Dennis Smith Jr. is trying to make the most of a difficult situation.
A knee injury cost the star point guard his senior season at Trinity Christian in Fayetteville. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Smith decided to enroll early at N.C. State to work on his physical rehabilitation.
“I had to make a move somewhere and get a jump any way I could,” Smith said.
Smith would have preferred to play his senior high school season and in the McDonald’s All-American Game. As the No. 4-rated player in the class by ESPN, and a five-star prospect, that likely would have happened.
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Instead, Smith tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in an AAU tournament on Aug. 2 and had surgery five days later.
Smith enrolled at N.C. State at the beginning of the second semester and has been on the Wolfpack bench since the first ACC game at Virginia Tech on Jan. 2.
The biggest advantage to being at N.C. State, even though he’s not expected to play this season, is he gets to work on his rehab every day, Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said.
“He was doing it one day a week prior,” Gottfried said of Smith’s rehab. “So now, it’s great concentration on getting him healthy every day. He’s with our doctors and our trainers.”
Smith said he was physically about “80 percent” and has added 10 pounds of muscle. Smith said he’s 6-foot-2 and 189 pounds. He does some shooting drills on his own and has been known to sneak in a 360-dunk.
“I’ve got most of my dunks back,” Smith said.
But he insists there’s no chance he will play this season for the Wolfpack.
“Nah, I’m taking this whole year off,” Smith said. “We’re not even considering that.”
Smith said he has been working on strengthening his quadriceps and hamstrings and doing some running on an underwater treadmill.
“I can tell my thighs are a lot stronger than what they used to be.” Smith said. “Right now, I need to let my knee heal. That’s the main thing.”
There are other benefits to getting to college early, including getting a head start on learning the offense Gottfried runs and interacting with his teammates.
Junior forward BeeJay Anya said Smith doesn’t just sit on the bench and cheer.
“He has already emerged as a leader,” Anya said. “He might not able to play but he sits on the bench and observes everything.
“He’s really about the team and about everybody getting better.”
Smith said being around his teammates helps with team chemistry.
“I’ve got to come in and lead the guys next year and that’s what I’m looking forward to doing,” Smith said.
Gottfried has high hopes for Smith, who is an athletic point guard who can score and has been been compared to Allen Iverson and John Wall.
Even Gottfried thinks Smith is ahead of the leadership curve with his teammates. Gottfried said Smith has been known to come to the gym to shoot foul shots and call the other players and ask them to join him.
“He’ll call someone and say, ‘Why aren’t you in the gym with me right now? And I’m not even supposed to be doing much. I’m shooting foul shots, but you guys should be in here,’ ” Gottfried said. “And our guys respond and come over here. They respond to him.”
Smith said there’s a reason he has already started to take a leadership role.
“I want to come in and win,” Smith said. “I want everybody to play to their fullest potential. If I see something wrong, I’ll tell them. I want them to do the same with me.”
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio