When Dennis Smith arrived at the final Carolina Challenge back in 2013, he brought with him a blossoming reputation. Already a highly prominent point guard at Fayetteville (N.C.) Trinity Christian, Smith nevertheless performed unevenly that day and generally was regarded as a fringe high-major talent.
But that changed dramatically as the year progressed. Smith toured with the Karolina Diamonds and impressed at events such as the Knoxvegas Heat Invitational. He seized my attention emphatically at the Prep Phenom 150 that fall, illustrating once and for all that the “fringe” stuff was utterly ludicrous. He was a top tier talent all the way.
VCU pursued him avidly prior to his sophomore year, with in-state programs such as NC State, Duke and North Carolina also expressing early interest.
Smith truly broke through during the 2013-14 season. He performed magnificently on the national stage at the HSOT Invitational, where he showcased his immense talents and cemented himself as a big-time prospect.
The offers began to flow and the spigot remained open until he turned if off himself. Smith proved to be one of the best players we observed throughout the 2014 and 2015 travel periods, and in a loaded class he has earned a slot for himself in the top 10.
Smith did tear his ACL in the late summer, which will cost him his senior season, but no long-term damage is expected to result from an injury that most athletes now can navigate without negative repercussion.
His commitment to the Wolfpack this week serves notice that Mark Gottfried’s program can compete against — and prevail — blueblood programs on the recruiting trail.
It’s difficult to choose a starting point, but as a bottom line let’s just establish off the top that Smith is one of the very best scorers in high school basketball. He averaged “only” 16 points per game for Team Loaded NC this year on the Adidas circuit, but Loaded indeed was stacked and also included fellow Wolfpack target Edrice Adebayo, among others.
Smith rings the bell in multiple capacities. He’s a fantastic athlete who might be the best backcourt finisher in the country, owing to his superb body control and touch around the basket. He leaps explosively off two feet — his baseline tomahawk slams remind of a young Steve Francis — and loves to challenge shotblockers above the rim.
He’s also very quick and deceptively fast. Smith doesn’t have the best first step but certainly has a very good one, and despite generally bringing the ball upcourt at a measured pace, he does possess an extra gear in the open floor. His speed, combined with his nimble feet and dexterous scoring acrobatics, make him lethal in an uptempo setting.
And given his penchant angles mid-air, he draws numerous trips to the free throw line and racks up a metric ton of and-one attempts.
He handles and passes well for point guard, but clearly he’s at his best as a scorer. In addition to his penchant for driving, Smith also is a dangerous jump shooter. He possesses easy NBA three-point range and is comfortable pulling up from 15 feet and shooting off the dribble.
He also boasts excellent size as a legitimate 6-2 and has a solid frame, so he can lower his shoulders and play a power driving style if no other option is available.
Additionally, he’s a solid playmaker and understands how to defer and involve others, and he’s adept at jumping passing lanes for steals. Smith must hone his defensive technique as is true for nearly all high school players, but his size, quickness and instincts should enable him to become effective on that end of he court as well.
Smith must become a more consistent shooter. He buried jumper after jumper last season and during the early spring, but his touch abandoned him during the travel season. He shot just 21 percent (9-40) on threes for Loaded, and he also hit just 63 percent from the free throw line.
He has worked hard to improve his mechanics but still has a slight hitch in his shot, but mostly his inconsistency should resolve itself as he matures and puts maximum focus into each attempt.
Concentration and leadership are the other areas he can improve to maximize his talent. Smith sometimes floats in and out of games, and he doesn’t always communicate with his teammates as well as he should. If he’s going to become the star we believe he can be, he must take charge of the team — particularly as a point guard.
Smith projects as the kind of player who will make his presence felt immediately in Raleigh. He’s physically mature enough to handle the strength of college players, and his edge in natural ability should enable him to compensate for a lack of experience.
He’ll have to become engaged and focused at all times, but certainly the Wolfpack coaching staff will assist him with that process. Given time to acclimate, Smith should thrive in his likely role as alpha scorer during he 2016-17 campaign.
And in the likely event he departs for the NBA following his freshman season, his legacy could be enduring. In the same way that another N.C. native point guard, Chris Paul, represents Wake Forest proudly in the league, Smith could go on to do the same for the Pack.
Will he replace David Thompson as the best player in school history? Extremely doubtful. But can he become the best point guard in school history? Perhaps. It’s premature and unfair to affix Smith with those kinds of expectations, and clearly he has areas to develop, but he’s the order of talent who could define individual excellence in the Gottfried era.
Just 14 months from now, fans will get to see for themselves exactly what Smith can do.