Dennis Smith Jr.’s struggles have taught him to bounce back, fight

Feb 15, 2017; Raleigh, NC, USA; North Carolina State Wolfpack guard Dennis Smith Jr. (4) is fouled by North Carolina Tar Heels forward Theo Pinson (1) during the first half at PNC Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 15, 2017; Raleigh, NC, USA; North Carolina State Wolfpack guard Dennis Smith Jr. (4) is fouled by North Carolina Tar Heels forward Theo Pinson (1) during the first half at PNC Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports /

Dennis Smith Jr. had to fight to get back from a knee injury and learn to bounce back from a losing season as he prepares for his next big challenge.

Dennis Smith Jr. said he never lost faith in himself or his abilities as he faced probably the two most difficult seasons of his young basketball career.

Smith had built himself up as one of the top prospects in the country heading into college, rising to No. 7 in the 247Sports Composite Rankings at the end of his senior year.

Or, rather, maybe that was falling to seventh. Smith did not play his senior year at Greenville (N.C.) Trinity Christian School in 2016. He tore his ACL his junior year and sat out watching his final high school days go by, enrolling early at NC State to get a jump start on his rehab and his college career.

His often brilliant play his lone year in Raleigh was enough to make him a surefire top-10 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. But the questions and frustrations still chased him.

His talented NC State team disappointed in about every way in finishing 15-17 with just four wins in the ACC. It was by Smith’s estimation the first losing season he had ever had in his basketball life.

It was also just another obstacle for him to overcome, driving him to this point on the precipice of the NBA Draft.

"“You have to take it head on,” Smith told Orlando Magic Daily about facing adversity like tearing his ACL in high school. “I was sad for about a day or two. I got over it quick. I was back in good spirits. I was taking it as a challenge.”"

The challenge now for Smith is to prove himself worthy of a high pick in the NBA Draft. Not just a high pick in the NBA Draft, but essentially the trust of the franchise’s future from whoever picks him.

He took the first step in proving that out when he worked out for the Orlando Magic at the Amway Center on Monday.

Smith proved a lot of what he can do on the court in college, averaging 18.1 points per game and 6.2 assists per game for the Wolfpack in their frustrating season. He shot an efficient 52.0 percent effective field goal percentage on a 27.2 percent usage rate.

NC State put the ball in his hands a lot. Opponents knew he was going to get the ball and geared defenses to stop him. Smith had to rely on teammates who often did not deliver. Yet, Smith rarely forced play — certainly, at times he did — keeping up his efficiency. He made many of the right basketball players as teams swarmed him.

Everyone knows the 6-foot-3 combo guard can score. What he has to prove in these workouts is whether he can hit open jumpers and work off the ball. He has to show his mobility and defensive potential. His burden of carrying a team will not be as great in the NBA so other skills will have to develop.

He said teams are likely going to be watching how he shoots the ball in the 1-on-0 workouts. They want to see him come around screens and put up shots in these settings to get a better sense of what he can do without the ball. His role at NC State was primarily to create everything for his teammates. That will change in the NBA.

And the Magic were eager to see what he could do in this setting. And who he is as a person.

"“The individual workout, especially on a 1-on-0 situation, it’s very hard to assess basketball because it’s such a team-oriented game and there’s flow with the team and how does he play within the team concept in a competitive situation,” Magic interim general manager Matt Lloyd said. “We focused a lot on getting a sense of his athleticism, which is fantastic and his size and his strength. It’s always hard to determine how someone is going to react to 5-on-5 situations versus the 1-on-0 workout. It’s much more important for us to get to know him as a person.”"

Smith, for his part, said he brings a winning mentality to the team. He acknowledged many may not see things that way after his team struggled to do that last year. But he said he is not one to back down from a challenge.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Or to rest on failure.

This has likely been the defining characteristic of Smith’s young basketball career. From the ACL injury to the team frustrations last year. Smith has found a way to bounce back.

Watching him play, he shows no ill effects from the injury. When he gets going downhill he can attack the basket explosively and beat players off the dribble. It is easy to see why Smith is among the top prospects in the draft.

Smith described himself as a “dog” and someone who wants to win every game. He said he never backs down from anybody. That kind of edge is certainly something every team wants in a potential franchise player.

That fire will be what teams hope they can harness into a future star.

Watching how he handled the adversity of that losing season and how he responds as a rookie will be what makes or breaks him early in his career. He is already learning how to keep that not-too-high, not-too-low balance that is necessary for the NBA. A hard lesson from a losing season last year.

"“I learned how to bounce back after a loss,” Smith told Orlando Magic Daily. “That was my first losing season ever since I started playing basketball. I know you are not going to win every game, especially in an 82-game season. I think last year was a great experience for me.”"

This workout is, of course, the first step in the process for Smith and for the Magic.

Smith, who has not hired an agent yet, said this was his first workout and he has not planned anymore in the future. That will surely change as teams begin lining themselves up after the NBA Draft Lottery. The picture becomes clearer after Tuesday for everyone.

Everyone seems a bit ready for things to pick up in the draft process. For Smith, he has been out of the limelight for some time since his season ended. There is an antsyness to get to the fruits of all these labors.

As he prepares for more job interviews like the one he had with the Magic on Monday, things are just getting started on his journey to the NBA. He still has a lot to prove.

The nervous, anxious and excited energy is present at alll times. But now is the time for Smith to shine.

"“It’s a good thing,” Smith said of the nerves before his workout. “Moreso than being nervous, I’m anxious. I’m excited to get everything started and show what I’ve got.”"

The Magic got their chance to look at this talented point guard and take their final notes on one of the players they may look at for that top pick they hold.

Next: Matt Lloyd: Orlando Magic accomplished a lot at NBA Draft Combine

One thing is certain, Smith is ready for any challenge anyone throws at him.