Dennis Smith Jr. traversed his way through a single chaotic season at North Carolina State and is entering the draft as a potential top-five pick with a floor around the mid-teens. Smith is arguably the best leaper in the 2017 class but reservations about his effort level and smaller stature have kept his draft stock highly volatile.
Smith’s lone season at N.C. State was such a difficult situation to analyze seeing how much of his game was never able to shine due to roster constraints and coaching instability. His skill-set is tailor made for the NBA and he could come in develop into the most offensively able players in the draft.
N.C. State’s Struggles
For all of the hype around Smith this summer, his frustrating situation at N.C. State has largely masked how ideal his skill-set is at the NBA-level. What makes dissecting Smith’s game tough is that he played on an N.C. State team largely devoid of spacing and without much talent on the roster. Not only was the roster fit a bad foundation to start from, but when the Wolfpack fired head coach Mark Gottfried in mid-February and then allowed him to finish the season out as the head coach even after being terminated, things seemed outright chaotic.
When watching film on Smith, it is easy to see the struggles that he had to deal with.
Smith carried the load offensively. Regardless of if it was creating offense for himself or others, everything that N.C. State did was predicated on Smith’s talents. The roster was set up with two paint-bound big men and very little shooting which left Smith driving into multiple defenders and kicking out passes to teammates who could not convert the shot.
That led to frustration from Smith that leaked out through his body language towards teammates and an overall sense of selfishness in how he played. His overall effort would waver which led to questions about his drive and maturity, leaving his draft stock quite unpredictable.
It seems that most of the blame should fall on N.C. State and the roster they had assembled around Smith but there is a plausible scenario that Smith could be a frustrating teammate to deal with. To say Smith played apathetic defense this season would be a monstrous understatement and he would completely ignore open teammates on offense so there is some fault in Smith’s lap. The answer likely lies somewhere in the middle of the two but the chaos that had poisoned the Wolfpack’s season was largely outside of Smith’s hands and led directly to some of the more selfish issues that Smith is now knocked for.
With NBA-level spacing, legitimate shooters around him, and rim-runners to work with in the pick-and-roll, Smith could be deadly from day one. He has the tools to be a top-five point guard in basketball in the right situation from a skill-set standpoint. The big question is if Smith has the drive and passion for being the best version of himself he can be. His time at N.C. State clouded that answer, but that does not change the fact that his upside is on par with Markelle Fultz.
Smith is arguably the best athlete in the draft. He moves at an elite level laterally and nearly teleports in transition when moving at full speed. Add in his freakish leaping ability and you a one-of-a-kind athlete at the point guard position.
When describing the athletic gifts of Smith it is almost impossible not to look at Russell Westbrook and pre-injury Derrick Rose for comparison. Not only is Smith arguably the best leaper in the draft, off either feet or both, but he does so with an authoritative power that very few players possess.
When Smith jumps with both feet he’ll be one of the most powerful dunking point guards in all of basketball, even as a rookie. Look at the explosion he plays with.
Smith also possesses the ability to jump off of either foot with elite verticality. This allows him to finish on either side of the rim as well as elevate in transition to far above the rim.
Not only does Smith’s athleticism shine in a powerful way, but he also has shown the quick twitch athletic ability in the way he shifts direction and the speed at which he gets off the ground for his second and third jump, which bodes well for his rebounding ability down the line. Look at how fast he gets off the ground.
That same quick-twitch athleticism is also what gives him the bounce in his step when creating space with the ball in his hands. He nearly teleports when he looks to create space for himself
His straight line speed, as you could probably imagine at this point, is also elite. Smith has shown that he has the “extra gear” in transition the way John Wall and Westbrook do. His first step is devastating for defenders and he is able to keep his speed up while changing directions on a dime.
Overall it is completely impossible to pass off Smith as anything but an elite level athlete. It is that athleticism that allows his game shine so brightly.
As a volume bucket getter, there is no shot that Smith is scared of or cannot hit. He is a three-level scorer, a tough shot maker, scores at the rim with ease, and, even though he was a streaky shooter in college, is a sniper from three-point distance when locked in. Smith has every offensive tool that a player could dream of to go with his elite athleticism.
At the rim, Smith shot 61 percent his lone season at N.C. State thanks to his ability as a leaper and his strong frame. Smith’s 195-pound body is pure muscle and it allows him to avoid contact and finish among the trees.
Smith has also shown off quite the bag of tricks when scoring in the mid-range. He can peel off a pick-and-roll action and nail a jumper, get past his defender in isolation and pull up with his elite quickness to create space, or even fade away on the baseline with a defender contesting due to his elite athleticism and tough shot making ability. Smith also mixes in floaters and push shots to keep defenses honest.
Smith’s three-point shooting is where his offensive game becomes more mysterious. He shot 35.9 percent from three, which is respectable, but he was streaky all season. Even with the inconsistencies in his shooting Smith showed the ability to create space at will and make tough shots.
Being able to get three-point shots off the dribble is becoming increasingly more important in the new day and age of the NBA and Smith fits that bill as a distance shooter. He also is able to get his shot beyond the arc in pick-and-roll actions. If the defender goes under the screen Smith will take the space and get a shot up. If the defender tries to overplay the screen then Smith can reject the screen and use the minimal space to get up a shot over the defender getting screened.
An interesting ripple in Smith’s ability to score in the half court is that he played with such atrocious spacing at N.C. State. We really have not seen how elite of a finisher he could be with NBA-level three-point shooters and without two paint-bound big men suffocating the painted area.
In transition is where Smith shines the brightest. Being faster, quicker, more athletic, and more talented then everyone on the floor tends to allow players to thrive in a more up-tempo setting. Smith embodies this philosophy completely by skying far above the rim for powerful slams, finishing with either hand or pulling up in the mid-range or beyond three when the defense allows which culminated into Smith scoring 1.2 points per possession in traditions according to DraftExpress.
Smith can do nearly everything offensively from day one and he has not even scratched the surface in terms of his true potential. Give him NBA-level spacing and NBA-level talent surrounding him and he could end up as one of the most offensively impactful rookies of the entire draft.
By far the most underrated aspect of Smith’s game is his potential to make plays for others. Smith has the ability to be creative with his passes and throw them with velocity out of either hand but let’s not get this misconstrued; Smith is a score-first point guard and there is no arguing that point.
Even with Smith and his score-first mentality, he has shown the ability to beautifully set up teammates in almost any situation thanks to his advanced handle, which is another highly underrated of Smith’s skill-set. Whether Smith is operating in the pick-and-roll, isolation, or in transition he has the skill-set to make nearly every pass at any moment.
In the pick-and-roll, Smith can make almost any read and even shows a semblance of patience when his teammates are finishing. He can pass with either hand, can make drop or lob passes to bigs rolling to the rim, and find shooters behind the arc as he collapses the defense.
What makes Smith so special as a facilitator is that he can collapse a defense at will in isolation. He has all the athletic and physical gifts to blow by largely anyone who attempts to defend him at the point of attack. This allows Smith to create a solid offensive look for his teammates at any time which bodes well for his physical ability to make his teammates better. His vision is good enough for him to find spot-up shooters while driving as well as finding weak side bigs for open dunks after drawing defensive help on his dives to the rim.
Smith also showed his ability to push the ball in transition and find bigs or wings that are streaking down the court with him. Smith’s gravity is so great in the open court that, when he is locked in, he has the ability to slice teams to pieces. He can throw passes with either hand, has nice touch on lobs, and does a good job of finding shooters trailing him in the secondary fast break.
When Smith was at N.C. State he seemed to play with more tunnel vision than facilitating vision but that seemed largely tied to his lackluster supporting cast. While he may look selfish by the eye test, Smith does show that he can be an above-average facilitator in time.
Smith’s defensive potential is not based on the development of physical tools or even fundamental understanding. It is entirely about Smith dedicating himself to give effort on the defensive end of the floor. He has the strength and quickness combination to be able to at least contain penetration from opposing point guards and stop the ball, in the way Mike Conley does for the Memphis Grizzlies and has the athletic talents to make up for his somewhat diminutive stature.
In Smith’s lone season at N.C. State he was not just passive on defense but completely apathetic. He gave little to no effort almost every defensive possession. Nearly every time that Smith was screened he would go under it or die immediately which led to him failing to contest countless jump shots. In isolation, Smith would allow players to blow by him so consistently, it was as if he was a Matador avoiding a bull.
When Smith did decide to lock in on the defensive end of the floor he was pesky and beyond frustrating to deal with as seen in his 2.2 steals per 40 minutes. His hands are lightning quick and his lateral quickness is elite. If Smith would get into a stance and use his strength and quickness on the perimeter he could become an immovable point guard on defense. Smith has every tool to be an above average point guard defender and contain the ball if he so dedicates himself to putting that effort forth on defense.
Without a doubt, the biggest question surrounding Smith is his mindset, mental composure, and selfish tendencies.
At N.C. State, things were far from ideal. He was surrounded with inferior talent and was stuck playing for a coach that, after being terminated, still finished out the season. This led to a chaotic end of the year that saw the Wolfpack lost 10 of their final 11 games, missing the tournament entirely.
By February, Smith looked like he had given up on the program and his teammates. His defense did not exist as he was almost an unmoving body on that end of the floor and he looked to only call his own number on offense. That stretch of time is what is giving teams cause for concern. Is Smith the type of player to give up on teammates and clash with coaching or was that more of a reaction to the chaotic season that the Wolfpack endured? Can he be more than a volume scorer on a bad team?
So much of Smith’s draft stock will depend on his interviews with teams. If he can prove to executives and coaches that his poor effort and selfishness was an anomaly due to the instability of N.C. State, his stock could skyrocket to where his name is mentioned in the top-three selections come draft night.
With all of the upside and insane athleticism that Smith has in his toolbox, his length measurements leave a lot to be desired. Smith is a strong 195 pounds but standing at just 6-foot-3, with an identical wingspan, his versatility on defense is limited.
Smith has shown that when he is focused, he can lock down point guards with his elite athletic ability and strength but those instances are unfortunately as rare as a being struck by lightening.
Instead, his limited length forces Smith to be a one position defender at the NBA level. Thanks to Smith’s leaping ability and powerful style of play, he can make up for his size issues offensively but not on defense.
Without Smith deciding to buy in and play with more energy on the defensive end of the court, he will likely always be a defensive liability due to his smaller stature and length.
Why Dennis Smith Jr.?
There are two sides of the coin when it comes to Smith. On one hand, he has every single tool to be a top-five point guard at the NBA-level on both ends of the court. On the other hand, his selfishness and potential inability to make his teammates better could be the end of his aspirations to be a top-flight lead guard on a championship caliber team.
Smith will need to learn to lean on his teammates and trust the intelligence of his coaches if he wants to reach the best version of himself. For now, Smith knows he can go out and put up big numbers in spite of his teammates. For Smith to take the next big step he needs to learn to make everyone better around him with his undeniably elite creativity and vision while continuing to be the dynamic and explosive scorer that he is. Finding that balance will be key.
If Denver somehow ends up with a chance to draft Smith, with the 13th selection or elsewhere in the lottery, it would be unbelievably difficult to pass based on his upside alone. Many draft analysts have Smith as the second most talented player in the draft, behind Markelle Fultz, but with his selfish tendencies and hero ball-esque style of play, he also has a large amount of volatility to his draft stock.
The Nuggets have already been grooming Jamal Murray to be their future point guard but if Smith somehow ends up available with Denver on the clock, it’s hard to envision them not taking a chance on the 19-year-old. If Denver does end up with Smith, then the Nuggets can look forward to a spectacular backcourt of Smith, Murray, and Gary Harris, in the future.