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Dennis Smith Jr. is the NBA's next freaky-athletic point guard

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The NC State freshman has regained his explosion after tearing his ACL last year.

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Dennis Smith Jr. is flying under the radar relative to the rest of college basketball's star-studded freshman class. Despite being a top-five recruit out of high school, Smith doesn’t have the mind-boggling production of Markelle Fultz, and he isn’t on a high-profile blue blood like Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum, or Lonzo Ball.

The preseason hype for Smith took a hit when he tore is ACL in August of 2015. While his peers were gaining attention on the All-Star circuit, Smith quietly enrolled at NC State early and continued his rehab. He might not be fully recovered yet, but he's well on the way to regaining his explosion. That was evident when he dropped 20 points, 10 assists, and 10 rebounds in NC State's blowout win over No. 21 Virginia Tech on Wednesday.

Smith is a name NBA fans need to know as draft season approaches. He's now all the way up to No. 3 overall in the latest mock draft by DraftExpress. Talking about Smith begins and ends with his athleticism. Even for an NBA point guard, he is a 90th-percentile-plus athlete. There simply are not many 6’2 guys in the world who can make plays above the rim like this.

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Smith’s athleticism is equally impressive on the horizontal plane as it is flying through the air. He has elite quickness and speed that makes him a force in transition, and a threat to attack the lane at all times. Watch in the clips below as Smith uses his burst to blow by guys into the lane, and his impeccable body control to finish once he is there:

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Smith is in the stratosphere of John Wall, Russell Westbrook, and Derrick Rose when it comes to athletic gifts. The crucial difference between Smith and the other three is that while Smith is 6’2 with a 6’3 wingspan, Wall, Westbrook, and Rose were all 6’3-plus with longer than 6’7 wingspans. Smith is probably most comparable physically to the similarly short, compact, and explosive Eric Bledsoe, though he lacks Bledsoe’s 6’7.5 length.

As a result of his more diminutive frame, more skills will be required from Smith to be an NBA superstar. The good news for Smith, and the bad news for the rest of the NBA, is that he is showing signs of an advanced point guard skill set in addition to his raw athleticism. His most obvious strength is his handle, as few players can navigate through traffic like so.

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While Smith does have the capability to execute high-level dribble moves, he still needs to work on keeping his dribble alive when he probes the defense. In pick-and-roll and isolation situations he has a bad habit of picking up his dribble if he doesn’t beat his man on his initial attack. Considering he’s almost always been so much more athletic than his opponent, it makes sense that he still needs to develop his patience when attacking.

If he continues to improve his probing skills, he will have more opportunity to create for his teammates, which he is already adept at. He is not an otherworldly passer who throws guys open, but he is appropriately unselfish and does a good job of finding the open man when the defense brings extra attention towards him.

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The tendency to pick his dribble up in combination with occasional looseness with the ball has led to a relatively high turnover rate of 14.4%. As Smith continues to refine his point guard skills, hopefully he will corral his turnovers a bit.

One of Smith’s biggest questions coming into the season was his shooting. So far this season he is shooting a very solid 38.5 percent from three and 79.7 percent from the line, but he is still operating on a pretty small sample of 52 attempts and he is only shooting 27.3 percent on two-point jumpers, according to Hoop-Math.

His form is without major flaws, and based on his free throw shooting I expect him to develop into at least a consistent 35 percent or so from deep on spot-up attempts. Off the dribble, Smith looks comfortable, but the results aren’t there so far. It is apparent in the clips below how guys tend to sag off Smith or duck under screens vs. him, and continuing to improve his shot will be key to his success. The good news is he has real positive indicators in his shooting profile, and looks more on the way to being a good shooter than any of Wall, Westbrook, or Rose did.

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In addition to shooting, the biggest concern for Smith going forward is his defense. His lack of length gives him less room for error than other guys, and so far at N.C. State he has not played with the type of intensity one would hope. Smith’s natural defensive instincts are actually pretty good, as evidenced by his 3.1 percent steal rate and 1.2 percent block rate.

His effort is often lackadaisical though, and he needs to show more consistent engagement in ACC play. In the clip below, Smith was locked in for an end-of-game situation, and he used his physical tools to stay with his man step for step and come up with an impressive block.

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Possibly the best sign for Smith’s future is the way his play has turned around of late. For most of the season N.C. State was playing without all that much talent surrounding Smith, due to Maverick Rowan and Omer Yurtseven missing time. Rowan is a sharpshooting wing who can help space the floor for Smith, and Yurtseven is a talented freshman big who can play with Smith in pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop situations.

Both recently returned to the court, and Smith’s production in the five games where both guys played has seen a massive uptick. The competition has been weak, but comparing Smith’s numbers before and after their return is night and day.


G

PTS/40

AST/40

TO/40

REB/40

STL/40

BLK/40

2P%

3P%

W/ Rowan and Yurtseven

5

27.8

11.4

5.2

4.9

3.3

0.8

58.1

57.1

Without

9

20.3

5.5

2.8

4.1

1.9

0.3

46.2

26.3

(Note: Stats updated as of 1/3)

It is tough to know exactly what has caused Smith’s jump in production, and some of it is certainly fluky-hot shooting, but his across-the-board improvement suggests something else is going on. His ACC production should be watched closely to see if his recent play is more than just a lucky blip.

Smith’s physical tools alone make him a prospect worth monitoring, and his fledgling skills have elevated him into the top-five conversation in a loaded draft. If Smith continues to improve his game as the season goes on, it is going to be hard for too many NBA teams to pass on him.