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Can NC State ask any more of Dennis Smith Jr? Fair or not, they need to

NC State Basketball

Can NC State ask any more of Dennis Smith Jr? Fair or not, they need to

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. is an independently run content site that exclusively covers NC State basketball and football. Started in late 2007 by two former students with the goal of integrating the latest in web content delivery into a Wolfpack sports site, free of charge to the user.



  1. wolfpack74

    January 16, 2017 at 11:34 pm

    He has all he needs to go pro. No defense and a ball hog. A real point guard makes everyone around him better. This is what is lacking from his game. Maybe he is frustrated but it doesn’t help develop a team by scoring and shooting all the time. He has all the ability in the world on offense. He needs to provide the other intangibles that make a team great.

    • Ian

      January 17, 2017 at 1:22 am

      If the season were all but over, I guess I would be right there with you. While I’m still frustrated, I still think it’s early in the season. I’m still giving this kid and this team a chance; but I totally get your frustration, wolfpack74, especially if you grew up in a time of prestige.

      • wolfpack74

        January 17, 2017 at 5:28 pm

        Thank you for seeing my side of this. Doesn’t happen often with the younger generations. Yes I was there for the glory years.

    • yakima2k

      January 17, 2017 at 3:19 am

      “Ballhogs” that shoot “all the time” don’t lead the league in assists.

      • wolfpack74

        January 17, 2017 at 5:32 pm

        Why even worry about this guy. He is a one and done. Therefore, all the work you put in him goes to waste. He is a great player but the wrong player for the future. You probably don’t remember J.J. Hickson. That one and done ruined the team chemistry for years.

        • yakima2k

          January 17, 2017 at 7:42 pm

          I’m sure if it wasn’t for Hickson, Sidney Lowe would have gone on an amazing run. Bad news – it’s 2017 and not 1974 and we have to live in today’s reality. Troll on, though.

          • wolfpack74

            January 18, 2017 at 4:50 am

            What exactly is today’s reality concerning basketball? The goal is still 10 feet from the floor. Dimensions have not changed since then either. However, NCSU can’t survive with one and dones because of all the transfers that occur each year. I would rather have a program like Virginia or Wisconsin. Something that sustains itself over a longer period of time.

          • yakima2k

            January 18, 2017 at 8:09 pm

            Today’s reality is that top players come and go. If Brogdon or Kaminsky were NBA ready after their sophomore years they would have been gone from their programs too. You’re in rare company if you wish we were like UVA or UW-Madison – we tried plodding and methodical with Sendek and it didn’t go over too well with the fan base.

          • wolfpack74

            January 19, 2017 at 2:56 am

            So you would rather go 16-17 every other year and occasionally 21-11 and make the tournament. I see this team finishing more like 16-17 with the rest of the league improving greater than this team each year. Just wasting time with one and dones. Tell me how a West Virginia, Butler, Gonzaga or some other mid major does it year end and year out? Gotta be coaching?

          • yakima2k

            January 19, 2017 at 2:41 pm

            We’ve has less that 22 wins only once since Gottfried’s arrival and had two Sweet Sixteen runs and four tournament appearances in the last 5 years. It’s hard to have a reasonable discussion if you’re going to make up your own set of facts that isn’t tied to reality.

          • wolfpack74

            January 19, 2017 at 11:59 pm

            46-48 in ACC not counting the rest of this year. Stellar job.

  2. Ian

    January 16, 2017 at 8:15 pm

    I think as well, we lack confidence but believe it’s fair to say that confidence will come with winning and winning will come with those simple fixes.

  3. Ian

    January 16, 2017 at 8:14 pm

    I do think the fix is simple. We definitely need leadership and preferably from one guy. I would say and it’s been stated before that defensively we need vast improvement. We have one of the most talented teams we’ve had in long, long, time. The fire power is there. We are inches away from a solid season and yet we will miss the mark these simple fixes aren’t made.

    • Ian

      January 16, 2017 at 8:16 pm

      I think as well, we lack confidence but believe it’s fair to say that confidence will come with winning and winning will come with those simple fixes.

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