State Now

Freshmen guards give NC State early lift

Dennis Smith Jr. didn’t say anything, or even nod, to Markell Johnson before he cut backdoor for the basket late in Friday’s win over Montana, he didn’t have to.

Johnson anticipated Smith’s move and threw a perfect alley-oop to effectively put the game away for N.C. State in its opening-round win in the Paradise Jam at St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.

“We didn’t practice it or anything,” Johnson said in a phone interview after Friday’s game. “It just happened.”

Without wing Maverick Rowan or forward Ted Kapita, Johnson got more minutes against Montana and figures to have a prominent role again on Sunday against Creighton.

The 6-1, 164-pound provided a spark off the bench in Friday’s 85-72 win over the Grizzlies with nine points, six assists and four steals in 27 minutes.

“He was terrific,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said in a phone interview. “And when (Dennis and Markell) played together, they complemented each other. They’re both super quick and both helped us defensively.

“And they’re going to get better every time they play.”

Smith, the five-star point guard from Fayetteville, was the prize of the recruiting class but the late addition of Johnson in the spring has also helped the Wolfpack early in the season.

Johnson’s quick hands help on defense and he can really jump but forward Abdul-Malik Abu said neither is Johnson’s best quality.

“He plays hard and he listens,” Abu said. “That’s how you become great.”

That was Johnson’s goal when he got here this summer. Watch, learn and help when he can.

“Whatever the older guys say, I’m going to listen,” Johnson said.

Johnson is a quick learner and N.C. State needed him on Friday. Rowan missed his second straight game with concussion-like symptoms. Kapita did not travel with the team due to a student visa issue.

Johnson picked up some minutes and Smith picked up the scoring slack. Smith had 11 points in the opener against Georgia Southern and 12 against St. Francis Brooklyn but was 6 of 22 from the floor.

Smith shot better (6 of 12) against Montana and scored 21 points. Gottfried liked the way Smith was relaxed and just played without worrying about what was expected of him.

“Dennis had a bounce to his game,” Gottfried said. “I thought he did a great job on both ends of the floor.”

Much is expected of Smith, one of the projected top picks in the NBA draft. He was voted to the preseason All-ACC team and picked as the league’s rookie of the year.

Gottfried also called Smith “the best guard in college basketball” before he played his first minute. Smith’s slow-ish start hasn’t changed Gottfried’s opinion but the coach does have to remind himself that Smith is just a freshman and there’s going to be a learning curve.

Gottfried talked with Smith before the game and told him to just relax and have fun.

“He had great confidence and a great smile,” Gottfried said. “I just want him to keep that smile on his face all year.”

Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio