in isolation or pick-and-roll. He uses his body in the paint, which is how he sits in the top 5 in the ACC in free throw rate and fouls drawn per 40 minutes. Smith reaches the line eight times per game, a huge amount for a anyone, let alone a point guard. The only major conference player to attempt more freebies than Smith this season is Georgia center Yante Maten. From outside the arc, Smith struggled at first, firing an ugly 4-18 in his first four collegiate games. Since then, he’s settled in and used the longball as a weapon in his arsenal, knocking down 39% of his attempts.
Smith has dragged and clawed NC State to the bubble, in search of an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Losing at home to the similarly bubble dwelling Syracuse did not help the Wolfpack’s case, but ACC play provides oodles of opportunities to right that wrong. With NC State at 3-7 in conference play, the turnaround will need to come quickly and soon. The brunt of that effort will fall on Smith, though we, the viewers, would reap the reward of a turnaround most of all. Injecting Smith into the NCAA Tournament would make for an added dash of excitement in what is already shaping up to be a riveting March.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to SALTMoney.org, Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.