N.C. State’s Dennis Smith Jr. led the Wolfpack to the team’s first win at Duke in 22 years. He had 32 points, four rebounds and six assists Monday night in the 84-82 win.
Here’s a look back at how the star freshman guard got to N.C. State.
This story was originally published on Sept. 21, 2016.
Don’t be confused about why Dennis Smith Jr. is here.
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The freshman from Fayetteville is at N.C. State for one reason and it’s not to be good.
Smith, a once-in-a-generation talent, is here to be great. And you can’t be great if you merely aim to be good.
You’ve got to think bigger. This is not a problem for the 6-3, 195-pound point guard who most of his friends call “Joon” (short for Junior).
“I want to come in and win games and have a pretty good season,” Smith said in an interview earlier this summer. “Ultimately I want to win a championship.”
“A championship” sounds vague, does Smith care to narrow that down?
“You have to start with the ACC championship,” said Smith, who is rated as the No. 7 player in the freshmen class by 247 Sports. “That’s the first one. That comes with winning games. And eventually win the national championship. That’s the ultimate goal.”
Smith’s individual goals are no less lofty. He wants to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft. But there’s more, according to Ja-Rell Bailey, who has helped train Smith for almost four years.
“He wants to be the best point guard that ever played in the NBA,” Bailey said.
That sounds like a lot even for a guy who has been described as having a combination of Russell Westbrook’s (Oklahoma City Thunder) athletic ability and Damian Lillard’s (Portland Trailblazers) playmaking ability.
Heck, it’s downright preposterous talk for a guy who just missed his senior season in high school with a major knee injury. But here’s the thing about Dennis Smith – he’s not going to change his mindset for anyone.
He understands most people will read his goals and likely scoff or, at the least, suggest he slows his roll.
But he’s cool with that. It’s not that he doesn’t care what you think, it’s just you can’t expect more from him than he expects of himself.
Smith can’t control expectations for what is expected to be his only season at N.C. State, so he doesn’t try.
“I have a ton of confidence in myself, like every guy should,” Smith said. “But I can’t control (expectations). All I can do is go out and try to win games.”
Smith has already won the internet. His homemade dunking videos, a staple on his Twitter timeline, give a brief glimpse of his 44-inch vertical leap and innate athletic ability.
The mixed-tape highlights from Smith scoring on Oklahoma City Thunder guard Victor Oladipo at Chris Paul’s skills camp in June turned up the hype another notch.
If Smith can already blow by a fourth-year NBA veteran, what’s he going to do against the ACC?
Actually, Smith would like to straighten one thing out about the edited highlights from his tangle with Oladipo at Paul’s camp in Winston-Salem.
“I want to go on record and say that Vic is a great player,” Smith said. “That video can be kind of misleading, I’ll be honest. He definitely did his thing out there.”
But there’s no slowing down the hype train after what Smith did at the adidas Nations showcase at Garden Grove, Calif., at the end of July. This is the same camp where Smith got hurt last year, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Smith wanted to prove he was healthy after a year off the court and a January enrollment at N.C. State to rehabilitate the knee injury.
Isaiah Whorley, Smith’s cousin, went out to California with him. Whorley, who grew up with Smith in Fayetteville, could tell Smith was anxious about returning to the site of his injury.
“He was a little nervous before but he performed so well, he showed he was back and better than ever,” Whorley said.
I have a ton of confidence in myself, like every guy should. But I can’t control (expectations). All I can do is go out and try to win games.
N.C. State guard Dennis Smith Jr.
National college basketball writers gushed in their reports from the camp, which also included North Carolina’s Justin Jackson and Kansas guard Devonte’ Graham of Raleigh.
But Smith, how he dominated and handled his return to the scene of his injury, was the story of the camp.
“I was blown away by him,” said ESPN analyst and former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, who was at the camp. “He was fearless and explosive, especially considering he’s coming off an ACL injury.”
Smith impressed Greenberg with his on-the-ball defense and his demeanor. The most impressive part of Smith’s performance, Greenberg said, was how his teammates reacted to him.
“I loved the way he carried himself,” Greenberg said. “I look for that as much as anything in a guard. Do other guys want to play with him? He makes plays for his teammates and he’s going to make everyone at N.C. State better.”
Smith said he needed to go back to the adidas camp to prove to himself he was ready.
“That’s where I got hurt,” Smith said. “To go out there and play the way I did, it definitely reassured me that I did my rehab to my fullest ability.”
Smith, who chose N.C. State over Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina, also improved his NBA draft stock with his performance at the camp.
Before the camp, Smith was projected by NBADraft.net to be a lottery pick in next year’s draft. That wasn’t good enough for Smith.
“I want to be the first pick and right now, nobody thinks I can be that but I believe it,” Smith said before he went to the adidas camp.
After his brief but dominant showing at the camp, he was moved up to the No. 1 overall pick by NBADraft.net. DraftExpress projects Smith as the second pick, behind Markelle Fultz, a 6-5 combo guard at Washington.
That’s the thing people don’t understand about Smith, Whorley said. If you doubt him, he wants to prove you wrong.
That’s the way it was back at Gloria Smith’s front yard in Godwin. Grandma’s house had two 8-foot goals set up about 30 feet apart in a makeshift court in the dirt.
Smith, 7, and Whorley, three years older, would play for hours. It didn’t take long for Whorley to figure out his little cousin had a gift and was wired differently.
“He’s really competitive,” said Whorley, whose mom, Yolanda, is Dennis Smith Sr.’s older sister. “That’s his greatest asset. When he competes, something changes in his eyes. He gets kind of evil and he’ll impose his will however he pleases.”
And it’s not just that he wants to win.
“He wants to demolish the competition,” Bailey said.
Being hyper-competitive is one of the reasons Smith chose N.C. State. UNC made it to the national title game last April. Duke will go off as the preseason No. 1 team in the country this year. Smith could have made either, or Kentucky, a “super” team.
But that would have made Smith just another cog in the machine. It also would have been the easy way out.
“I’d rather beat ‘em, than join ‘em,” Smith said. “That’s how I see it.”
That’s why Smith will be at N.C. State this season. It does help that his grandma is an ardent State fan. Smith’s goals, after a 16-17 finish by the Wolfpack last season, won’t be easily attained. Nothing worth having ever is.
He understands this and welcomes it. It’s the challenge, not the hype or expectations, that push Smith. And before you dismiss Smith, there’s one thing about him, Whorley said, you should remember.
“I have yet to see him fail,” Whorley said.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio