Dennis Smith Jr. peeled off his N.C. State jersey seconds after going through the postgame handshake line with Virginia.
Walking two steps ahead of coach Mark Gottfried, with his head down, Smith walked off the court and dragged his home white No. 4 jersey, like a little kid with a blanket, through the tunnel and into the N.C. State locker room after a 70-55 loss to the Cavaliers in the home finale.
Saturday’s game was typical of Smith’s first, and likely only, season in Raleigh. The supremely talented 6-3, 195-pound guard from Fayetteville led the Wolfpack in scoring (13 points) and had some good moments.
You don’t have to be an NBA scout to see Smith’s potential or appreciate his immense physical skills. You will have to wait for Smith to get to the NBA to hear from him regularly.
Saturday was another loss for Smith and N.C. State, the seventh in nine ACC home games, and another postgame where Smith didn’t talk to the media.
Smith stopped talking with the media between games weeks ago and his postgame availability has been sporadic. To his credit, he did come out after particularly difficult losses to Louisville, Wake Forest and North Carolina (twice).
Next year in the NBA, where Smith is a projected lottery pick, he won’t be able to avoid the media. It will be a job requirement: before games, after games and in between games.
Talking to the media isn’t supposed to be a form of punishment, it’s a way to communicate with the fans. Perhaps, like Brandon Ingram after his lone season at Duke, there’s a first-person account of the season waiting to be posted on “Players’ Tribune” website when Smith makes his NBA decision official.
A few words from Smith, particularly before the UVA game, would have gone a long way to help put his stellar season, under trying circumstances, in proper context.
Instead, Smith played the game, trudged off the floor after the loss and went on his way. Smith was more open to the media earlier in the season. He has a personality to match his considerable skill. Next year in the NBA, he will be a year older and smarter and will be able to handle that part of the job.
Certainly, there is a part of Smith’s reticence with the media that is understandable. The situation at N.C. State, with Gottfried being fired but coaching out the final four games of the regular season, is unusual, to say the least, and awkward, at best.
Gottfried losing his job is the last thing Smith had in mind, or anyone else, when the season began. In the summer, Smith talked about winning championships at N.C. State. Gottfried declared him the “best guard in college basketball” in August.
“Sometimes the expectations are so high – and I’m guilty as anybody of putting them on him – sometimes you don’t really appreciate how good somebody is every night,” Gottfried said.
And Smith has been good. He could be N.C State’s first ACC freshman of the year since 1977. He leads the Wolfpack in scoring (18.7 points per game) and the ACC in assists (6.3 per game). Defense is a weakness that will be dissected during his run-up to the NBA draft, but Smith ranks second in the ACC in steals (2.0 per game).
Smith has two triple-doubles in ACC play (Virginia Tech and Syracuse), which had never been done before in league history. Those statistical performances mean Smith has his own piece of ACC lore.
But Smith didn’t come to N.C. State to be good. He wanted to be great and on his own terms. He chose N.C. State, over Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina, not just because he grew up a State fan in a family of State fans, but because he wanted to beat the big boys not join them.
Smith did get a memorable win over Duke. He was great in Durham, not good, but great. His 32-point performance on Jan. 23 led N.C. State to its first win at Cameron Indoor Stadium in 22 years and was the highlight of the season for him and the team.
It was fitting, though, that the lasting image from that game – an incredible leap of longer than 10 feet for a spectacular dunk – was on a basket that didn’t count.
That’s the conundrum with one-and-done players: If they’re only here that long, especially under the pretense of education, does it even count?
Even under the best of circumstances, it’s difficult to build up any kind of meaningful relationships or a significant legacy in a year. At some point, even for Duke fans, the lone seasons of Austin Rivers/Jabari Parker/Justise Winslow/Ingram/Jayson Tatum all run together.
Smith was at N.C. State longer than a normal one-and-done since he enrolled in January 2016 to rehab a major knee injury. Smith missed his senior season at Trinity Christian in Fayetteville after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. In that context, Gottfried said on Saturday, Smith had an “amazing” season.
“You look at what he has done, coming off of that, I think it’s pretty spectacular,” Gottfried said.
And, ever positive until the end, Gottfried thinks there’s still a chance for Smith to add to his legacy.
“We’re not done yet, I know we’re done in this building,” Gottfried said.
Yes, there is a trip to Clemson on Wednesday and then the ACC tournament left. Smith will likely have more plays like he did in the first half against Virginia in his remaining time.
At 10:49 in the first half, he turned the corner on Virginia senior guard London Perrantes and went strong to the basket and scored through contact and a double-team. On the next possession, Smith curled off of a screen from Abdul-Malik Abu and buried a 3 over Perrantes.
But when Virginia made its move at the end of the first half and early in the second half, Smith was powerless to avoid another loss.
Smith’s potential in the NBA, with fewer junk defenses and more isolation plays, is clear. His legacy at N.C. State will be trickier to define.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio