No one should be pointing the finger at a freshman who is averaging 20 points and 6 assists per game. It’s not Dennis Smith Jr’s fault that NC State is struggling to an early 1-4 ACC record. In fact, Smith has been the only one consistently filling up the stat sheet for the Wolfpack. He’s the one taking and making most of the shots.
That being said, NC State is in trouble. They are loaded with depth and talent, yet have been outmanned and beat down by the likes of UNC, Miami, Georgia Tech and Boston College. In those games, Dennis Smith has averaged 21 points, 6 assists and 6 boards per game. It doesn’t make sense to ask more of Smith. Or does it?
There has been a lot of criticism of Mark Gottfried as of late and it’s not to say he doesn’t deserve it. He is the guy getting paid the big bucks to win basketball games, and lately, he hasn’t been doing that. But there is a piece to the puzzle that hasn’t been discussed. That piece is on-court leadership. That notion is baked into the ‘this is a young team’ argument and it shouldn’t be ignored.
Take a look at every good team out there. Every single one of them has an on-court leader. A guy who is an extension of the coach on the court. A guy who’s demeanor is unflappable, who sets the tone on both ends of the floor, and who leads both vocally and by example. Right now, this guy does not exist for NC State. But if the Wolfpack is going to turn this season around, they are going to need to find this guy, and fast. So who is it?
While you could name a number of guys you’d hope would step up and take on this role, the most likely candidate is certainly Smith. He is the point guard. He is the top 5 NBA draft prospect. He is the one who teams are gunning for. The one the media is enamored with and the guy who seems to be looked up to by his teammates. But as much as Dennis Smith Jr has done for this basketball team, if they want to become great, Smith needs to be even more. He needs to become a true leader.
Again, we’ve said this over and over. This isn’t really fair. You shouldn’t have to ask a freshman to come in, lead your team in scoring, lead your team in assists, be the face of the program and grow up faster than everyone else to take on roles that a veteran normally would take. Unfortunately for Smith, while it may not be what he knowingly signed up for, it’s the cards that were dealt.
Now Smith needs to make a decision. He can keep doing what he’s doing, filling up the stat sheets and glide to a top 5 pick in the pros. Or he could take on a new challenge. This challenge wouldn’t pay off in more bonus money. It wouldn’t pay off with more media hype or more mixtape views. Heck, it might not even mean any higher of a draft position. Taking on this challenge would be more personal for Smith. He’s already proven that he’s an elite, NBA-ready athlete. He’s proven that he can electrify a college arena and rack up stats against ACC competition. What he hasn’t proven is that he can be a leader who can will his team to win in any situation. That he can tweak his game to fit the needs of his team at a given moment. The question is if he’s up to taking on that challenge.
It’s easy for a guy of his ability to write off the losses and blame his teammates. Heck, he’s dropping 20ppg. What are they doing? It’s not Smith who is letting the team down, but it could be him who helps them rise up.
This is a tough article to write because you don’t want to question a guy who’s giving the team so much. You could focus on a number of areas where NC State is showing weakness and break them down and cast blame, but we’re writing it because we believe in Dennis Smith Jr. Not his God-given ability (we believe in that too), but his mental capacity, his basketball IQ, his ability to beat odds, to work through adversity and his ability to become a leader.
This team is in need of a guy who is cognitive of game flow. What is a good shot in this situation? What is a bad shot? Who is hot? What defense are they running, how do we attack that defense? Where is the mismatch? What’s the score? Time on the clock?
They need someone who can feel the momentum of the basketball game and then communicate that to his team. Not just vocally, but physically. If Smith is going to take this team over, it’s not going to be by putting up more points. It’s going to be by him understanding that his team is watching him. They are watching his body language. They are watching whether or not he has the confidence in them to make a play. They are watching how he defends.
Watch this basketball team and you’ll see that they are subconsciously queuing off of Smith, and right now they see a guy who is trying to do it all. All Smith is doing is what he knows how to do. Score the ball because other guys aren’t. Try to put up as many stats as he can because if he doesn’t, who will? But this can be read as a lack of confidence in his teammates. This can lead to hesitancy, or quick shots because they haven’t touched it in a while and they don’t know when the next time they will. This is a lot like the situation NC State faced with Cat Barber. He was such a good scorer that he held the ball and went one on one until he found his shot. While it worked out a lot of the time, it turned his teammates into observers. No longer were guys cutting hard or working to get open, because why waste the energy. Cat was just going to do it himself.
There is the gift and the curse of the new-age point guard. You get a guy who always has the ball in his hands and has tons of opportunity to score, but it also isolates the rest of the team. Again, this is not saying that Smith is hogging the basketball. He’s not. He’s trying to help his team win. But maybe helping them win means more ball movement, less dribbling, less isolation and more teamwork.
“We have to want to do it collectively, not just one or two guys. It has to be a team thing.”
– Terry Henderson after the GT loss
This is where Smith needs to feel it out. Obviously, the way this team is playing is not working. If he wants to take on the challenge of turning this thing around he’s going to need to start focusing on the intangibles. Being vocal with his teammates and holding them accountable. Tell them when they take a bad shot. Get in their face when they take a play off on defense. But none of that matters or will hold any weight if Smith is taking quick shots or letting his man go by him on defense.
Being a leader is hard. It means making very few mental mistakes and owning them when you do make them. Being a leader means not looking at the stat sheet and thinking “Well, I did my job. Where was my help?” It means you are accountable when your team gives up a bucket and you are accountable when your bigs aren’t fighting on the boards. When you lose, you take it personally. Could I have defended better? Could I have gotten in someone’s face about their effort? Could I have worked the offense and set the tone any better?
This is going to start with defense and body language for Smith. Literally, the only two areas where we feel he has underperformed. He’s going to need to prove that when he guards somebody, that person struggles to score. He needs to show his team that when the refs miss a foul call, or he misses a shot, that it doesn’t change his focus. It doesn’t affect his confidence.
It’s then going to need to move into floor leadership. Being more vocal, holding guys more accountable in the huddle. Smith can do whatever he wants to do on the floor, so what if he decided to score 14ppg but see if he could dish out 10 assists each night? What would happen? We’re not saying it would guarantee an NC State win, but we can tell you that it would energize his teammates. It would bring the team together and it would increase their confidence. All of these things would make NC State that much more dangerous on that end of the floor.
Dennis Smith Jr doesn’t have to do anything of these things for him to become a lottery pick. He doesn’t have worry himself with shouldering all this burden for one year in college if he doesn’t feel like it. His stat line and resume will be there at the season’s end and some NBA team will call his name and sign his check. But deep down I don’t think any of us believe that is who Dennis Smith Jr is. He has prepared for greatness at every level of his basketball career, and it’s tough to believe that he’ll be satisfied by filling up the stat sheet if it doesn’t mean filling up the win column.
I guess we’ll find out in the coming weeks.