The NBA draft is unpredictable by nature, but given the depth, talent, youth, and hype surrounding this year's crop, identifying the best player right now is a lot different than predicting who will be seen as the brightest star a few years down the road.
On level ground, it's hard to definitively separate any one elite prospect in this class from another. Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson, and De'Arron Fox are all supremely gifted players who could all enjoy numerous All-Star appearances. But once they find their NBA homes on Thursday night, a host of new variables enter the equation—their new coach, surrounding personnel, culture, and the system in which they find themselves will ultimately play a major role in determining which prospect winds up at the head of this talented class.
And then there's Dennis Smith Jr., an athletic monster who, for a variety of reasons, often sees his name left out of this conversation. If he winds up with the right organization, Smith is absolutely good enough to separate himself from everyone listed above. Smith tore his ACL at adidas Nations in 2015, and then endured a complicated and trying freshman campaign at North Carolina State that included the entire coaching staff being fired in February. But before all that, he was viewed as the top point guard in his class.
That perception didn't survive the season, but the violent downhill burst that's drawn comparisons to 2011-era Derrick Rose (Smith Jr.'s favorite player) and Russell Westbrook has not. In a league commandeered by guards who can thrash the rim at will, Smith Jr. has the physical tools to be the type of unstoppable playmaking weapon so coveted around the league. He's shifty on his feet and crafty with the ball. For him not to be considered at the top of the draft is curious, but something Smith Jr. seems prepared to take in stride.
"It doesn't surprise me at all," Smith Jr. told reporters on Wednesday. "It's been like this my whole life. Regardless of how I go out and perform, if I am the best player, in some way I would still get slighted. But I'm accustomed to it now."
With college numbers that size up well against Fultz, the probable number one pick, Smith Jr. is, from a statistical standpoint, absolutely worth taking with a top-three pick. But his ultimate NBA fate will be impacted by his habitat; some situations are more opportune than others, and it's unclear whether he'll go as high as three or low as 10. On Wednesday, the 19-year-old comfortably swatted away at least a dozen questions about the increasingly antiquated Triangle offense, which may become his new world if New York Knicks President Phil Jackson takes him with the eighth pick.
"I believe I can play in any offense. It just takes time," he said. "There's going to be a learning curve with everything that you do, but if you're mentally strong you can do anything."
The Knicks offer a very different situation than do, say, the Boston Celtics, where Smith would fight for minutes in a crowded backcourt that's already overflowing with gamers who've already proven their ability to positively impact a playoff run. Boston, unique among this year's lottery squads, is a team that doesn't need a rookie to take 15 shots per game or even log a dozen minutes every night. But their desire to sign a max player this summer means at least one of their four guards is likely gone, and it shouldn't shock anyone if the Celtics trade down for Smith Jr. or snag him with the third pick.
But either way, being on the Celtics would be very different from, say, the Dallas Mavericks, where Smith Jr. can presumably start on opening night and thrive in a steady, pick-and-roll dependent scheme where he'd be surrounded by some of the league's most feared outside shooters and a rim-rolling vortex in Nerlens Noel. Spacing matters as much as a stable work environment, and Dallas can provide both while still competing for a playoff spot.
Smith Jr. may also be Sacramento's first post-Boogie Cousins lottery pick, drafted onto arguably the least talented roster in the league, fenced in by fellow first and second-year players who are all adjusting to each other and life in the NBA at the same time. On the Orlando Magic, should they abandon Elfrid Payton, Smith would face an uphill battle against defenses that can afford to constantly ignore Aaron Gordon and Bismack Biyombo and focus on clogging driving and passing lanes.
"He will be good in any system you put him in," former N.C. State assistant coach Orlando Early told VICE Sports. "He will be better in a system where he's got the ball in his hands."
For his own safety, Smith Jr. shouldn't be allowed to play basketball without a parachute strapped to his back. During a recent workout with the Los Angeles Lakers, he logged a ridiculous 48-inch vertical leap. Gravity doesn't affect Smith Jr. like most human beings; he's equally explosive off one leg or two, and packs enough energy in his 195-pound frame to convince shot-blocking bigs to retreat and live another day.
Taught the game by his father, Dennis Smith Sr.—a supreme athlete in his own right, who boasted 4.2 40-yard-dash speed before an ankle injury derailed his football career—Smith Jr. transformed into someone worth paying attention to when he scored 42 points at a Holiday Invitational against current Milwaukee Bucks center Thon Maker. It convinced North Carolina State to offer him a scholarship the very next day. He was a sophomore in high school.
"You know Thon, I don't know what they list him at, seven feet, but his brother is 6'9", 6'10"," Early said. "They had a fairly long and athletic team and Dennis could finish above those guys. I have been around guys that were possibly as athletic, and maybe even more athletic, but I haven't been around guys that played athletic like Dennis. Like, some guys can run and jump and dunk and they're just tremendous when nobody's on the court with them. Dennis does it in the game. He plays athletic, and that's what separates him from other guys."
Smith Jr. can do more than score, too. He averaged 6.2 assists per game on a team that was packed with teammates who have just about no chance to make the NBA. Instead of going to Kentucky or Duke—a team he gave 32 points in ACC conference play—and playing for a national championship beside fellow five-star recruits, Smith Jr.'s underdog mentality convinced him it'd be more stimulating to dismantle powerhouse programs than suit up for one.
"We weren't very good this year," Early said. "And we had guys that missed shots that, you know, there were games where I walked out saying 'man, he should've had 13 assists tonight. He should've had 14.' He could've definitely averaged eight or nine."
Family friend Shawn Farmer, a trainer who first worked him out as a sixth grader, told VICE Sports that something about Smith Jr. is "extra-terrestrial" whenever he steps on a basketball court.
"I don't want to call it a dog. I don't want to say he's a whole different animal. There's just something about this kid when he plays, man. His eyes do something weird," Farmer said. "When he starts to compete his eyes do something that I don't see out of other kids. His eyes are different. Like the Duke game, against Virginia Tech, against Carolina, I saw his eyes. He's different."
Last season Farmer would regularly sit behind N.C. State's bench. He remembers Wolfpack coaches turning their heads to flash him a "what the hell just happened?" look whenever Smith Jr. would pull off something ridiculous. This happened often.
"I've played professionally. Eight years in Europe, one year in the CBA. I've seen some guys that could jump," Farmer said. "But at 6'3"? I mean, I used to tell Junior, 'Man, you make me sick. You just make me sick.' It don't make no sense. The stuff he does, man. I can't explain it."
That extraterrestrial talent certainly helps, but to succeed as a ball-dominant point guard in the NBA, Smith Jr. will need to turn his jumper into a dart. It's a relatively small sample size, but he only made 35.9 percent of his threes as a freshman. That number isn't terrible, but in order to force NBA defenders to chase him over screens it's a mark that will have to improve.
Judging from the work ethic in play, here, it will. After the season ended, Farmer's instructed Smith Jr. to make 4000 jumpers a week, catch-and-shoot and off-the-dribble attempts from different spots all over the court. "He looked at me like I was crazy," Farmer said. But the work is already starting to pay off, with drastic improvement seen in charted results from April to June.
Defense matters, too. And by his own admission, Smith Jr. knows he needs to be more attentive on that side of the floor. "Small things, like remembering to box out, staying low on defense, communication, things of that nature," he said. "Everything else I'll continue to work on and tighten it up skill-wise, but it's the sound things that matter.
In today's NBA, point guards who double as their team's top playmaker and primary scorer are essentially a prerequisite for success. Smith Jr. is that, a cloud-hopping marauder who can pencil All-Star weekend into his calendar every year if things work out right. He'll be effective no matter what, but a little draft night luck needs to be involved if he's to elevate ahead of the other great players in this year's class.
"He's the type of guy that, today, there are various reasons you may like a guy better than him," Early said. "But three years from now, your owner is going to say 'Now wait a minute, we took him over Dennis for what reason? Explain that to me one more time so I'm sure I understand this.'"