Back before he started kicking it with J. Cole, caught Stephen Curry’s attention with a posterizing dunk and climbed all the way to No. 4 in ESPN's class of 2016 rankings, Dennis Smith Jr. was a little-known freshman who occasionally came off the bench for his high school team.
He captured the eye of NC State in his sophomore season when he scored a school-record 42 points in a game. The Wolfpack gave Smith his first scholarship offer almost as soon as the final buzzer sounded.
Now, the Trinity Christian School and Andrew Wiggins Team Loaded point guard has offers ranging from Duke and UNC to Kansas. He told ESPN that his list heading into July is Kansas, NC State, Wake Forest, Duke, UNC and Louisville.
Dennis Smith Jr. steps back. Drains a three. Fakes a defender. Pulls up for a mid-range shot. Nails it. Steph Curry is distracted. The 6’1, 173-pound guard drives to the basket and puts up a mammoth dunk on his opponent. Seth Curry, Steph's younger brother, goes ballistic. Steph runs to the cameraman and asks him to replay it.
There was reason for this. Smith is explosive and entertaining. But the hype is also real. He has represented the United States at the Adidas EuroCamp in Italy, played in the Elite 24, starred at the Adidas All-American camp -- to name a few -- and his success has been warranted.
"Dennis Smith is a highly talented and athletic point guard," Jerry Meyer of 247Sports told SB Nation. "He is the most explosive point guard in the 2016 class and has tremendous upside."
Coming from a family with athletic roots where his older sister played on Fayetteville State's DII basketball team and his father played football, Smith is a speedy and compact point guard.
"Ball-handling, ball-handling, ball-handling," Dennis Smith Sr. told the Fayetteville Observer. "That's the separator."
His father constantly emphasized the importance of sound ball-handling skills. He made his son dribble on a dirt court, practice these skills at as early as 6 years old and play in rec league after rec league.
Honing in on these skills have helped a one-time bench player become one of the top players in the 2016 class, and possibly in high school.
The Crystal Ball from 247Sports currently gives NC State an 89 percent chance at landing Smith, and Florida and Kentucky each a 5 percent shot. He recently visited UNC and NC State, and he told Scout’s Evan Daniels that he has a strong relationship with Duke, UNC and NC State.
"A lot of people ask what I’ll look at with my decision and there are a lot of different schools that are recruiting me that have point guards or may be recruiting point guards with me and I’m a competitor so my mindset is to always want to play against the best," Smith said in his blog on USA Today. "I think I could play with another point guard too; it would have to be two dynamic guards though."
"I’m still talking to Harry (Giles) all the time and we’re still talking about teaming up in college; I haven’t talked to Jay (Tatum) as much, but I’m gonna hit him up soon," he went on to say later in his blog.
Five-star prospect Giles and Smith have a few overlapping schools, including Duke and UNC, both of which Giles is favorable toward. Giles has spoken in the past about a package deal with five-star recruit Jayson Tatum, who recently committed to Duke, but this does not negate the possibility of a deal regarding Smith with Giles, or even with all three of them.
"We definitely gotta make the right decision for both of us. If it's the same school, it's a blessing," Giles said to Kyle Tucker of The Courier-Journal at Peach Jam regarding a package deal with Tatum. "We'll see. I think it's a high chance."
Smith raps on the side, along with acting, where he will play a role in the second season of the Fox show Empire, according to his blog. He's an enormous fan of rapper J. Cole, who is also from Fayetteville, N.C., and they met at a roller rink earlier this year. Smith listened to Cole's new tracks and played in a pickup game. The events that transpired received a large amount of attention and were picked up by SLAM Magazine, among other publications.
"It went well. He has a listening party in Fayetteville, which was great for the community. People came over and then we just chilled at his house to listen to his album before it released … or before it leaked out, unfortunately. He wasn’t at that, so they had me go meet up with him at the skating rink and that was the first time that either one of us had seen each other in person," Smith told SLAM Magazine.
When asked by SLAM if he feels the same about the struggles of getting out of his hometown like J. Cole, Smith said, "It transcends a lot. Being from Fayetteville, some of the stuff that he had to go through, I’ve had to go through. We’re pretty much cut from the same cloth. You’re right though, he pretty much talks about the grind in his early music. ‘The Come Up’ is the first mixtape that I’m hip to of his and every time that I go out and run early in the morning or get up shots, I let ‘The Come Up’ play all the way through."
Part of J. Cole’s words of wisdom to Smith was to focus on school, and to put his all in the academic arena. Smith has a 3.9 GPA, and he is hoping to get a 4.0 GPA by the time he finishes high school, something he's written about often in his blog. He has been studious throughout his career in school, but he has definitely taken J. Cole's advice.
While academics are very important to Smith and he is pursuing a top-notch GPA, he told USA Today Sports that "the ultimate compliment" is when he draws a comparison to John Wall, who watched him play recently in Atlanta.
Meyer, though, compared Smith to Steve Francis -- the versatile, quick shooter who was an NBA star in the late '90s and early '00s for the Houston Rockets -- and went on to say, "Smith has all the physical tools to be an elite NBA point guard."
Smith mentioned in the interview with Daniels at the SC30 Select Camp that he plans on visiting Louisville, specifically, and a few other schools in the future.
"Everybody always asks me when I think I’ll be ready to make a decision on college; what I’m thinking right now is that I’ll probably make my decision before the start of my senior year," he said in his blog in September.
All of Smith's hard work has put him in the position to be the best point guard in the country, even among a deep and talented class that also includes De'Aaron Fox, UCLA commit Lonzo Ball and Georgia native Kobi Simmons. It wasn't an easy process, but eventually Smith ended up exactly where he always thought he would be.