INBOX: The Dennis Smith Jr. Edition
Andy G: Most people expect the Wolves to use their lottery pick on a forward. Right now (writing this Sunday, June 11) both Jonathan Givony and Chad Ford have Thibs taking Lauri Markkanen with the 7th pick, right after the Orlando Magic select a Jonathan Isaac. Both Markkanen and Isaac are forwards whose long-term upside is probably highest as a “stretch 4.” Jeremy Woo of Sports Illustrated has the Wolves taking Isaac. So does his colleague, Andrew Sharp.
I think it’s safe to say that the consensus prediction is that Thibs-Layden, LLC will draft either Isaac or Markkanen, and that makes good sense. Their young nucleus includes a pair of wings and a center, and the team’s best veteran player is a point guard. They also spent last year’s 5th overall pick on a point guard, and saw much-improved second-year play from Tyus Jones, a point guard who is also the youngest player on the team. Combine this with the fact that both Isaac and Markkanen are pegged as the best likely “value” at the 7 spot, and it makes a lot of sense that the Wolves would take one of them to plug in the long-term lineup between Wiggins and Towns.
But this discussion is about a different possibility — one a bit more radical, but also potentially more exciting.
We’re here to talk about Dennis Smith Jr., the explosive point guard out of NC State, and the (remote?) possibility that Thibs will draft him as his
Kris Dunn Mulligan long-term point guard project.
Dennis Smith has a Pro Day June 15th. Timberwolves, Mavericks and Pistons among those scheduled to attend, sources told Basketball Insiders.
— Michael Scotto (@MikeAScotto) June 13, 2017
Patrick J, you’ve been intrigued by Dennis Smith since before you actually saw him play and he was only a blurb of Draft Express text. Tell the people why the Wolves wouldn’t be crazy to draft him instead of a player who theoretically fits better with their core.
Patrick J: Smith is probably the most explosive athlete in this draft who can actually play basketball well. His highlight reel dunks are up there with Zach LaVine’s. There aren’t (m)any players about whom one can say that. I mean, this is just silly-freaky athleticism.
But, the last time I checked, dunks aren’t worth more points than any other kind of shot. As much as I loved NBA Jam, drafting someone because they dunk good isn’t necessarily a winning strategy, unless the ends you seek are ticket sales, if not wins.
But Smith is more than a human clone of (good) Steve Francis or a human collage of jaw-dropping dunks. He put up big numb#rs – 18.1 points, 6.2 assists and 4.6 rebounds – in his freshman season at North Carolina State. Among a group of talented point guards in this year’s draft, which includes Markelle Fultz of Washington, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox of Kentucky, and Smith Jr., only Ball averaged more assists per game than did Smith. In his scouting report on Smith Jr., Zach Harper highlighted how really impressive those stats were
The main knocks on Dennis Smith Jr. are (1) his NC State team lost a lot last season–15-17, 13th place in the ACC–and (2) his ball-dominance might veer toward the selfish, which could suggest attitude problems. But, at least by the first of those criticisms, how should we view Markelle Fultz? For me, Smith has a huge upside, particularly as the sort of slashing, dashing point guard Thibodeau likes. Rubio’s time in Minnesota could be coming to an end. And Kris Dunn is (at least) two years from being two years away (3:33) from being a high-quality NBA point guard. So, if Dennis Smith is the best-player available when the Wolves draft at 7, I hope they take him.
One other thing to bear in mind is that Smith suffered (and appears to have recovered from) a fairly serious knee injury before his senior year of high school. In short, there are some red flags that need to be investigated and due diligence that needs to be done before the draft.
Do you view Smith as a risk? Who would you pick if Smith and Markkanen are both on the board when the Wolves are on the clock? (Eds. Note: Patrick J gets up from his desk, checks to see if his IKEA bookshelf is indeed a “Markkanen,” and sighs in disappointment that it is not.)
Andy G: The hilarious, yet awesome, part of getting hyped for the NBA draft is that we tend to view each prospect as the best possible version of their future selves. That means that we see Lauri M in a grainy YouTube video making 19 straight corner threes, and this means he is a Finnish Larry Bird; not something closer to Doug McDermott. It means that Jonathan Isaac is some wild combination of Giannis and Serge Ibaka. And it means that Dennis Smith Junior is going to be Steve Francis or even — puts on hyperbole shoes — a bigger Damian Lillard; NOT Nate Robinson or even (wait for it…) Jonny Flynn, 2.0 (!).
Yes, I view Smith as a risk, but not necessarily a much bigger one than the alternatives like Lauri & Isaac. (Eds note: “Lauri & Isaac” sounds like a morning talk show.) In Smith’s case, I suppose the biggest risk is that he sucks on defense (he was bad on D in college and he has short arms) and that he can’t quite terrorize defenses enough off the dribble to make a meaningful impact on the offensive end of the floor. If you’re drafting Smiff (Eds note: Sorry, I mean “Smith”), you’re hoping to add an Alpha Dawg to your offensive nucleus. If he isn’t that, then he probably isn’t very good overall. In Lauri’s case, the risk is simply that he can’t stay on the floor against first-tier competition because his feet are too slow. In Isaac’s case, I suppose the risk is that he doesn’t put together a very useful skillset and instead becomes something like Wesley Johnson — playable, but also very forgettable. I actually think Isaac is the least “risky” prospect, because of the near certainty he will be athletic enough to matchup against all types of opponents.
Let me revisit something I just wrote and pass it over to you:
Dennis Smith projects to be an alpha guy — the dude with the ball in his hands who breaks down the defense.
Is this something that the Wolves need or would benefit from? Wig, La Vine and of course KAT all want the ball, too. Can they incorporate another young scorer?
Patrick J: Always. For one thing, a scoring point guard is one thing the Wolves decidedly don’t have right now: Ricky is a defensive-minded passing wizard; Dunn is a gritty defender; Tyus Jones is a pure point who can distribute, knock down open treys, and make teardrop floaters in the lane. Smith Jr.–a body hunter extraordinaire–would bring a different look to the table. I envision him getting himself deep into the lane and having the ability to be a threat not just as a scorer, but as a facilitator for KAT, LaVine, and Wiggins via little drop passes and kickouts, depending on how defenses collapse when he puts pressure on them via dribble penetration.
I have to come clean on one thing: I don’t know anything about Smith’s potential as a defender. This is an aspect of any potential lotto pick’s game on which Thibs places weight (Eds. Note: Exhibit A: Dunn, Kris.) will be evaluating.
So I’m punting it back to you: Can Dennis Smith Jr. defend NBA point guards?
Andy G: Well, after watching hours of tape of Dennis Smith fighting through screens–
[bursts out laughing]
Yeah, I don’t know either, but you know who does?
The good folks at The Ringer. In their draft guide profile on Smith, they list the following as some of his “minuses”:
Poor defensive effort; dies on screens, can grind in man-to-man when he’s engaged, but often looks sluggish and takes it easy off-ball.
They also mention his short arms, which generally project to sub-par NBA defense in this era of team schemes and switching.
So, I doubt he’ll become any sort of good defensive player. But he is crazy athletic and with the Wolves he’d get top-notch defensive coaching. So it’s possible he’ll be fine on defense, even if it’s never his strong suit. A better question, with a longer and already-beaten-like-a-dead-horse answer, is whether adding a new point guard and permanently marking in both LaVine and Wiggins in the starting lineup is a good idea, defensively. But that’s too many words off script for this discussion.
Last point before closing and it’s getting back to my own question to you about whether the Wolves can incorporate another scorer:
I don’t know how good or bad the chemistry would be if the LaVine-Wiggins-KAT nucleus had passing Rubio replaced by slashing and shooting Smiff. It’s possible it would be #turrible. But one thing I do know is that the current Timberwolves team struggles against good defenses in the 2nd Half when perimeter pressure is turned up and opponents challenge them to drive to the basket. Rubio can’t do it, because he’s not athletic enough. LaVine isn’t strong enough (yet?). Wiggins doesn’t dribble well enough (yet?). (Wig can get all the way to the rim, no doubt, but it’s more often either off of a catch on the move, with a head of steam, or when he gets the ball closer to the hoop where it only requires 1 or 2 simple, hard dribbles.) If Dennis Smith Jr. really is a Steve Francis type of guard who can blow past his own defender with ease, he would bring a new weapon to this team’s arsenal, and it’s one that might make them a lot better in those annoying 3rd Quarters that plagued them so often last year. The Wolves jumped on a lot of teams with surprising defense turned into transition offense in the first half. When [insert veteran, well-coached team that knows how to control the ball and play defense] came out of halftime, they would crank the pressure WAY up, and it was painful to watch the Wolves struggle to adapt. Sometimes you need a dude who can just take the ball and go to the rim. Smith might be the guy.
Anyway, we’ll have more on the likely targets as the draft gets closer, but don’t sleep entirely on Dennis Smith Jr. and the possibility that Thibs will draft him.