(First posted at RealGM.)
Dennis Smith, Jr. has probably been the least touted of the high profile freshman over the first month and a half of the season.
That’s the case because North Carolina State is not one of the premiere teams in college basketball this season. The Wolfpack improved to 9-2 with a win over Farfield on Sunday but entered that game ranked 63rd by kenpom.com in adjusted efficiency margin due to a fairly weak schedule and losses in the two games they played against reasonably tough opponents in Creighton and Illinois.
Smith doesn’t have great talent surrounding him. Omer Yurtseven (who made his debut last Thursday) is the only other player on the team projected as NBA-caliber and it can be argued Smith doesn’t have a high enough considering the other options around him, though the team doesn’t spread the floor properly around his drives either, making just 6.1 three-point shots per game prior to Sunday’s game.
From his end, Smith has also not done well enough to generate much attention.
It’s not his fault NC State doesn’t have many shot makers to open up the lane for him more or that Mark Gottfried hasn’t installed a dynamic offense for him to impress in it.
But Smith hasn’t shown an inclination to speed up the pace of the game naturally or the ability to make shots consistently against a set defense in order to rise above the challenge of being part of a subpar half-court offense. And for the most part, these are the things that separate him from Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz.
After walking the ball up the floor and a few useless passes that don’t substantially move the defense out of position, most of NC State’s possessions end up with Smith creating out of middle high pick-and-roll.
He’s mostly known for his athletic ability but has consistently shown the ability of working his way around a ball-screen with a lot of craftiness. Smith has a tight handle and can split doubles at the point of attack. He also plays with very good pace and has a hesitation move to wait for a driving lane to clear and turn the corner to the get to the basket when he’s hedged or shown hard against, with 40% of his shots coming at the rim, according to hoop-math.
At the goal, Smith has not flashed the explosiveness that made him famous in high school at the collegiate level yet and doesn’t have a lot of length (six-foot-three wingspan, according to Draft Express) for reverse or stretched-out finishes but can absorb contact and adjust his body in the air to score against length – converting at the basket a 61.8% clip.
Smith has also shown an inclination for drawing contact and getting to the foul line on his drives, earning on average almost nine free throws per 40 minutes – according to basketball-reference.
And that ability to shoot foul shots in volume is vital for Smith because it’s what’s holding his true shooting percentage from sinking well below respectability. He’s capable of making uncontested pull ups from the elbow area and nothing in his release suggests it’s a long road for him to become a real threat from mid-range but in reality Smith entered Sunday’s game having missed 30 of his 42 two-point jumpers.
SHOT CREATION FOR OTHERS
He has proven himself able and willing to create for others consistently. His vision on the move is nothing special. Smith is not one of those geniuses who anticipate passing lanes a second before they come open. But he can make a pocket pass, make passes across his body to the opposite end and identify shooters moving to an open spot on the wing.
According to our stats database, he has assisted on 28% of North Carolina State’s scores when he’s been on the floor and that rate could probably be higher if he had an adequate roll man to work with or had the chance to play with Yurtseven (a pick-and-pop threat) more often by now.
Perhaps just as appealing is the fact Smith has been tasked with heavy shot creation responsibility but hasn’t turned the ball over beyond what can be expected for someone with his usage. He can get caught leaving his feet without a plan or getting stripped in traffic from time to time but Smith is assuredly not turnover prone, coughing it up on just 13.4% of North Caroline State’s possessions when he’s been on the floor.
Much like his shooting off the dribble, Smith’s release on catch-and-shoot opportunities looks quite workable and even smooth at times. Good enough that it could raise the possibility of him working off the ball some, especially considering Smith should be able to thrive as a backdoor cutter, as he’s able to play above the rim as a target for lobs.
But in reality he’s hit just 27.5% of his 40 three-point attempts. Part of the problem is shot selection when Smith creates his own three-point shots but generally speaking he’s just not a credible outside threat at this point of his development and must monopolize possession of the ball in order not to compromise spacing.
Smith has been the exact same defender he was in high school, which is to say not very engaged.
When he puts in the effort, Smith can bend his knees to get in a stance and move quite well laterally to stay in front in isolation defense. He also offers some switch-ability, proving himself able to boxout bigger players.
But generally Smith gets stuck on ball screens all the time and doesn’t show a lot of urgency running back to his man, compromising the entire defense. North Carolina State consistently hid him off the ball and had Torin Dorn and Markell Johnson guard the opponent’s primary ball handler.
Then as a weak-side defender, while Smith has made some rotations and picked up some steals, for the most part he has closed out to spot up shooters halfheartedly and gotten beaten off the bounce easily often, failed to chase shooters around side screens, gotten caught ball watching from time to time and failed to make athletic plays at the basket. His contributions through charges, blocks and defensive rebounds have been marginal at best.
 At a below average .537 prior to Sunday’s game
 Averaging two steals per 40 minutes so far this season.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at RealGM, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara