Dennis Smith Jr.
NBA Position: PG
General Information: 19-year-old freshman, played at North Carolina State. From Fayetteville, NC.
Measurables: 6'1", 195 lbs, 6’3" wingspan, 8'1" standing reach.
2016-17 Season Statistics: 18.1 PPG, 6.2 APG, 4.6 RPG, 1.9 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 3.4 TOPG (32 games played, 34.8 minutes a contest) – 45.4% FG, 71.5% FT, 35.9% 3P
A lightning-quick bulldog on offense, Dennis Smith Jr. has top-tier quickness and explosiveness which makes up for his less than ideal size. He’s got plenty of NBA range, twitch-quick reactions, and a desire to excel in transition, but a messy situation with North Carolina State left him with a lot of questions about his shot selection and defensive effort. A better situation will expose a game built for the modern era of three-and-drive lead guards.
Smith offers an unmatched scoring ability at all three levels compared to the rest of the classes’ second tier of guards. He excels at attacking the rim AND at hitting from three (2 makes per 40 minutes); according to Hoop-math, his percentage of shots at the rim and percent of shots that were 3s were both 37%. He’s got strong handles and tons of side-to-side quickness, and found ways to get good looks even against NBA sized defenders and team defenses that were focused on him and him alone. He wasn’t ever a truly consistent shooter, and with little resistance from his coach he could shoot the Wolfpack out of a game (one they were likely losing to begin with). The stroke is there, albeit with efficiency questions; if he rounds the whole package together, he could be a very dangerous individual creator at the next level.
Smith is electric in transition, averaging 1.19 points per possession on 45% shooting; this sets him in the 75th percentile for transition success, higher than Markelle Fultz (71st percentile), De’Aaron Fox (70th), Lonzo Ball (64th), and Jawun Evans (60th). He’s got turbo-busted athleticism, and is one of the most explosive players in the draft; he throws down big man dunks with great relish, and isn’t afraid to attack the basket and play through physical defenders. When his motor heated up and he started running downhill, he was a terror to defend.
A ton is made about his size. He certainly doesn’t offer the height advantages compared to the lanky giants like Ball (6’6), Ntilikina (6’6), Fox (6’4), or Fultz (6’3)… but his 6’1 size with shoes is taller than Chris Paul, Kemba Walker, and Mike Conley. His 6’3 wingspan is a bigger concern, falling behind everyone I just mentioned. He can compensate for this somewhat with his lightning speed and burst, and he doesn’t care about the length of his defender when he’s dunking on them.
It's fair to call Smith a score first player, but he flashed plenty of floor general talent at NC State. His natural playmaking ability has become the most underrated part of his game; in a class that contains Ball and Fox, both of whom are lauded as pass-first PGs, it's a trap to consider Smith’s passing game a weakness by comparison alone. Both Fox and Ball had heaps of first round NBA talent around them—Smith had zero NBA talent to benefit from, and his true potential as a passer wasn't utilized because of it. His 7.1 assists per 40 minutes and 34.7% assist rate are amazing numbers considering his situation.
Smith was given the green light to do with the ball as he so pleased… and while that meant a ton of picks, straight line drives, pounding the ball, and shaking jumpers, it also meant a ton of pick-and-roll action, were Smith shows great instincts and willingness to distribute. Shot selection versing passing instincts is a concern with Smith, but he has flare in the passing game, especially in transition or on the drive, where he’s already going to be pulling in the defense with his own scoring abilities.
The 1.8/1 assist-to-turnover ratio isn’t great, nor is his 17.3% turnover rate (18.2% in the half court, per Synergy), but with his utilization in the Wolfpack offense (27.3% usage rate), it’s understandable. That ratio is also in-line with both Fox and Markelle Fultz. Thanks to zero real offensive gameplan from Mark Gottfried, Smith’s floor general potential was in no way optimized last year. How he’ll look in an NBA offense, with talent and shooters around him, is very much a question mark… and his talents offer plenty of reason for optimism.
There’s no way to put this lightly; Smith rarely showed true defensive effort. There were flashes where he’d get into his opponents, in those increasingly rare close contests, but those moments were always sandwiched by weak closeouts or poor decisions. Given his limiting size, a lack of effort is a massive concern for Smith. At this point, unless his effort flips, he projects as a negative on defense. He did show some development as a ballhawk (2.2 steals per 40 minutes), but he also got caught biting on steals just as often as he’d get a breakaway for it.
Smith was a solid rebounder for his size, snagging 4.6 a contest with a 10.6% defensive rebounding rate. He showed a willingness to play tough against bigger competition, knowing he could break away from the crowd as soon as he’d secured the ball.
The biggest concern for Smith is the lack of consistency in both his play and in his effort levels – Smith tuned-out of too many games for it to be forgettable. You would hope that changes in the NBA when he’ll have talent around him to compete on most nights, but you don’t love seeing that in a top 10 pick. Of course, that’s not gonna stop Fultz from snagging a top draft spot, so it shouldn’t destroy Smith’s stock either.
Given his circumstances, it’s not fair to completely judge Smith by his effort levels or his inconsistencies. Smith was in a dreadful situation for a premier talent, especially since he was at the focal position. He wasn’t a leader of the team and was far too quiet for his role on the team, but no one else on the Wolfpack tried to take the reins, either. NC State was a massive mess this year, and judging Smith is much more difficult for it.
He spent the year recovering from an ALC injury that caused him to miss his senior season of high school. On one hand, this could explain some of his hesitation or lackadaisical effort; totally fair for a young guy in such a poor basketball situation to hold back when needed to protect himself and his NBA interests. On the other hand, any knee concerns are worrying for a kid that young when he depends on his athleticism the way that he does. I won’t pretend to be a doctor, but his future team has quite a bit rolling on their medical staff evaluations.
Fit with Sacramento:
Smith has the full spectrum of talent; athletic freak, solid passer, scoring stud. The NBA could light the fire in him he’s missing at NC State, and the reigns of a Sacramento offense just waiting for that spark could produce exciting results. Additional shooters will open up the floor in ways Smith never saw, and he could be a great offensive fit with the off-the-ball scorers the Kings have collected. Sacramento also has pick-and-roll bigs who could flourish with Smith, as long as they don’t crowd the lane or clog up his attack routes. Dave Joerger will need to put limitations on his shot selection, but I’d be seriously excited about the prospect of Joerger mapping out an offense with Smith at the helm.
Where he fits on a team’s tier list of the point guard prospect comes down to how confident teams are about his passing skills and how much blame they assign on Smith for his lack of effort and the mess of NC State’s offense. Given the talented prospects at his position and the risks surrounding Smith, I understand him being further down on the list than Ball, Fox, and Ntilikina. But I’ve got him 3rd on my big board; I fully buy into his game transitioning at the NBA level, with NBA teammates and much better spacing, than it ever did at the collegiate level. As long as he develops chemistry with his teammates and has some limitations placed on his shot selection, I can’t see why he can’t be a lead guard, for a strong team, in a league that prizes point guards who can score beyond the line and under the rim.