(First posted at RealGM)
Dennis Smith, Jr. started the season ranked second on Draft Express’s top 100 but his one year in college dissuaded people from the notion he belonged in the same tier as Markelle Fultz at the top of this draft.
On the surface, his individual performance withstood the higher level of competition, as he posted a decent-looking statistical profile with a 21.8 PER, averages of 20.8 points and 7.1 assists per 40 minutes, and a .520 effective field goal percentage on 27.2% usage.
But North Carolina State had a disastrous campaign – losing 17 of its 32 games and 14 out of 18 in the ACC, missing the NCAA Tournament. Smith got caught in the tire fire, lost some status and is now perceived as a second tier potential star – currently ranked seventh in Draft Express’s top 100.
Smith didn’t elevate his team’s level of play and has a lot to improve in terms of running a team, as he was rarely seen picking up the pace of the game or organizing his teammates in the half-court.
But he wasn’t surrounded by a lot of talent or put in a particularly dynamic structure that gave him a head start on his attempts to generate offense. Omer Yurtseven, who didn’t play very well in his first year in the United States, was his only NBA-caliber teammate and it was rare for him to give up the ball early in a possession then get it back later with the defense already bent. North Carolina State also didn’t shoot well enough from long range to open up driving lanes for him, as it ranked 212th in the country in three pointers made.
On the other end, things were a disaster and Smith shares a large part of the blame. As was the case in high school, he was constantly disengaged on defense and led a team in minutes that ranked 229th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency – according to kenpom.com.
Smith’s top skill at this point of his development is his ability to get consistent dribble penetration, even without ideal conditions surrounding him, as was the case at North Carolina State. He has proven himself a fairly good shot creator for himself and others against a set defense.
Smith has an explosive first step to just blow by his man in isolation or turn the corner out of the pick and roll but also showcases a diverse arsenal of dribble moves to get wherever he wants on the court with craftiness – whether it’s changing directions in a pinch, stop-and-start hesitations, spin moves or playing with pace off the ball screen against hard shows, hedge-and-recovers, half-traps to wait for driving lanes to clear.
37.1% of his live ball shots were at the rim, where 78 of his 98 makes were unassisted, which also led to an average of 7.8 foul shots per 40 minutes.
He can go up strong off one foot or two feet in traffic, finish through contact, lay it up with either hand despite awkward balance, hang in the air and adjust his body for some up-and-under finishes around rim protectors – converting his 151 shots at the rim at a 64.9% clip.
Smith is not an extraordinary passer like Lonzo Ball, one of those geniuses who anticipate passing lanes a split-second before they come open, but he’s proven himself able to pass on the move and create for others consistently – assisting on 34.2% of North Carolina’s scores in his 1,114 minutes on the court.
His court vision is decent and he’s able to find weak-side shooters rotating to open spots, hitting them with passes across his body to the opposite end of the court. He’s also reasonably unselfish, impressing with some wraparound passes to big men around the basket area in traffic. That comes with a cost, though, as Smith averaged 3.9 turnovers per 40 minutes and posted a pedestrian 1.82 assist-to-turnover ratio. He has a lot of room to improve with the accuracy in his passes.
Despite his rim attacking prowess and good enough passing ability to keep the defense honest, Smith is yet to become a good pick-and-roll scorer, averaging just 0.76 points per possession off the ball screen – according to research by Draft Express’ Mike Schmitz. That’s the case because he’s an iffy pull-up shooter at this point of his development, which permits the defense to play shell defense against him and duck under picks consistently.
Smith is a capable shot maker dribbling into his shot off the pick-and-roll uncontested, even from college three-point range, and flashed a step-back jumper from time-to-time but for the most part he is too mechanical and struggles on stop-and-pop instances, missing 69.5% of his 105 two-point jumpers in college.
He’s a lot more capable off the catch, though. Smith doesn’t compare to Fultz in terms of being able to come off screens and make shots on the move but he’s proven himself a capable open shot shooter as of now, despite his low release and iffy shot selection, nailing 35.8% of his 151 three-point shots in college. Most importantly, perhaps, his 71.5% foul shooting sustains the belief he’ll carry that ability to make open shots over the long run.
Smith has the athletic ability to play at least average defense at the point of attack and flashed some of that on select games. In these instances when he was engaged, Smith got in a stance, used his combination of compact frame and foot speed to navigate over screens, ran shooters off the three-point line and pressured opposing ball handlers 35 feet away from the basket.
He even flashed the ability to be an impact player on that end – pesky enough to deflect passes and collect some steals, despite his lack of elite reach, and pick up bigger players on switches from time-to-time, proving himself strong enough to box out some softer types, as he averaged 2.2 steals per 40 minutes and collected 11.5% of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor.
But more often than not Smith didn’t look as if he was interested with what was up on that end of the floor. North Carolina State often hid him off the ball and he didn’t offer much of anything as a help defender, rarely in a stance to take advantages of opportunities to break on the ball or crowd the area near the basket. Someone with his hops should probably contribute with more than just 14 blocks in 32 appearances.
That said, the biggest issue was when the opponent managed to attack him directly. Smith often died on screens and sometimes didn’t even put in the effort to use his lateral quickness and keep his man in front.
 According to our stats’ database
 According to hoop-math
 According to sports-reference
 Six-foot-three wingspan, according to Draft Express
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