For the second year in a row, N.C. State begins basketball practice floating amid a sea of unknowns. The Wolfpack is beset with questions it cannot yet answer and uncertainties it cannot yet define. Unlike a year ago, when N.C. State missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in five seasons under Mark Gottfried, the Wolfpack is pretty sure it has most of, if not all, the answers this time.
Dennis Smith is a big part of that, and while he’s coming off a torn ACL in his left knee, the Wolfpack saw enough of him while he was enrolled for the spring semester and at an Adidas camp this summer to be less concerned about that than other areas.
Gottfried isn’t taking an interim position: He said again Thursday he thinks Smith will be the best guard in the country and could be the No. 1 pick in the draft. Smith said he’s not worried about getting back to where he was before the knee injury; he already thinks he’s better.
That has created a completely different atmosphere around the team even as the eligibility of star freshman Omer Yurtseven remains in the sticky hands of the NCAA, the biggest question facing this team. If the versatile Turkish center is eligible, and N.C. State thinks he will be although no one has any idea when a decision might come down, the Wolfpack will have a one-two punch of potential top-five NBA draft picks.
Start there, and the other questions don’t seem like that big of a deal. Can Terry Henderson stay healthy? Can Charlotte transfer Torin Dorn contribute at the ACC level? Can Abdul-Malik Abu become an impact scorer? And can this all come together in the one season Smith, Henderson, Abu and Yurtseven will be together?
“We have every piece that we need,” Abu said. “We just have to put it together.”
Last year wasn’t a lot of fun. I think we can all agree on that.
N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried
As much as the Wolfpack has confidence in Smith’s ability to be an elite guard not only in the ACC but nationally and that Yurtseven will be cleared to play at some point, there’s no way of knowing the answers to the other questions.
In that respect, it is a little like last season, when the Wolfpack had more questions than answers in the wake of the unexpected departures of Trevor Lacey and Kyle Washington, even before Henderson went down for the season in the opening game. Some, like whether anyone could effectively back up Cat Barber, never found an answer. Others did, like whether freshman Maverick Rowan could handle being thrust into a starting role. There was more of the former than the latter. That season was awash in uncertainty, and N.C. State never could figure it out.
“Last year wasn’t a lot of fun,” Gottfried said. “I think we can all agree on that.”
This season may pose a similar volume of questions, but they’re different questions, with different answers, with a collection of talent that could be – with Yurtseven on the floor – the most N.C. State has amassed at one time in a generation or two.
Gottfried is usually quick to deflate expectations for his team with go-to phrases like, “We’ve got a long way to go” or “We’ve got a lot of work to do.” He turned to one of those only once Thursday, in reference to BeeJay Anya’s weight, which is back above 340 pounds.
So that’s one question that hasn’t changed: Can Anya lose enough weight to be an effective contributor in more than spurts? This season, with Abu back after flirting with the NBA and Smith ready to dazzle and Yurtseven awaiting his call, there’s a lot less riding on the answer.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock