By John Denton
May 15, 2017
ORLANDO – Critics of point guard Dennis Smith Jr. question his true difference-making abilities because his N.C. State team not only badly underachieved this past season, but it couldn’t even make the NCAA Tournament because of a 15-17 record.
Supporters of Smith, however, point to the many times when the 6-foot-2, 195-pound guard played the right way by passing out of double teams, remained under control in trying times and didn’t launch into do-everything mode even as he was surrounded by lesser talent.
It’s now up to teams such as the Orlando Magic to determine what kind of player that Smith can be at the NBA level. Smith was in Orlando on Monday, working out for the Magic in front of interim GM Matt Lloyd, head coach Frank Vogel and a gaggle of front-office personnel and scouts.
Like when he played at N.C. State, Smith tried to stay within himself during Monday’s on-court workouts with the Magic and show how he can blend in with almost any situation. He feels now that the struggles that his collegiate team went through – including the firing of head coach Mark Gottfried – will help him at the NBA level.
“I trusted my teammates and I believed that was the right basketball play. That’s the play that I’m going to have to make at the next level, so I’m just going to stick to playing the right way,’’ Smith said prior to going up to sit-down interviews with Magic executives. “I learned how to bounce back after a loss. That was my first losing season ever since I’ve been playing basketball. I learned how to bounce back and I learned that you’re not going to win every game, especially in an 82-game season. So I think last year was a great experience for me.’’
The Magic will find out on Tuesday night at the NBA Draft Lottery where they will be picking in the June 22 NBA Draft. They enter the lottery with the fifth-best odds at landing the No. 1 pick. Regardless of where the team winds up, Lloyd – the interim GM following the April 13 firing of Rob Hennigan – is confident that the Magic can snag a top-level talent.
“It’s more about the peace of mind of knowing where we’re picking,’’ Lloyd said. “(With the lottery results) we can get on the phone with the player representatives and get these guys in here to work out and know them better. The scouting part is all done, our research has all been done and our statistical components have all been analyzed. But after (Tuesday’s lottery) we’ll know where our opportunities lie and where we can expose those opportunities.’’
Fresh off last week’s Draft Combine in Chicago where they interviewed 18 players, the Magic hope to bring a variety of first and second-round talent to Orlando over the coming weeks for workouts, interviews and testing. Lloyd, who is a candidate for the GM position, will continue to team with Vogel for the Magic’s draft prep until a full-time President of Basketball Operations/GM is hired.
Smith, who averaged 18.1 points, 6.2 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.9 steals a game as a freshman at N.C. State, is trying to make himself stand out in a draft that it loaded with point guard talent. Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball and D’Aaron Fox are all point guards with scoring and playmaking talents and could very well be the top three picks in the NBA Draft. Smith, who is slotted to go anywhere from five to 12 in various mock drafts, is trying to work his way into that conversation among the top point guards available.
“It’s just being a dog,’’ Smith said when asked what separates him from the other point guards in the draft. “I always want to win every game and I never back down from anybody.’’
The Magic and other teams could see some of that determination in Smith – a native of Fayetteville, N.C. – in how he bounced back from one of the biggest setbacks of his basketball career. He tore the ACL in a knee in August of 2015, but he worked diligently to get beyond the injury and back on the floor for N.C. State.
“I was sad for about a day or two, but I got over it quick,’’ said Smith, who considers former Magic great Penny Hardaway and current NBA stars LeBron James and Chris Paul as mentors. “I was back in good spirits, lifting weights in bed and taking it as a challenge. I’ve got too much faith in the Lord (to think basketball was over). So, like I said, it was just a challenge for me.’’
Though his N.C. State team struggled most of the season, Smith made the best of the situation by excelling in a variety of ways. His free throw rate (48.6 percent) and his percentage of shots at the rim (37.1) remained high because of his blinding quickness and fearlessness. Smith also shot the ball well from 3-point range – something the Magic analyzed on Monday.
“I think a lot of people want to see me shoot the ball because at N.C. State I was more so of a slasher,’’ said Smith, a 35.9 percent 3-point shooter last season. “They want to see me get a lot of shots up and see me shoot while I’m fatigued. That’s what most of the workout consisted of today.’’
Unlike Ball at UCLA and Fox at Kentucky, Smith wasn’t surrounded by high school All-Americans and NBA-bound talent. Teammate Omer Yurtseven is the only other N.C. State player listed in the Draft Express’ list of Top 100 prospects available for this year’s draft. He said it’s not his job to respond to the critics who doubt his abilities because of N.C. State’s struggles last season; instead, he feels NBA talent evaluators will judge him on the way he persevered through a challenging season.
“That’s easy, I just don’t (respond),’’ Smith said to his critics. “Everybody is going to talk – positive or negative. But it’s all God’s plan and I just act accordingly.’’
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