Dennis Smith Jr. continues to chalk up the firsts for N.C. State.
The star point guard was the first freshman to record a triple-double in an ACC game and then in Wednesday’s loss to Syracuse he became the first player in ACC history with two triple-doubles in conference play.
Smith is first in the ACC in assists (6.9 per game), first in steals (2.2) and he is first on the Wolfpack in scoring (18.7).
All of this and Smith still isn’t quite all the way back from a serious knee injury that cost him his senior year of high school basketball in Fayetteville.
Dennis Smith Sr. said his son, about 16 months removed from surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, isn’t 100 percent yet.
“We were riding in the car the other day and Junior says to me, ‘When I get to 100 percent, it’s going to be scary,’ ” Smith’s father said.
That is a terrifying prospect for N.C. State’s opponents and the Wolfpack (14-9, 3-7 ACC), who will host Miami (14-7, 4-5) on Saturday at PNC Arena.
Smith is playing at either 85 or 90 percent, his dad said. The explosiveness in his jumping ability is there but Smith is still getting back into game shape with his conditioning.
“I think we all forget he didn’t play (last year),” Gottfried said.
Given there is another gear, Smith’s performances — eye-popping enough already — are that much more impressive. He had 13 points, 11 rebounds and 15 assists against Syracuse on Wednesday. He had 27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in a win over Virginia Tech on Jan. 4 for his first triple-double.
In between, he scored 32 points and led N.C. State to its first win at Duke in 22 years.
There have been some bumps in the road, namely in lopsided road losses to North Carolina and Louisville, but for the most part, Smith has lived up to coach Mark Gottfried’s preseason billing as “the best guard in the country.”
With Smith, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, Washington’s Markelle Fultz and Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox have turned this college basketball season into the “Year of the Freshman Point Guard.”
Gottfried hasn’t changed his mind about Smith’s ranking among the country’s best guards.
“No question, I think Dennis Smith is the guy,” Gottfried said Friday. “If I was an NBA team, I wouldn’t pass on him. I’ve told a number of people in the NBA already: careful if you pass on that guy.”
Smith’s dad said while his son is aware of the other point guards in his class, he’s not in any imaginary competition with them.
“To be honest, he doesn’t care about those other guys,” Smith Sr. said. “He knows how good he is. If you know Junior, he’s just playing basketball.”
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas has seen the best of Smith, his performance at Duke, and his low point, the loss at UNC on Jan. 8. Smith has impressed Bilas with both his explosive athletic ability and his patience.
“You’re not going to fool the NBA and they know how talented he is,” Bilas said recently. “He’s got the tools to be a lottery pick and he’s going to be one.”
The one area Smith needs to work on, Bilas said, is being more consistent on defense.
“He’s not a focused defender and that’s being discussed (by NBA personnel),” Bilas said. “He’s capable of doing it but he has been spotty (on defense).”
Smith does lead the ACC in steals and he had a steal from Jaysom Tatum to seal the win over Duke. So there are moments when he can make a spectacular play. He has used his 44-inch vertical leap to snatch passes that don’t look like they could possibly be stolen.
But there are also moments for Smith and he hasn’t been able to consistently string them together. Syracuse guard John Gillon scored 43 points on Wednesday while mostly being defended by Smith.
Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell had a strong game (28 points) against Smith, too. With the attention Smith has drawn from NBA scouts — he’s projected to be a top 5 pick — other guards naturally see the chance of playing against Smith as a chance to impress scouts.
Saturday’s game against Miami will be the first time Smith will get a second chance at an opponent. Ja’Quan Newton had 21 points and generally out-played Smith in Miami’s 81-63 home win over the Wolfpack on Dec. 31.
Smith finished with 21 points but most came after the Hurricanes had already put the game away.
After the game, Smith said he didn’t really know who Newton was before the game.
“I didn’t really have an idea of how his game was,” Smith said then. “He played a really good game. We just look forward to seeing them again.”
On Saturday, Smith has a chance to add payback to his list of firsts.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
Year of the Freshman Point Guard
How N.C. State’s Dennis Smith Jr. compares to the other heralded point guards in his class:
Markelle Fultz, Washington
Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
Lonzo Ball, UCLA
Miami at NC State
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh
TV/radio: WRAL, 101.5-WRAL