Let’s start with the good.
Twice, in the final 2:15 of Tuesday’s win over Pittsburgh, Dennis Smith Jr. tried to take the ball to the basket.
Good things happen when Smith takes the ball to the basket (see the chart). On the first attempt, at 2:11 with N.C. State up 72-71, Smith was called for an offensive foul.
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Some can argue about the merits of the call, made by official Ron Groover, but sins of aggression can be forgiven. Smith was trying to pass to Markell Johnson on the wing on the play, so he was making a smart play – drawing in the defense and kicking to the open man.
The Wolfpack got the ball back and led 72-71 with 1:35 left when Smith knifed between forward Michael Young and guard Cameron Johnson in Pitt’s zone and was fouled. Smith made both free throws to give the Wolfpack a 74-71 lead.
That was notable because:
A) he made the free throws and he hasn’t been good at the foul line (63 percent) in ACC play
B) he wasn’t deterred by the questionable charge call and made the right decision, and the smart play, to go to the basket.
That’s the good. Now the bad.
With 38.6 seconds left, and a 74-71 lead, Smith had the ball and the bigger Young on him at the end of the shot clock. Great NBA guards, which is what Smith wants to be, take bigger defenders off the bounce without second thought. Smith resorted to a step-back 3-pointer. Obviously there are more than a few great NBA guards who make a living with this shot but Smith’s step-back game is not good enough right now to make this work.
Smith was 0 for 5 in step-back attempts on Tuesday and is 4 for 22 on such shots in six ACC games. There’s no rule that says he shouldn’t take step-backs but at some point you have to understand your weaknesses and play to your strengths (he has made 68.2 of his shots going to the basket and that doesn’t factor the points off free-throw attempts or assists).
It got worse in the final 6.9 seconds for Smith. He fouled Pitt’s Jamel Artis at midcourt with a 77-72 lead. Again, the merits of the call can be argued but there was nothing to gain there for N.C. State. The only objective in a multipossession game is to let the clock run.
Artis made both free throws to make it a one possession game. On the ensuing inbounds, Smith threw the ball away while trying to throw a lob pass to Terry Henderson. In Smith’s defense, there were no screens or a set play off the inbounds. Still, you can’t give the ball away there.
There was some confusion when official Jeffrey Anderson blew the play dead with 6.3 seconds left with the ball in the hands of Pitt’s Chris Jones near the Pitt bench.
At first, it looked like N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried might have tried to call a timeout to save Smith. After a lengthy delay, and some confusion, it turned out to be a clock issue.
Anderson blew the play dead after Jones had intercepted the pass and noticed the clock issue.
Pitt got the ball with 6.6 seconds left on the side out and got Cameron Johnson open for a clean look from the left wing with about 5 seconds left. Johnson missed the game-tying 3 and Henderson was fouled on the rebound.
If Pitt had tied the game and somehow won it overtime, Smith’s late-game gaffes would have gone down in N.C. State “stuff” lore. Instead, the Wolfpack found a way to win the game 79-74 and now Smith can take the opportunity to learn from a win.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio