The NBA-bound stars don’t stick around as long as they once did. Those days are long gone. We live in the era of the one-and-done, at least until the NBA and its union decide it benefits them for elite players go to straight into the pros and skip their one-year college audition.
For now, you get one year of Dennis Smith Jr. and you get one year of Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles. You get a couple years of a few others, but the show goes on the road soon enough. These off-Broadway previews pass quickly.
But when you put a bunch of them on the court, especially when they’re in close proximity, the results are no less spectacular.
And the show that Smith put on Monday was enough to get N.C. State its first win at Duke since the last time Mike Krzyzewski was absent, 22 years ago, if not turn around the Wolfpack’s season entirely.
This was his moment, the reason he came to N.C. State, even if it had proven elusive in the first three months of his Wolfpack career. Smith gets one shot in Cameron, and he made the most of it. With 32 points and six assists, Smith willed the Wolfpack to an 84-82 victory, even if he made it interesting by missing a pair of free throws with N.C. State up six with 50 seconds to go.
After Tatum turned it over on Duke’s final possession, Smith went the other way with the ball, ignored the buzzer and threw down a ferocious tomahawk dunk in front of the N.C. State bench. His teammates swarmed over him under the basket in a celebration few expected as Cameron buzzed in disbelief.
It was Smith’s night, even if he was the only one who didn’t think so.
“I really didn’t get that sense at all,” Smith said. “I was just out there playing. Whatever they gave me, I took it.”
When Smith arrived at N.C. State in a cloud of hype, this kind of performance was expected from him as a matter of routine. He had only showed it in flashes, understandable for a freshman point guard who is unavoidably the center of every team’s attention. It hasn’t been easy at times.
“Everyone has things to say when you come in highly touted. It’s hard,” N.C. State’s Abdul-Malik Abu said. “There’s a lot of pressure on him. There’s a lot of pressure on all of us, but in particular him, and he goes out there, he plays hard, he works hard every day. And I’m just glad he got to show the world what Dennis Smith can do.”
In this one year at N.C. State, there were three games that always stood out against the others for the Fayetteville native: the two against North Carolina and this one against Duke. Smith’s debut in Chapel Hill was a disaster. He tried to force things early, got into foul trouble and was never really a factor in a 51-point loss.
This game would have been special, even if it hadn’t been an opportunity to redeem himself. But the North Carolina game loomed large in his mind. This was his chance to make a statement, on a national stage, in a place where N.C. State hadn’t won since before he was born.
“He’s used to being able to dominate most any game. And teams have done a lot of things to slow him down,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “He’s learning. You have to remember, and I always remind myself, he’s young. He’s a young guy. He’s sensitive, like anybody. He wants to win, he wants to compete, he wants to do well. He was terrific tonight.”
This technically wasn’t the fully healthy Duke that over five halves against Georgia Tech, Boston College and Miami outscored the opposition by a combined 233-149 – a per-40-minute average of 93-60 – because Chase Jeter was in street clothes after minor back surgery Monday. It might as well have been, though, since Jeter, while available, was a healthy scratch in all three of those games.
With all those options available, interim coach Jeff Capel went with an unusual one to start, going with the five players who keyed the 20-0 second-half run against Miami on Saturday, which wouldn’t seem like such a big deal if it didn’t mean leaving Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard out of the starting lineup. Not to be outdone, N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried went with Ted Kapita and Darius Hicks, neither of whom played in the previous two games, ahead of BeeJay Anya, who only came in after Kapita and Omer Yurtseven both had four fouls.
Only Smith kept N.C. State afloat in the first half, with 18 points (and no assists) as the Wolfpack was able to stay within reach of Duke. Just before halftime, with N.C. State down 12, Smith drove to the rim and was able to coax an underhand layup through the hoop while being fouled. After a Duke timeout, Matt Jones traveled on what was supposed to be the Blue Devils’ last possession, and Smith drilled a 3-pointer from the left wing at the buzzer to cut the Duke lead to a more manageable six.
“Dennis was tremendous all game long,” Capel said. “He’s a very talented kid, played lights-out basketball tonight. Did it in every phase – scored, but in the second half, really got his guys involved.”
Kapita would reappear in the second half, starting over Yurtseven, to become the emotional focal point of a 9-0 N.C. State run. After drawing an offensive foul on Giles, Kapita exulted to the point where Gottfried had to get off the bench to grab him and calm him down. On that possession, Kapita dunked a Smith miss and then did an Olympic high-bar routine on the rim. But Tatum missed the technical free throw, and Maverick Rowan hit a 3 at the other end to give N.C. State its first lead since the first three minutes of the first half.
Duke would extend its lead to nine before Smith led a comeback against a series of poorly executed, empty Duke offensive possessions, Tatum going 0-for-4 during that stretch. Capel, during a painfully brief news conference, said he was OK with Duke’s shot selection, although he sounded slightly less OK with it the longer he talked.
“We got good looks,” Capel said. “We got some wide-open 3s with no one near us. We got some drives to the basket. We got good looks, I thought, throughout the second half. Some were rushed. A few. But I didn’t think many.”
Still, Duke wasn’t done, and the Wolfpack had to hold on as Duke whittled the lead down to one in the final seconds, thanks in part to Smith’s missed free throws. Rowan was on the line to ice it, but Smith won it for the Wolfpack.
“He was unstoppable,” said Abu, who benefited from Smith assists on four of his eight field goals. “He made us look better. He made everybody better. That’s what he’s capable of every night, and I’m glad he got to show it on a national stage.”
Smith’s tomahawk dunk came after the buzzer, but he needed no exclamation point. Whatever his N.C. State legacy ends up being, it begins here, on a historic night for the Wolfpack in Cameron.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock