One week into the season, the best freshman point guard in the Triangle isn’t who everyone thought it would be.
Nothing against N.C. State’s Dennis Smith Jr., who is an excellent player and is going to be an excellent player, but so far, Duke’s Frank Jackson has been even better.
While Smith has struggled with his shot – he’s 0-for-7 from 3-point range – and hasn’t played with the same freedom and abandon he showed in N.C. State’s two exhibitions, when he had 43 points in 56 minutes, Jackson has stepped seamlessly into Duke’s lineup as the first man off the bench, third on the Blue Devils in scoring at 16.7 points per game.
No one saw that coming.
Expectations for Smith could not have been higher, bolstered by his coach calling him “the best point guard in the country” before he’d played a real game. His exhibition play only heightened the anticipation for his debut. And in N.C. State’s first two games, Smith has been fine. No superstar, but fine. If he didn’t arrive in a cloud of hype, it’s unlikely anyone would really notice.
But Smith isn’t just any other player. He’s a potential top-five pick in the NBA draft, the hottest point-guard prospect in these parts since Kyrie Irving. Much is expected. It might be good for Smith to get away to St. Thomas, back to the kind of gym that resembles those he once owned on the AAU circuit, away from a campus where he’s already a star, Fayetteville’s own J. Cole a courtside fixture to see him play.
There’s still plenty of time for Smith to get going. In fall 2010, by the time Duke hosted Michigan State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, Kyrie Irving had emerged as Kyrie Irving. That was seven games into the season. N.C. won’t hit that mark for another two weeks.
Irving put up big numbers right off the hop – 17 points and nine assists in his debut – but he was surrounded by players who had just won a national championship, not the biggest name on the roster. Smith doesn’t have that luxury. Opponents circle his name on the N.C. State roster. Coaches game-plan to beat him. He’s the focus. That’s a lot for a freshman to absorb, combined with the unavoidable adjustment to the higher level of physicality inherent in the college game.
There are weapons around Smith – Terry Henderson and Torin Dorn are off to good starts – but he hasn’t yet thrived as the center of attention. The Paradise Jam, starting Friday against Montana, may be what he needs to get things jump-started.
Jackson doesn’t have that problem. Not only is he the least famous member of Duke’s six-man rotation, he’s not even the most notable member of Duke’s freshman class. But with Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden all hurt, Jackson’s the only one playing regularly, and he has made the most of his playing time.
He was expected to play an important role for the Blue Devils as the only true point guard in the rotation but he wasn’t the freshman expected to have this kind of impact. Giles was always going to be dealing with his knee issues, but Tatum was expected to be a big-time wing scorer right out of the gate and Bolden should have flourished in the post as Giles worked his way back into shape. Instead, they’re watching Jackson shine.
Jackson has made the big splash of the first week of the season, and not just at Duke. Smith will be fine, but he’s got some work to do to catch up.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock