Dennis Smith Jr. is receiving hype as a possible top 3 pick in this year’s draft, and he recently greased the wheels of his hype train with a 32 point performance in a road win at Duke. This gives us a glimpse of his NBA upside, so let’s dive deeper into his NCAA performance to assess exactly how high his ceiling extends.
Why He Is Good
The reasons for Smith’s appeal are straightforward– he is a great athlete who can dribble, pass, shoot, and score. He checks off all of the boxes that people look for in a star point guard, as it is rare for a player with his athleticism to be above average at all of the aforementioned skills. This gives him the potential to take on a massive role offensively, and if he develops his skill level and decision making well, he can make a big positive impact as a lead guard.
Smith’s talent is undeniable, and he is definitely a good prospect. But he also has some flaws that make me skeptical of his ability to become great.
Why He Is Not Great
While he has a number of good traits he is not elite at any one thing. He is great athlete but is nowhere near an explosive freak like Russell Westbrook, John Wall, or Derrick Rose. He is an above average shooter but not a great one, and he can create a high volume of offense for himself and others but with merely good but not great efficiency. While he checks a number of boxes as being above average, he does not qualify an outlier at any one thing.
This is not problematic on its own, as being well rounded with few weaknesses can sum up to a highly valuable player. But DSJ’s profile is rife with flaws:
–He has average height and short arms for a PG
–He projects to be poor defensively
–His game is not smooth and lacks polish
–He is not the best floor general. He makes questionable decisions and his passes are often inaccurate
–His motor and toughness are questionable
These weaknesses are not trivial. They are all concerning on their own, and taken in tandem there are some heavy flags weighing down his goodness. This is not the profile of a player on the path to NBA stardom, but one of an enigmatic talent who will be wildly hit or miss as a pro.
Smith measured 6’1.5 with a 6’3″ wingspan in 2014. He is currently listed at 6’3″ and should have at least a 6’4″ wingspan by draft time, but that pales in comparison to most of the freaky PG’s like Westbrook (6’7.75″) Rose (6’8″) and Wall (6’9.25″). This detracts from his athleticism, and overall his physical profile is (surprise) good but not great.
This is problematic on both ends. Defensively, he will not have the reach to effectively contest shots for anybody but small point guards. This issue becomes magnified as NBA teams employ defensive schemes that entail heavy switching with increasing frequency. Kyrie Irving has nearly identical dimensions (6’3.5″ height 6’4″ wingspan) and is one of the worst defensive starting point guards in the NBA in large part due to his poor reach. Kyrie is also lazy and over gambles on defense, but the same could be said for Smith.
This is also problematic on offense, as his short arms make it difficult to finish in traffic. Kyrie makes his defense worth stomaching with his elite shooting and finishing, as his incredible body control and coordination gives him a unique ability to make tough, off balance shots. Smith does not have this superpower, which makes his short arms a greater obstacle to overcome.
Kyrie’s profile is largely similar to Smith, as they share similar bodies and both are great ball handlers and shot creators. But Irving is widely considered overrated by advanced stats and intelligent fans because of his poor passing and defense, as he is merely a solid starter rather than an actual star. And this is for a player that offers elite shooting, finishing, and efficiency– all areas where Smith is merely good.
To become a solid starter like Irving, Smith needs to have a more well rounded game to atone for his shotmaking disadvantage. And to become a star, he needs to have a huge edge in both passing and defense. Smith has a good chance of becoming better defensively than Kyrie given how low the bar is, but I would not bet on his defense as his ticket to greatness. So let’s see if his passing offers more hope of goodness:
Passing is slippery to quantify, as not all assists are created equally and passes that are not assists matter too. Smith has a high assist rate, which is a good start for his passing upside. But the truly great passers make a big positive impact on their teammates, which intuitively makes sense since that is the whole point of passing.
Smith’s teammates are not that bad. Entering the season, Dan Hanner’s excellent statistical model projected NC State as the #10 offense and #18 team overall. This was close to UCLA’s projection of #12 offense and #16 overall. Meanwhile UCLA has the #1 offense by a comfy margin and NC State’s offense is just #47, and both defenses are bad but NC State’s is worse.
This is a HUGE signal for both players’ passing abilities. It cannot be stressed enough that great point guards make great offensive impacts. They are being flanked with similar talent– TJ Leaf is much better than Omer Yurtseven but this only explains a small fraction of the gargantuan offensive gap. And outside of their 5* freshmen PG/big duos, the rosters are largely similar. I believe the majority of the difference between UCLA and NC State’s offensive goodness is due to Ball being a vastly superior passer to DSJ.
This aligns with my eye test, as Lonzo crisply moves the ball, makes great decisions, and delivers passes with pinpoint precision. Meanwhile DSJ over-dribbles, makes questionable decisions, and blows a fair amount of assist opportunities by delivering passes off the mark.
Smith’s vision seems good enough and it is plausible that he will eventually develop into a good passer. His athleticism and handling ability gives him the capacity to take advantage of this skill if he ever develops it. But the best predictor of future passing ability is current passing ability, and right now Smith is merely average.
Naturals vs Beasts
Some elite NBA point guards such as Chris Paul and Steph Curry showed clear signs of natural offensive excellence in college. But others such as Russell Westbrook and Kyle Lowry played limited roles as freshmen and were not clear stars as sophomores, yet developed into NBA stars over time because they are great athletes who progressed well.
Why not gamble on Smith following the Westbrook or Lowry path since his athleticism and skill level are good enough? He is not a freak like Westbrook but if Lowry can be a star, why not DSJ?
That is a great question! Glad you asked it. Both players are fiercely intense competitors who complement their great athleticism with non-stop motors and toughness that enable them to make a huge impact on the game. Motor is tough to quantify, but there is one stat that does a sneaky good job for guards: offensive rebound rate! Let’s just take a quick look at how DSJ stacks up vs the top 5 current NBA lead guards NCAA ORB%:
There is no subtlety to this signal– Lowry and Westbrook clearly displayed their deep desire to dominate in beast mode in their NCAA performances as elite offensive rebounders with approximately triple the rate of DSJ.
Harden showed signs of being a natural lead guard in college, but for good measure he also posted a great ORB%. His motor is not quite up there with Lowry and Westbrook, but he is helped by superior height and length which are also lacking in DSJ’s profile.
The offensive naturals in Curry and CP3 are closer to DSJ, but still higher. Considering DSJ’s massive edge in frame and athleticism– how much internal drive to dominate can he have if he grabs offensive rebounds less frequently than the physically frail Curry?
Go back further and you will find most favorable DSJ comps were vastly superior NCAA offensive rebounders: Steve Francis, Baron Davis, Chauncey Billups, and Dwyane Wade provide further examples.
It is a reasonable hypothesis that either elite skill and smarts or elite offensive rebounding are pre-requisites to become a superstar lead guard in the NBA. Because DSJ is neither a natural floor general nor a beast in the paint, it is difficult to fathom how he could become great.
But He Can Still Be Good!
The fortunate news for DSJ is that offensive rebounding is not a pre-requisite for goodness. Here is a list of reasonable upside comps for him who were in the same ballpark of NCAA ORB%:
Stephon Marbury would also make the list as his total NCAA rebound rate was pitiful, but I cannot find his offensive split. He really is the best DSJ comp.
Mike Conley is one reasonable upside scenario. They share similar physical profiles, and Conley was not clearly on the path to greatness as an NCAA freshman or even in his first few years in the NBA. But with hard work and steady improvement, he eventually became a very good two way point guard. Smith’s game is more centered on explosiveness and volume whereas Conley leans on smoothness and efficiency, but they can be similarly valuable overall.
Eric Bledsoe is another reasonable upside comp, as he showed no statistical signs of goodness in college and developed into a solid NBA PG with the aid of great physical tools.
Damian Lillard is an example of what DSJ may look like as a pro if he makes an outlier leap into a great shooter.
These are all good players, they are all happy outcomes for a pick outside the top 3 in most seasons. But if you are aiming for Kyrie, Lillard, or Conley in this year’s LOADED top 5, you are aiming too low.
You could argue that I am overrating some of these flags. Perhaps my eye test is too harsh, I could be giving his short arms too much attention and his great athleticism too little, and I could be overestimating the relevance of his poor team performance and poor offensive rebound rate. But taken in tandem, they cannot be collectively trivial. At least one of these will weigh heavier than expected, and Smith just does not super powers to become great anyway.
This draft has 10 freshmen dripping with talent and draft hype. They are not all going to become all-stars, and some of them will disappoint severely. Some will disappoint due to unforeseeably poor development, but others will because their strengths received too much attention and subtle but significant flags went overlooked. If I had to single out one player with less impressive strengths and more significant flags than commonly perceived, that player is clearly Dennis Smith Jr.
Smith is still a good prospect, as he has the skill and his athleticism cannot be overlooked. He is already a good NCAA player, and if he develops his game at a good rate he will become a good NBA player. But he does not have the skill or smarts to be a naturally elite floor general, and he does not have the reach or motor to use his athleticism to physically dominate. These are significant problems, and they will preclude him from becoming the transcendent star that teams are seeking with a top 3 pick.
Enjoyed the article, and your draft coverage in general this year.
I don’t entirely disagree with your Smith opinion, but where I think I diverge is slotting him clearly below Fox, particularly when a lot of these criticisms go for Fox as well (ORB%, short arms). Fox certainly has the superior A:TO, but bigger shooting warts and similar other flaws, and probably inferior athleticism overall to Smith (similar UA FG in the half-court, lower steal rate,
One other point worth looking at – both have been basically horrendous at shooting 2 pt jumpers, in which case the shooting may be a bigger red flag than previously considered.
I’m higher on Smith, Jr. than Dean. It’s pretty impossible to so narrowly define his career path. A player like Damian Lillard would indeed be an above average outcome, but a possible one. And Dean is probably underselling how good an outcome that would be for this draft.
However, in what world does Fox possibly have Inferior athleticism to Smith, Jr? That’s the kind of question that signifies the need for more attentiveness.
Smith, Jr. is explosive off the ground, but quickness is so much more valuable than power. Point Guards create advantages by beating their opponents off the dribble, thus forcing help, thus shifting the shape of defense. It’s quickness with the ball that allows that, especially for smaller players. (Think about early-Rondo, Derrick Rose, John Wall, or the current version of Isaiah Thomas.)
Steal rate is due to Smith’s only good defensive quality, which is shooting passing lanes.
Also, low-to-mid 30% on two-point jumpers when all the jumpers are unassisted is actually decent. That’s what most good players do, including Lillard, Leonard and Klay Thompson. Fultz, Monk, and Baldwin’s numbers this year just happen to be exceptional for Freshman.
Additionally, Dennis Smith’s Two-Point jumper below average 2PJ sample is mostly canceled out by the fact that he shoots most of his threes off-the-bounce.
Shooting is a question mark with any draft prospect. Even the ones who shoot well. Smith, Jr. does have flaws in his jumper (as one can see by bad misses), but when talking about upside, we’re talking about a reasonable guess as to the player’s possible improvement. We aren’t talking about events that happen with any certainty. And we aren’t talking about what happens if shit doesn’t go well. Which we probably give too much credence too. Average outcomes of draft prospects just aren’t that valuable, except for team’s very neat a championship.
No one could have predicted Kawhi Leonard getting so much better as a shooter. There’s a reason the Spurs supposedly had Valanciunas and Klay Thompson above him on their draft board. But pretty much every team now regrets not taking him, as he was that draft’s one true difference maker. Variance and luck do play a part in draft results. We are dealing with imperfect information.
“However, in what world does Fox possibly have Inferior athleticism to Smith, Jr?”
In an NBA world where explosion at the rim is still valuable, and Smith is certainly right there with Fox with quickness. It’s how early Rose created so much value, for example. Smith has some indicators (e.g. FTr) that matter.
Looking at 2-point jumpers too carefully is probably a fool’s errand, and I agree Smith is clearly the superior shooter at the moment. Monk is the outlier there (48%).
I don’t think I narrowly defined his path. I was pretty clear that Lillard IS a possible outcome, and the only ones that were out of reach were players like Russ and Lowry.
Re: physical advantages, I’d say quickness and explosiveness are both important, but on average having an elite first step is higher leverage. But the area where Fox is >DSJ is smoothness. He is super good at stepping around defensive players whereas DSJ tries to run through him. Even tho DSJ’s athleticism may be better, I still think Fox uses his quickness more functionally off the dribble.
To Bill: Early Rose was super quick & explosive. Dennis Smith, Jr. is okay quick, but mostly powerful and explosive.
To Dean: I didn’t mean to suggest that you thought Lillard wasn’t a possibility. I’m sorry if I was confusing. I meant to suggest, a player who ends up as good as Damian Lillard is probably a top 3 player in this draft, and thus worth a top 3 pick. Even though Lillard has his limitations.
But how good this draft is likely to be is a place where you and I disagree. No use arguing over it. As its purely a matter of opinion as of now on a question that will not be answered for many years.
Sure, if he is guaranteed to be Lillard you can take him #3. But without upside to be much better than Lillard and lots of downside to be much worse, it would be insane to take him that high.
Yes Fox has many similar flaws, Smith’s big advantage over him is shooting.
But Fox is a player that I perceive as a much more natural floor general than Smith. Aside from his assist:TOV, he also has a better 2P% and is leading the #2 offense in the nation. Yes, Monk is flanking him but Cal isn’t a great offensive coach and at least his team performance is not flaggy.
The main reason why I rate Fox better is that visually he looks like a much better slasher. He is so much smoother, so much more deft at finding space, and his touch around the rim is feathery. Smith has plenty of impressive drives but often looks like a clunky bulldozer who struggles to step around defenders.
They both have really good scoring upside, but Fox’s looking more special to me. And he is a better passer, better on D, and even though he is a worse shooter his FT% is barely worse, which suggests he has a better shot of closing the shooting gap than Smith does of closing the passing/feel gap.
Fox has his imperfections too, and he could turn out to be a worse pro than Smith. But I see a lot of subtle edges in his favor that make him favor him in spite of his poor shot.
I think your analysis of Smith’s game is fair but where you rank him isn’t: Is Smith clearly a future NBA superstar? No. He’s not Derrick Rose pre injury or Westbrook (clearly). However, outside of Lonzo Ball, how many freshman this year have come into college, made their team way better, put up good numbers, and are ranked highly by scouts? I would say none. Fultz has the stats and rankings but his team sucks and it doesn’t feel like Fultz changes the game when he’s out there. Josh Jackson has some nice numbers and a high ranking but once again, it doesn’t seem like he changes the game out there. I think Smith is up there with anyone.
The entire crux of my opinion is that he did not make his team way better, as they are massively underperforming pre-season expectations of every statistical model.
Fultz’s team is worse, but he walked into a DREADFUL situation re: coach and teammates. Once you consider coach and teammates, NC State is underachieving their overall talent more than Washington is.
As for other freshmen– Ball made his team much better, Monk and Fox have made their team great, Isaac is leading the best FSU team ever, and Markkanen is making a great impact for a shorthanded Arizona team. Almost everybody I rank way ahead is enjoying far more team success.
Zach Kaminski said:
Im sorry but stating that Kyrie is a solid starter is outright disrespectful and ignorant. He is one of the Top 5 Point Guards in the NBA.
Conley, Wall, IT2, Lowry, CP3, RWB, Harden, Curry are all objectively better. There are a bunch more that are debatable.