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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Tuesday / June 27.
  • Dennis Smith Jr. Still Not 100 Percent Despite Being Projected as Top-3 Pick

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    By MIKE McCURRY

    After Dennis Smith Jr. dropped a career-high 32 points on Monday to propel North Carolina State to an upset victory at No. 17 Duke, the freshman is up to 19.5 points, 6.5 assists, and 4.4 rebounds per game.

    Using the Player Season Finder tool on Play Index, only one other first-year in (at least) the last 24 seasons has posted a 19/6/4 stat line—fellow rookie Markelle Fultz of Washington.

    Now comes the scary part: Smith, who missed his senior year of high school after tearing the ACL in his right knee in the summer of 2015, may not even be back to full strength.

    During ESPN’s “94 Feet with Jay Bilas” segment that aired during Monday’s telecast, Bilas asked Smith about the injury.

    “And you feel 100 percent now?” Bilas asked.

    “Not 100 percent, but I started feeling like I could go out and compete,” Smith replied.

    The fact that the ACC’s leader in assists and steals (2.2 per game) believes there’s even more in the tank is terrifying for opposing coaches, whose only solace is knowing that Smith is likely to spend just one year on campus.

    DraftExpress.com projects Smith as the third overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, right behind fellow freshman point guards Fultz (No. 1) and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball.

    “Terrific athlete who is exceptional in the open floor when he is playing downhill,” one NBA scout told ZAGSBLOG. “He can become a very good defender with his strength and quickness. He is becoming a better playmaker. His shooting is still inconsistent from game-to-game especially from the college 3-point line. I do not think he is in the same conversation with Ball and Fultz as a point guard.”

    Smith, who most commonly draws comparisons to Steve Francis, is looking to do what 2016 No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons didn’t do, and what Fultz probably won’t do: put his team on his back en route to the NCAA Tournament.

    The Wolfpack were headed for their fifth loss in a six-game span—not to mention an 18th consecutive loss at Cameron Indoor—before Smith took control.

    The 6-foot-3 freshman ended the first half on a personal 6-0 run, trimming Duke’s halftime lead to 6 via a ridiculous three-point play and three-pointer (he made 4 of 6 threes on the night).

    Later, with Duke possessing a 70-63 lead, Smith elevated to another level. NC State exploded for 21 points over the final 4 minutes, 35 seconds of action, with the Fayetteville (NC) native scoring or assisting on 18 of those—all but three Maverick Rowan free throws.

    Smith went for 11 points in that duration to go along with 3 assists—on a Rowan trailing three-pointer plus two dunks by Abdul-Malik Abu—including one on a wraparound, one-handed 20-foot missile that whizzed right by Jayson Tatum.

    “Dennis was tremendous all game long,” said Duke coach Jeff Capel afterward. “He’s a very talented kid, and played lights-out basketball tonight. Did it in every phase—scored—but in the second half he really got his guys involved.”

    In the final moments, with NC State clinging to a 2-point lead, Smith collected the game-winning steal before cocking back and throwing down a monstrous slam as the buzzer sounded for a loud exclamation point.

    Maybe for the Cameron Crazies, the NBA personnel in the building, or just to prove that he’s inching closer toward that 100 percent threshold.

    “All the talent in the world,” another NBA scout told ZAGSBLOG. “Will he listen? Will he focus? If he will move him up in the top-five.”

    Photo: Getty Images

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