Dennis Smith Jr.’s unconventional path to stardom at N.C. State

Dennis Smith Jr., courtesy N.C. State Athletics
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The idea took Mark Gottfried completely by surprise.

The N.C. State head coach was preparing for the 2015-16 season when he received a call from five-star Wolfpack signee Dennis Smith.

But Gottfried’s future point guard — at the time a high school senior — wasn’t making an ordinary phone call to talk about next season. Smith was pushing his future head coach to let him go to N.C. State early by enrolling during the second semester at the start of 2016.

“I was in the car with my pops, we was heading to the gym, and then I just mentioned it to him, like, just threw it out there, thinking out loud,” Smith said of his idea to enroll early. “And he was like, ‘Well, that sounds like a good idea.’ And we got on it that day. Cleared up everything with my teachers. I had an interest to do it then so we got it done.”

Rehabbing a torn ACL suffered at adidas Nations in August 2015, Smith’s high school senior season was lost. Enrolling a semester early would help him recover with the N.C. State training staff while getting acclimated to the team and campus life.

“It’s amazing. I think it’s one of the best decisions I made in my life,” Smith said. “Rehab was great, I could do it every day. And then, from a school standpoint, as far as work, I got on top of my work. I got a good amount of hours to make it a little bit lighter on myself this semester so it all worked it.”

Recovered and fully healthy before the 2016-17 season, Smith is primed and ready for a potentially big season. And part of why Smith is so confident was his unique decision to head to N.C. State a semester early.

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“Handling business” is an expression that Smith likes to use with regards to how he lives his life.

When he enrolled at N.C. State last winter, Smith couldn’t handle any business on the court while he was still recovering, but Gottfried was pleased to see how competitive and engaged Smith was away from basketball. Gottfried knew Smith pretty well from recruiting him since the 9th grade. After spending significant time with Smith for the first time during that semester, Gottfried knew he had a future team leader.

“If he hasn’t got a grade on a test that he’s satisfied with, it bothers him. He wants to conquer it. He’s competitive in the classroom, he’s competitive on the court,” Gottfried said. “We joke around about great all-time teams and players and he’s competitive with that. He’s just a very competitive guy with everything.”

Hyper-competitive guys have a habit of rubbing some the wrong way with their mentality and approach. This is especially apparent when you hear stories of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant intimidating inferior players. Gottfried doesn’t see any of that negative attitude from Smith with his teammates. Even though he was a highly-touted five-star prospect who Gottfried once visited by helicopter, none of that seemed to go to Smith’s head when he arrived on campus.

“Dennis is one of those guys, not only is he a great talent, but he’s very likable. He’s got the support of his teammates so I think that’s been a big reason why our guys have such an optimistic attitude every day,” Gottfried said.

“He’s a very thoughtful person. He’s socially thoughtful on issues that are going on. He’s very in-tune with his teammates and what they’re feeling and what they’re thinking. He’s very interested in all of those things. I talk to him and he’s one of those young kids that seems to see the bigger picture a lot different than most young kids.”

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DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 06: Head coach Mark Gottfried of the North Carolina State Wolfpack reacts during their game against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Head coach Mark Gottfried (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

When it came to practices and games, Smith spent every moment soaking things up from the sidelines. N.C. State had a disappointing season in 2015-16 but Smith had future teammates to learn and an offense to master. Smith noticed where his shooters liked to receive the ball on passes. As Cat Barber put up monster numbers in an All-ACC season — and eventually left for the pros — Smith took mental notes about how hard Barber played during every game, even though the season didn’t produce anything promising.

“It was great for me, especially now because it’s helped me build relationships with the guys. I saw a lot of things that I wouldn’t be able to see if I was a recruit. I think it was essential to me being the leader of this team,” Smith said.

“I watched how people moved and watched how people reacted to certain situations. And I paid attention to it because I knew I would have to take over eventually. I took everything that I’ve learned and brought it in. Knowing the offense, what different guys like, things like that.”

Things finally started looking good for Smith’s health towards the spring. Social media videos of Smith dunks started emerging around April and he was publicly given a clean bill of health late in the summer.

There were still doubts, however, as to how Smith might look at game speed against legitimate competition. Since he hadn’t played a competitive basketball game since the summer after his junior year, the basketball world anxiously watched as Smith took the floor at adidas Nations in Los Angeles this past August.

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The event was significant for Smith not only because he would be playing talented college players in front of NBA personnel, but adidas Nations was also the event where Smith tore his ACL the year before.

Drawing rave reviews from everyone in attendance, Smith dominated the other college counselors and saw his name vault back into the discussion for the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Suddenly, the buzz for Dennis Smith was back in full force.

“I shocked everybody. I was playing the most minutes out there. I played more minutes than anybody else out there. I shocked a lot of people. I think most people who pay attention realized my health wasn’t an issue anymore, Smith said.

“I think adidas Nations was kind of a mental thing for him because that’s where he hurt his knee,” Gottfried said. “It was like, okay, I’m back, and I’m dominating again. So I think that gave him more confidence.”

Fully healthy and brimming with confidence heading into the new school year, expectations for Smith — and subsequently N.C. State — have skyrocketed. Gottfried was able to add more talent around Smith this spring with another five-star caliber talent in Turkish center Omer Yertseven. Additional reinforcements like big man Ted Kapita and guard Markell Johnson were also added as the Wolfpack now looked like a dangerous team in a deep ACC.

Smith didn’t play at all his senior year of high school but now he’s in the discussion for the No. 1 pick. It’s a unique situation that not many have ever faced entering a freshman season of college but that kind of pressure doesn’t seem to bother Smith.

“I think more than anything, he loves the challenge of the expectations. He likes it. I talk to him, and he knows how I see it,” Gottfried said. “I feel like he’s the best guard in the country. I’ve told him that. Even before media day, I mentioned to him that I’d say that — I don’t want to add additional pressure on him. His response was, ‘Yes, absolutely, Coach. Go ahead. I want you to.'”

The star power of Dennis Smith will be fascinating to follow this season. Some N.C. State backers believe he’s the most talented player the program has seen since David Thompson. At the team’s scrimmage in late October, Smith had the fans buzzing with some electric dunks and high-speed plays in transition.

The ACC is going to be absurdly deep this season — with potentially double-digit NCAA tournament bids — but Smith is confident that he can lead the Wolfpack to a great season.

“I see ourselves being a top team in the ACC, and if everything goes as planned, I think we can be one of the top teams in the country and make a run in the tournament,” Smith said.

“I feel great. I had a long process of rehab, I feel great going into the season and I’m confident about my body.”

Smith’s N.C. State career will be an unconventional one. If all goes to plan, he’ll leave Raleigh as college basketball’s first 1.5-and-done star.

But his situation was unique, and while torn ACLs are no longer career-derailing injuries, in the last week both Jamaal Charles and Ray Smith have proven that recovery is not guaranteed.

To date, Smith isn’t in that same boat, knock-on-wood, and it is a bit of outside the box thinking that he has to thank for it.

Dennis Smith Jr., courtesy N.C. State Athletics
Dennis Smith Jr., courtesy N.C. State Athletics