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The Curious Case of Dennis Smith Jr.

Dennis Smith Jr. hasn’t gotten off to a great start at NC State.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina State at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

In a class filled to the brim with overhyped point guards, Dennis Smith might be the most hyped of all. He spent a large chunk of the last three years as the top ranked point guard in the class and his outlier, explosive athleticism saw him vault up DraftExpress’s mock draft to occupy the #2 slot at the start of the season.

As a downhill point guard who plays above the rim and converts his free throws, Smith has the potential to be a wrecking ball in the NBA’s spread pick-and-roll world. While there were doubts about his ability to return from a torn ACL that upended his senior season, he quickly put them to bed with a dominating summer performance in Adidas Nations. As predicted, Smith was on the surefire path to becoming the superstar his athleticism and talent indicated he was.

There’s only one problem: In his first 7 games with NC State, he has been very #bad.

While Smith has, thus far, scored at a slightly above average rate among point guard prospects (his 29.5 point per 100 possessions places him around the 60th percentile), he has done so very inefficiently, and has set up his teammates at a particularly low rate as well. His 26.4% assist rate places him around the 30th percentile of point guard prospects.

His defense is worse. He sports a hugely negative DBPM at -2.6—a rarity for legitimate collegiate prospects—he’s creating steals at a shockingly low rate, and he has yet to record a blocked shot despite his prodigious athleticism. The team has performed a full 3 points per 100 possessions better on defense without Smith on the court, and his rebounding has been anemic as well. I commented on Twitter while watching the Wolfpack get blown out by Creighton:

All of this creates a rather unattractive profile for a player as heralded as Smith has been.

To be clear, it’s entirely possible that this is a small sample fluke that is more representative to Smith’s readjustment to playing after rehabbing, I could have caught a particularly uninspiring defensive performance, and he really hounds opposing PG’s on-ball and is energetic off. Perhaps he’ll mimic Brandon Ingram and go on a run of 10 games where he lights the world on fire after a discouraging start to the season. Still, it’s a 7-game stretch that has not been confidence-inspiring.

I’ve long been an advocate of viewing a player’s actual production as the best window into predicting his future production. Poor rebounders rarely become outstanding rebounders because they can jump high and have long arms. Bad scorers don’t often become good scorers because they threw down impressive dunks in college. Bad defenders who are fast and long don’t usually become good defenders on the basis of being fast and long. In each of these cases, there is a natural development through which the players who were more advanced at a younger age continue to be as they age, and the players who are less advanced remain so, even if they improve.

I’ve cited Layne Vashro’s study in this space before, but here it is again for any neophytes unfamiliar with my draft thinking. He concludes, essentially, that there are some ways in which ultra-athletic players might improve at an above average rate, but players largely remain good and bad at the skills that they possess early in their careers, relative to their peers, improving along a regular growth curve.

The single largest outlier to this corollary is the current triple-double wizard of the NBA, Russell Westbrook.

Westbrook had a terrible statistical profile during his time at UCLA. Playing next to Darren Collison meant that he played without the ball in his hands a lot of the time, but his production with the ball hardly indicated he deserved more of it. While Sports-Reference’s database doesn’t include advanced statistics that far back (meaning that there is no adjustment for pace), here are how Westbrook’s per 40 numbers stack up with Dennis Smith’s this year.

In other words, he scored less than Smith, scored less efficiently than Smith (although, perhaps crucially, was notably more efficient from the field), passed less effectively, rebounded worse, and barely impacted the game more on defensive. Similarly, other supernova point guards Derrick Rose and John Wall sported college numbers that largely undersold their future as well, although neither were as dismal as Westbrook and Smith.

In almost all cases, comparing point guard prospects to these 3 NBA players is a fool’s errand—they simply don’t have the burst and leap that that vaunted trio of guards do. But Smith is not most cases. He is exactly the kind of freak outlier that each of the others were, and if there are any players for whom they can be used as models, Smith is one of them.

The over-production of Westbrook, Rose, and Wall vis-à-vis their college output suggests to me that outlier athleticism is most meaningful when paired with players with point guard dribbling ability and natural passing instincts. The hardest thing to do in basketball is create a good shot, whether for yourself or for a teammate, and in pairing lead guard handling ability with lead guard vision (even if it is below average when compared to other lead guards), these players already have mastered the two most difficult skills in basketball. In most cases for which there is a disconnect between athleticism and production, handle and IQ are the two largest contributors in limiting a player’s productivity.

When these two traits are combined with outlier first steps and explosion towards the hoop, it renders the college production of these prospects somewhat more meaningless for projection than with other prospects.

The crucial question is how much less meaningful? It could be the difference between Smith becoming a below average point guard and a league-altering one. Working in his favor is the make-up of the NC State team; it is rather devoid of shooters, rendering his driving game ineffectual against packed lanes. In an ideal spacing outfit, perhaps his stats would be showing more of his potential.

At any rate, Smith is a player for whom the word “potential” connotes differently than 99% of his peers. It makes evaluating his future a lot tougher, but it also could make his future a whole lot brighter.

Future Sixers Point Guard Power Rankings:

Markelle Fultz, Washington

Fultz has set the world on fire during his month in the NCAA. The Huskies have been overmatched by a TCU team that should see the tournament and a Yale team that upset Baylor last year, but Fultz has not been. As touted coming into the year, he has shown no real weaknesses on offense, and his defensive impact has been closer to that of a solid wing than a point guard. Fultz is the no-brainer Top Pick at this point and would be a coup playing next to Simmons and Embiid.

Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State

Probably the least hyped of the 2017 point guard class, Evans may have had the best start to his season out of all of them. At 6’1 and with only average athleticism, it’s clear why scouts are low on him. But he’s a demonstrated 3-level scorer, displaying an elite ability to get to the rim (1.7 unassisted half-court shots per 40 minutes last season), a strong pull-up game, and high 3-point accuracy—50% on 58 attempts since arriving in Stillwater. He won’t be the point guard the Sixers take in the lottery, but his play merits an artificial hike in these somewhat arbitrary point guard power rankings.

Frank Ntilikina, Strasbourg

Ntilikina may be the toughest point guard to evaluate this year, in part because his stats are somewhat meaningless. As is often the case in Europe, where teams are focused on immediate results over prospect development, Ntilikina is overqualified, skill-wise, for the role he has been asked to play for Strasbourg. While he has excelled as a spot-up shooter, hitting 48% of his 3’s and sporting a 64.8% TS, he hasn’t had the opportunity to create much off the dribble or find his teammates. It’s very difficult to evaluate someone’s ability at something they won’t try to do, so Ntilikina may be a bit of a mystery all year long as a point guard prospect.

As a fit next to Simmons, he looks pretty viable, given his spot-up ability and defensive acumen. Here’s hoping he gets an invite to the Hoop Summit to show his game a little more fully.

Lonzo Ball, UCLA

Everyone’s darling after the first month, Lonzo has turned UCLA into one of the must-watch teams of the season. His assist rate is through the roof, he’s firing perfect outlet passes, and he’s got an impressive true shooting percentage in the 70’s.

Still, there are some major weaknesses here, particularly his ability to play in the halfcourt. Ball needs to start playing downhill and demonstrating some penetration ability in the PnR. As Jake wrote yesterday, the game against Texas A&M was a start, but he’s still got a long way to go. His passivity off the catch and requiring a ton of space to get off his wonky shot (which he’s making at a high rate!) add to the worry.

Dennis Smith, NC State

Covered in detail above. If Smith can defy the production curve his statistics suggest he’s on, he’ll be a great player. The Sixers look like the wrong team to give him that development opportunity, given Ben Simmons’ need for the ball though.

De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky

Fox’s traditional statistics look good: He’s stuffing the box score with 15 points, 7.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 2 steals per game. However, it’s the way he’s doing it that’s troubling.

Fox has been scoring in the bottom quartile of point guard prospect efficiency all year, with only a 53% TS. If you take out free throws, it’s even more dire, as his eFG% places him at 45.7%. The reality is that Fox struggles to score or shoot, and in a league predicated on the spread pick and roll, those are attributes that can hamstring an offense. According to Hoop-Math, Fox is a dismal 5-20 on 2-point jumpers, and, combined with his 2-15 3-point accuracy, is shooting 22% on all jump shot attempts.

There’s an easy way to guard players like this. We’ve all experienced it with Michael Carter-Williams, and I’d rather not deal with it again. Fox needs to fix his jumper or risk becoming an Elfrid Payton clone.

Games to Watch This Weekend:

UCLA (11) at Kentucky (1), 12:30pm, December 3, CBS

The CBB event of the weekend. Fox will challenge Ball in the halfcourt and Kentucky will put UCLA’s run-and-gun style to the test. If Alford gives him minutes, it might also be an interesting opportunity to see Ike Anigbogu matched up against Bam Adebayo and the rest of Kentucky’s bigs. But the backcourt battle will define this game.

Prospects to watch: De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo, Wenyen Gabriel (UK), Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf, Ike Anigbogu (UCLA)

Gonzaga (8) vs. Arizona (11), 5:30pm, December 3, ESPN

Arizona has already played a challenging game against Michigan State in their season-opener, but they strengthen their non-conference schedule even more with a neutral site game against Gonzaga in the Staples Center. Lauri Markkanen will be matched up with Gonzaga’s big and versatile bigs, starting with Przemek Karnowski and followed by freshman Zach Collins. The two should provide a nice test for him.

Prospects to watch: Lauri Markkanen, Rawle Alkins, Kobi Simmons (Arizona)

Villanova (2) vs. Saint Joseph’s, 1:00pm, December 3, CBSSN

Saint Joe’s is having somewhat of a down year following DeAndre Bembry’s departure for the Hawks, but they’re still likely to bring it against their Philly-area rivals. Mikal Bridges started the season hot on offense, but has cooled down since. Josh Hart has been the Wildcats’ heart and soul this year.

Prospects to watch: Mikal Bridges, Josh Hart (Villanova)

Xavier (7) at Baylor (9), 3:30pm, December 3, ESPN2

Neither program has a top tier prospect, but in Edmond Sumner and Johnathan Motley, they each have an athlete leading their team who has intrigued scouts. Both excel in transition and play above the rim with ease. I’m not particularly high on either of them, but feel free to check them out yourselves.

Prospects to watch: Edmond Sumner (Xavier), Johnathan Motley (Baylor)

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