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A Look At Rising Point Guard Dennis Smith Jr.

Fayetteville star is getting tons of attention from ACC powers and beyond.

Dennis Smith, Jr., has the potential to be a great point guard in college and perhaps beyond.
Dennis Smith, Jr., has the potential to be a great point guard in college and perhaps beyond.
Tom Rubinson

Recently Tom Rubinson, who has a passion for recruiting, contacted us and said he'd like to contribute his expertise to DBR. We were really pleased.

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Writing about recruiting takes a lot of commitment, a willingness to see a ton of selfish, stunted players in order to find the gems who truly love and  honor the game. It also requires a lot of sifting and intelligence gathering. Not everyone can do it.

So we're really pleased to welcome Tom - aka --tommy on the boards - as our new recruiting writer.

The best part is that unlike most sites, we won't gate off our recruiting material. So you could always go somewhere else and pay for it, but why would you when you can get it for free?

Predicting rosters two years out has never been more difficult than it is currently, especially with the uncertainty surrounding any changes to come in the NBA's early entry rules. Nevertheless, the general consensus seems to be that, if all goes well, and he is productive and healthy, Tyus Jones won't spend more than two years in college. That means that Duke is going to need a point guard to hit campus in the Fall of 2016.

Many observers believe the best point guard in the Class of 2016 is North Carolina's Dennis Smith, Jr. While I haven't seen all the top points in the class, due to injury (theirs) or other circumstances (mine), of those that I have seen, nobody is close. Not that rankings should mean much, but in case you're interested, he's the #9 overall player (and the top point guard) in ESPN's 2016 rankings, while he's ranked #5 overall by Rivals and #1 by Scout. The only rankings that really matter around here are those of the Duke staff, and they have made it clear to Smith and his camp that he is indeed a priority recruit.

In a number of conversations with Dennis and his father recently, including Sunday evening upon their return home from New York City after Dennis played in the prestigious UnderArmour Elite24 game, they have shown themselves to be both open and forthright people. They know how important it is that young Dennis continues to develop his game - they are well aware that he is not a finished product - and they know how important it is that they ultimately choose the right university, program, and coach.

Dennis Smith, Jr. hails from the tiny town of Godwin, NC, which is about fifteen or twenty minutes north of Fayetteville.

Dennis Sr. moved the family to Fayetteville when his son was six years old, which enabled Dennis Jr. to develop his game early, as he was able to play in a gym instead of outside which is where he would have been playing had the Smiths remained in Godwin.

Dennis comes from an athletic family. His older sister played D-II basketball at Fayetteville State, and his barrel-chested father played football. Not surprising then, that Junior is a solidly built 6'2" and 175 pounds going into his junior year of high school. He grew up as an NC State fan, but then again, we've all had our youthful indiscretions. I keed, I keed.

Dennis attends Trinity Christian High School, where his backcourt partner is Kwe Parker, who is also sought after by a number of ACC programs. It is a small school, though, in a small community, and the competition is not that keen. Dennis also does not have great opportunities to even work out at or near school, so he sometimes finds himself driving for an hour or more just to get in workouts with players of his quality.

But whatever he's been doing to improve his game has been working. He really burst onto the recruiting scene in 2014, and in the summer he just killed it on the Adidas Circuit.

The only downer was not making the USA Basketball U-17 team in Colorado Springs, which is the team that went on to earn a gold medal in Dubai earlier in August. It would have been easy for Dennis to make excuses - and these things can be unpredictable anyway. After all, Malik Monk, the high scoring wing from Arkansas who is in everybody's Top 10, didn't make it either. But Dennis took full responsibility.

"I got there kind of late. It was up to me to make the adjustment to the altitude and to playing with fatigue. Other guys did that better than I did. But I definitely want to try again to represent my country with Team USA."

So what does his game look like? With the ball, Smith is, in a word, brilliant. He is extremely quick; his handle is tight; he gets into the lane against defenders with ease. Because he is such an effective penetrator, he is able to jab wary defenders back, and then take advantage of the space to get off his jumpshot, on which he has excellent form and the results are usually, well, money.

He's an electrifying athlete; in fact, I don't think I've seen him play a full game in which he hasn't gotten at least one or two lobs to throw down for powerful alley-oop dunks.

What kind of distributor is he? I've heard people knock him for his decision making, but I have to say, I don't agree with the criticism. When I've seen him play he has not forced shots at all, and he has given the ball up willingly on the break, and usually done so at the right time.

Does he make mistakes in the open floor? Of course he does. Who doesn't? But I see this guy making a lot more right plays than he makes wrong plays. A lot more. To me, the key is that while he certainly has the ability to be a scoring point guard, and indeed to take over games offensively, he does not set out to do that. He appears to be very happy to be a distributor and to attack when the opportunity is there, and when his team needs him to. Is that bad?

Dennis is blessed with very quick feet and hands, so he can be disruptive on defense. Like almost all high school players - especially those who are only rising juniors - he'll need work on certain defensive concepts, team defense, and other more advanced aspects of playing at that end of the floor. But the ability and the desire to be a good defender are there.

There's one critical area of the game that I haven't touched on yet, and it turns out to be what Dennis himself believes to be the most vital strength of his game: "Being a leader, and doing whatever the coach needs me to do."

Everybody knows that Coach K's best teams have had strong leaders at point guard, and Junior's attitude is "if he needs me to guard the best man, I'll guard the best man. If he needs me to score, I'll score. If he needs me to get my teammates involved, I'll get my teammates involved. Whatever he needs me to do."

When I talked to the Smith camp after they returned from New York, they had not been that thrilled with the Elite24 experience. Why? Partly because UnderArmour made the families pay their own way over to Brooklyn for practice. But the game itself, as all-star games usually are, was just a glorified pickup game, with no structure, no discipline, and no defense. Dennis prefers to play in a game where he is coached, where there is structure, a plan, defense, and accountability. That sounds like my kind of point guard.

But Dennis is only sixteen years old, with two full years of high school remaining. He knows there are areas for him to work on. When asked what he needed to improve the most, he said, "moving without the ball. I'm so used to playing point guard all the time. But sometimes they'll have another guard in and if coach needs me to score, I can play off the ball. I'm working on that."

While some have compared Smith to a young Russell Westbrook, he doesn't see himself that way. He points to all the games he's had where he's racked up the assists without scoring much, and again refers back to his willingness to do whatever the team needs in order to win.

As you might expect, Smith has offers from most of the top programs in the nation. In addition to Duke, he has been offered by UNC, Florida, Kansas, Arizona, NC State, Wake Forest, VCU, Miami, and UNCC. Interestingly, he says that if he had to pick the school that is recruiting him the hardest, it would probably be NC State, with Florida second, and Duke third.

But Dennis and his dad clearly like Duke and like Coach K a lot, and said as much.

"What do you like the most about Duke?"

"Coach K. He wins. That's the main thing. He's a winner."

Smith has visited the Duke campus several times. He was impressed with the campus, got to see a couple of games, and hung out with the guys - mainly with fellow point guard Quinn Cook.

Dennis is excited about being recruited by Duke. "It feels great. They're winners, and I want to win in college. . . There's a lot of uniforms I could envision myself in, but Duke would be a good fit. I like the style of offense. We went into the film room when I was there, and watched some of the plays they run. They run a lot of pick & roll, it's up-tempo and guard-oriented, which is a good fit for my skills."

As far as the recruiting calendar goes, the Smiths do not currently have any more visits planned. But that will change. As more schools get involved and the Smiths take additional visits, gaining information along the way, Dennis' list will expand and contract. He told me he may start to cut it down at the end of his junior year.

His dad will help evaluate the options, but both father and son agree that ultimately it will be Junior's decision.

Anything can happen in recruiting. Everyone knows that. But Dennis Smith, Jr. is a super-elite player at a critical position that Duke is going to need to fill. Duke has shown him the love early, and the Smiths are definitely interested.