As a rule, most pre-draft stories, written by people who don’t cover college sports, are drive-by generalizations with some easy boiler-plate quotes and lazy correlations.
That’s not what Jonathan Tjarks has done in his excellent piece on N.C. State’s Dennis Smith Jr. for The Ringer.
Smith went into his only college season as a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick. After his spectacular, yet brief showing in the adidas Nations camp last summer, he was projected to go in the top spot.
Then the season happened. Smith, N.C. State’s first ACC freshman of the year since 1977, wasn’t bad, but N.C. State was. Tjarks starts with the premise that the lack of team success isn’t being held against Washington guard Markelle Fultz (the Huskies went 2-16 in the Pac-12), and it shouldn’t be held against Smith (the Wolfpack went 4-14 in the ACC).
Fultz, who is bigger and a better scorer than Smith, is the consensus No. 1 pick in the draft. Smith, who declined to attend the NBA combine this week, is being projected to go outside the top 5 (No. 7 here and No. 9 here). In a guard-heavy draft, Smith has seemingly fallen behind Fultz, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and both Kentucky guards (De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk).
Tjarks adroitly breaks down Smith’s strengths (starting with his explosive athleticism) and then gets to Smith’s main weakness. Anyone who watched N.C. State this season knows what that is.
“The big concern for Smith is on the other end of the floor. He has a below-average reach for a player his size (6-foot-3 wingspan), making it difficult for him to contest shots. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Smith was in the 14th percentile of players in the country at defending spot-up shots, a measure of how effective Smith was at deterring shots and how close he stayed to his man off the ball. Switching screens will be difficult for Smith at the next level, as bigger players can shoot over the top of him pretty easily.”
Tjarks delves more into the defensive end but his conclusion is correct.
“While Smith will never be great defensively, if he can become even average, he has a chance to be an All-Star-caliber player. In five years, no one will care how good his college team was. It shouldn’t matter all that much right now, either.”
About a week after N.C. State’s season ended, an NBA team, with a lottery pick, called me to talk about Smith. The first question was about Smith’s reticence with the media. As I wrote then, there’s nothing a little maturity can’t fix for Smith. He’ll be fine with more off-court structure in the NBA.
He’ll also be better in the NBA game with more spacing, and more talent around him. The same points Tjarks makes.
The last question from the NBA team about Smith was: “Would you give him $16 million to run your team?”
My answer: Yes but give him some help.
Smith’s biggest problem at N.C. State was he had to do too much. Pass, score, lead, speak for the team and all of this with very little experience.
Not to mention, the season got turned upside down after the Duke win on Jan. 23, and his coach, Mark Gottfried, was fired with four games left in the regular season (although, that might actually turn out to be good field training for his NBA career).
You have to remember, before Smith got to the ACC, he played for a tiny Christian school in Fayetteville and missed his senior year of high school with a knee injury.
He faced elite talent on the AAU circuit, but N.C. State was the first time he ever had teams scout and prepare for him. He wasn’t ready to make all of the adjustments and carry the burden of the team’s success, on and off the court. There were flashes for sure but no real consistency or true understanding of the task at hand.
I told the NBA team to pair Smith up with a veteran mentor. The talent, what you can’t teach, is there for Smith to succeed in the NBA. He can learn the rest from the right people.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio