It began with much hope of a rescue. The journey ended in Brooklyn with NC State headed for a reboot.
Dennis Smith Jr. earned the ACC Freshman of the Year award and had one of his worst college games in a span of about 72 hours. It is a unique contrast that is strangely appropriate.
The Wolfpack fell to Clemson 75-61 in the first round of the ACC Tournament to conclude a miserable season and end the NC State coaching tenure of Mark Gottfried. It also is almost certainly Smith’s final college contest as the NBA awaits.
The freshman finished with only seven points in his presumptive NC State swan song. He seemingly did not let the lack of scoring hurt his overall game as his collected eight rebounds, and dished out three assists. Smith also finished with two steals, giving him 62 on the campaign to set a NC State freshman record for steals in a season.
Even with his college career consisting of only 32 games, Smith still managed to leave his name in the NC State record book.
There were times when he struggled, something that should be expected of any freshman, but for the most part Smith was outstanding for the Wolfpack. He was the leader in scoring, assists and steals and his two triple-doubles are the most in program history. In fact, he is the only player in ACC history to have two triple-doubles against league competition.
Smith did great things despite there being nothing in the form of reliable interior play or a frequent collaborator in the backcourt while also having a ton of speculation swirling around the team.
The Rescue Squad never materialized. Terry Henderson had solid moments but also had games where he was neutralized for one reason or another. Torin Dorn Jr. started hot but by the time ACC play rolled around he was essentially a bit player who could never find a consistent role in Gottfried's rotation.
The frontcourt struggled this season for NC State and that is putting it kindly.
Abdul-Malik Abu, who flirted with leaving school for pro ball after his sophomore season, regressed in 2016-17. Omer Yurtseven, the other one-and-done talent recruited for the Wolfpack, got off to a late start and was repeatedly passive inside. Ted Kapita showed flashes but, like Yurtseven, is young and his best days are ahead. BeeJay Anya was overweight in his final college campaign and his playing time dwindled as the year progressed.
At times it appeared as though Smith was specifically put on this planet to execute the pick-and-roll, a bread and butter play in the NBA, but the NC State frontcourt often failed him by mishandling entry passes or leaving him to navigate the offense one-on-one in some form. The freshman often wore the look of a player suppressing his disgust as plays that seem simple to him would result in a turnover or lost opportunity.
He is much less likely to have that problem next season.
Several years ago, the Durham Bulls brought back Chipper Jones to honor him by retiring his number. Jones spoke of how much the gesture meant and of his joy of playing in Durham, but he also conceded that the honor was more about what he did afterwards and less about his numbers with the Bulls.
Smith’s ultimate legacy at NC State will be similar. Despite his impressive numbers and magical moments, including a disallowed dunk at Duke that will remain in the hearts of Wolfpack Nation forever, some will feel the losing record is a sign of his underachievement or even that he is to blame for the struggles.
The rescue did not happen.
If he performs up to his capabilities in the NBA, he will be celebrated with fervor back home by a NC State fanbase that will follow wherever his professional travels take him. His college experience, which is supposed to prepare students for the real world, could ultimately make him a better player and person.
Time will tell.
Dennis Smith Jr.’s days at NC State are ending but his legacy will still be written.