TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Perhaps it’s yet another sign of life in the Atlantic Coast Conference that a team near the bottom of the league standings is also blessed with what might be the league’s best player.
That would be point guard Dennis Smith Jr., a freshman at North Carolina State whose emergence has somewhat served to offset a difficult year for the Wolfpack.
NC State is 14-10 overall, 3-8 in conference play and entering Wednesday’s visit to No. 14 Florida State on a three-game losing streak.
But that hasn’t stopped Smith from building one of the ACC’s most impressive resumes. He ranks fifth in the league in scoring (19.21 points per game), second in steals (2.21 per game) and first in assists (6.96 per game).
Smith, a native of Fayetteville, N.C., and the North Carolina Player of the Year for 2015, also has two triple-doubles and a pair of 30-point games, the second of which came in NC State’s home loss to Miami on Saturday.
“The guys with his kind of ability come along once a decade,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “He has the whole package. The strength, the quickness, the speed, the ability to create his shot, create for others. And (he) is also athletic enough to take it to the basket and finish.”
Smith is expected to be a lottery pick in the 2017 NBA draft, with some analysts projecting him as a top-five selection.
“He has everything,” Florida State sophomore Terance Mann said. “He can do everything. He’s smart, he can pass the ball, he can score, he’s fast. He can shoot.
“There’s no gaps in his game.”
Then again, there weren’t many gaps in the Seminoles’ defense in their wins over Miami and Clemson last week.
After a two-game skid plagued by leaky defending, FSU last week held Miami to just 57 points and Clemson to 61. And the Seminoles allowed the Tigers to shoot just 38.1 percent in a 109-61 rout on Sunday.
No surprise then that, armed with a confidence boost, FSU’s defenders are looking forward to matching up with NC State’s Smith.
“He’s going to be really fun to play against,” freshman guard C.J. Walker said. “We’ve got three or four guys that are going to guard him and we’re going to try to get him off his game as best we can.”
That group includes junior guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes, who along with embracing his role as a facilitator, has also enjoyed a defensive renaissance during his third season on the floor.
Rathan-Mayes has made a sport out of pressuring opposing offenses and harassing ball-handlers, and his work against Duke’s Grayson Allen earlier this season helped spark FSU’s lopsided victory over the Blue Devils.
“He’s become one of the premier defenders in the ACC, which no one ever seems to mention,” Hamilton said. “His defense has been just short of unbelievable.”
But while Smith grabs most of the headlines, Hamilton cautioned against thinking of the Wolfpack as a one-man show.
NC State actually has five players averaging double-digit scoring, and two players shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range.
As a result, the Wolfpack rank fifth in the ACC with 81.2 points per game. But whereas scoring isn’t a problem, defending most certainly is. NC State’s 78.9 points per game allowed ranks dead last in the 15-team conference.
“Most teams, if they’re averaging 81 points a game, you’d be pretty happy as a coach,” Hamilton said. “… And we’re trying to avoid the philosophy of giving all your attention to Dennis and not giving your attention to a team that’s averaging 81 points a game.”