Torn ACL was best thing to happen to Dennis Smith Jr., NC State

NC State freshman Dennis Smith Jr. has scored at least 11 points and had at least three assists in each of the Wolfpack's games. William Howard/Icon Sportswire

RALEIGH, N.C. -- NC State guard Dennis Smith Jr. could be incrementally working his way back right now, just like Duke forward Harry Giles.

Both supremely talented freshmen suffered torn ACL injuries that prevented them from playing their respective senior seasons in high school.

Giles just made his season debut Monday against Tennessee State after missing the Blue Devils’ first 11 games this season, while Smith has been soaring for the Wolfpack from the start.

Smith ranks fifth in the ACC with 18.5 points per game and fourth with 5.4 assists per game -- the top freshman in both categories. So far, he has lived up to being voted the preseason ACC Rookie of the Year, receiving more votes than Duke’s more-publicized duo of Giles and Jayson Tatum combined.

And Smith believes he has the knee injury to thank for it.

“I really believe that getting hurt was one of the best things that happened to me before college,” Smith said.

The fortune from Smith’s unfortunate injury goes back to what he called a random conversation with his dad. They were driving home from a visit to the doctor when Smith brought up the idea of graduating early in order to enroll in January at NC State.

When Smith approached Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried, he was all for it. It allowed Smith a chance for supervised rehabilitation under the team’s doctors and physical therapists.

The Fayetteville, North Carolina, native said he used the time he wasn't competing to study the pick-and-roll by watching highlights of NBA players Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard.

But Smith said what helped the most was gaining insight into the college game that could be learned only through experience.

“He’s watching practice; he’s at the game; he’s in the pregame talk, postgame talk, he’s watching things -- I think that has given him a great advantage,” Gottfried said. “He’s a lot more comfortable now. Even though he didn’t play in the ACC, he went through a season watching, and so I think that’s been a big plus for him.”

What Gottfried -- and even Smith’s dad -- didn’t find out until later was that an unscientific test of Smith's knee gave him the confidence to make that early jump to school.

It had been barely two months since Smith had surgery on the ACL in his right knee, but he found the allure of the rim too tempting. Still half a year from being fully cleared by his doctor, Smith wanted to see whether he still had it.

He was among friends, so Smith walked up to the basket and with two hands dunked the basketball, recovering knee and all.

“People were making weird faces like it’s not supposed to happen,” Smith said. “Then I went to a tomahawk, and from that I went to a windmill. After that, I was like, ‘I’m good now.’”

Smith has a little showman in him, but he doesn't come across as a show-off. So when word trickled out that he’d been on the court, he denied it to anyone who asked. He didn’t even tell his father at first.

“I was surprised and angry at the same time because he had no business doing that,” Dennis Smith Sr. said with a laugh. “You don’t risk no injury like that. It’s just, he’s different. That’s all that I can say.”

Smith’s head-start allowed him to sit on the bench with senior guard Terry Henderson, who was injured at the start of last season, and guard Torin Dorn, who had to sit out after transferring from Charlotte. After every game, they would discuss what went right and wrong for the Wolfpack and how they might do it differently when they began playing.

The bonding began from there. By being able to observe the second half of last season, Smith got a better grasp of what he needed to do for this team.

“A big part was being in the locker room with guys seeing how to interact with Coach that nobody else got to see,” Smith said. “Regardless of who you are, you don’t see that, and I got to see that last year firsthand. It gives you a slight edge.”

Smith could become NC State’s first one-and-done player since J.J. Hickson was selected 19th overall by Cleveland in the 2008 NBA draft. ESPN’s Chad Ford listed Smith at No. 4 on his original 2017 Big Board.

Ask Gottfried, and he might say being fourth is too late.

When advised to take some of the pressure off Smith and downplay his role at the school’s media day, Gottfried stepped to the podium and proclaimed Smith the best guard in America.

“I talked to Dennis before that press conference and told him what I was going to say,” Gottfried said. “No. 1, I believe it, I think people need to hear me say it. It’s not to add additional pressure on him. I think he’s the kind of guy who wants the bar to be really high so he can chase that bar. He wants it. He thrives with it. He’s not afraid of that.”

It’s why Smith is the perfect player to lift NC State out of the ever-present shadow of those programs in Chapel Hill and Durham.

“He’s a special player -- one of a kind,” junior forward Abdul-Malik Abu said. “He brings a different dynamic to the game, like a different confidence level for everybody.”