RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) This wasn’t what Dennis Smith Jr. had envisioned for his freshman – and possibly only – season at North Carolina State.
The Wolfpack’s star freshman point guard is a brilliant individual talent and potential one-and-done prospect who stands as the only player in Division I with two triple-doubles this year. But N.C. State is near the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference and will miss the NCAA Tournament barring an unprecedented run at next week’s ACC Tournament – a season that unraveled so completely that it ultimately cost coach Mark Gottfried his job.
”I’ve never had a season like this in my life, so it’s brand new,” Smith said in an interview with The Associated Press. ”It’s an adjustment. It’s definitely a learning experience. It’s just difficult. It’s difficult, I’m not going to lie.”
The Wolfpack (15-15, 4-13) enters Wednesday’s regular-season finale at Clemson with the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Fayetteville native leading all ACC freshmen in scoring (18.7 points), leading the league in assists (6.3) and ranking second in steals (2.0).
The 19-year-old Smith also became only the fourth player in league history to have two triple doubles in the same season – Virginia great Ralph Sampson was the only other freshman to do it – and the first of that group to have two during league play.
He’s also tied the league record for the most 30-point games by a league freshman (four) in his first season back from a major knee injury .
”I think he has had a marvelous freshman year,” Gottfried said after Saturday’s loss to Virginia. ”Sometimes the expectations are so high – and I’m guilty as anybody of putting them on him – sometimes you don’t really appreciate how good somebody is every night.”
Yet all that production from a player considered a potential top-five NBA draft pick has the Wolfpack ahead of just Boston College in the ACC standings despite being picked to finish sixth in the 15-team league.
Smith knows it reflects on him as a still-maturing floor leader.
”I know if I go out there, I’m going to give everything I’ve got,” Smith said, ”regardless of what the situation is. … But I know it’s on me if we win or lose games. That’s the only thing I take hard about it.”
The high point was his dominating 32-point performance during the Wolfpack’s first win at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium since 1995. He ended it by scooping up a loose ball, racing downcourt and taking off from a step inside the foul line for a tomahawk dunk – one he stuffed so hard that the ball bounced off him coming through the net and shot several rows into the stands.
It was such a spectacular moment – photos captured Smith perfectly posed mid-flight – that it hardly mattered the dunk came after the horn.
There were also his triple-doubles against Virginia Tech and Syracuse , while his 16 assists against Rider in December stand as the most in Division I this year. All that came while being atop every defensive scouting report, with Syracuse Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim noting Smith would ”have 50” points if the Orange had tried to defend him 1-on-1 instead of in their zone.
Yet the losses piled up , five coming by at least 24 points, and the school announced Feb. 16 that Gottfried wouldn’t return for a seventh season.
”You don’t really want to dwell on things, especially negativity,” Smith said of the year. ”That’s all I’ve been doing, just being very positive. I’m still the same guy, very competitive. I hate losing. I hate losing more than I like to win. So I still deal with it on my own when nobody sees me.”
Smith remains noncommittal when asked whether his stay in college basketball will be as brief as many expect. Instead, he’s left to hope the Wolfpack can put together an unlikely run in next week’s ACC Tournament in Brooklyn.
”When you step out on the court and you’re playing against him, you want to know where he’s at at all times,” said Wake Forest coach Danny Manning, a former No. 1 overall draft pick who played 15 NBA seasons. ”And that is the ultimate sign of respect, when you’re a marked man at all times out there on the court. And Dennis was definitely that this year.”
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