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.