Franchise PG not available at No. 4? Dennis Smith Jr.’s upside says otherwise

May 21, 2017, 2:12 PM | Updated: May 22, 2017, 11:24 am

FILE - In this Jan. 23, 2017 file photo, North Carolina State's Dennis Smith Jr. (4) drives to the ...

FILE - In this Jan. 23, 2017 file photo, North Carolina State's Dennis Smith Jr. (4) drives to the basket as time expires in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Duke in Durham, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

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When the Phoenix Suns were the only team to fall more than one spot in the 2017 NBA Draft Lottery, the team most likely lost its chance at drafting one of two franchise-altering point guard prospects.

Washington’s Markelle Fultz and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball are expected to be the top two picks in the 2017 NBA Draft, and with that came the possibility of the Suns selecting either before trading Eric Bledsoe.

Phoenix will instead pick fourth and that dream appears to be dead, but the chance of selecting a point guard with the first-round pick and is not.

In terms of upside as a prospect, point guard Dennis Smith Jr. out of North Carolina State belongs right next to Ball and Fultz.

Despite being ranked closely to Fultz and well ahead of De’Aaron Fox and Ball last summer, Smith fell down draft boards to the 7-10 range during the course of his freshman season. This had less to do with Smith’s play for the Wolfpack, where he averaged 18.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game on 45-36-72 shooting percentages, and more to do with other prospects outshining him.

Smith and Fultz are the only three-level scorers in this draft class. They can get to the basket, score from the midrange and shoot from three-point range. Both are also top-tier athletes in terms of speed and bounce, which helps further this distinction.

Smith’s profile all begins with his athleticism.

He doesn’t get enough credit as a pick-and-roll player, where he will show off his very advanced combination of agility, ball-handling, footwork and passing ability.

Give a player like Smith more shooters and space and you’ve really got something in those situations.

Smith can routinely set others up because he’s a very good self-creator with the best pull-up game of anyone in the draft outside of Fultz. As Cole Zwicker of The Step Back wrote with detail, Smith’s footwork on a shot like this against Duke is outstanding. He consistently showcased NBA range on his jumper.

There’s more there in the midrange areas as well.

The “upside argument” begins, as Zwicker notes in the piece, with Smith’s poor efficiency numbers on pull-ups. Those numbers on a bad team can be a bit misleading, and the tape shows he can get buckets and would benefit with more talent around him.

Continuing on the upside theme, defense is without a doubt where the largest gap lies between what Smith likely will be and what he could be. His athleticism, ironically enough, translates best as a perimeter defender, where he’s showcased top-level lateral movement.

Unfortunately, Smith’s effort was flat-out awful in several circumstances during his season and he didn’t consistently show the drive required to be a good perimeter defender.

On the other side of the floor, two major parts of Smith’s offensive game will swing how good he can be: his shot and his finishing around the rim.

The best example of how these can all come together was his game at Duke, where he took advantage of the stage by scoring 32 points on 18 shots and taking over the game late for the upset win.

Shooting the ball, his footwork was on full display. Smith loves to use jab steps and hesitation steps as a way to not only create space for his jumper but create a rhythm too. This is something to keep in mind later on.

His finishing was terrific. Smith can take bumps from his initial defender without much issue and finish. He’s less of the type of player to take the bump into a rim protector and still finish, but he’s capable of the occasional acrobatic finish.

Only 20.4 percent of his offense at the rim was assisted this year and he shot 64.9 percent, per Hoop-Math.com. De’Aaron Fox, who is noted for his skill attacking and scoring at the rim, had similar numbers at 64.2 percent shooting at the rim and 19.6 percent of those makes being assisted. Fultz’s numbers are at 17.4 percent assisted at the rim for a 61.6 shooting percentage.

Smith’s finishing isn’t seen as one of his core strengths as a prospect, but he was similar to Fultz and Fox, who it’s well-noted for.

With those skills in mind, there are times when neither the jumper or the finishing are working for him.

On the year, Smith shot 35.9 percent from three-point range. As this DraftExpress video notes, Smith relies on forward momentum before getting into his shot, and the mechanics of it are flawed.

Smith’s offense is all based on his ability to shoot. If he’s not efficient at the next level shooting all over the court, his transition will be very bumpy.

His offensive ceiling is somewhat capped because of his finishing as well.

For those who are tired of hearing about wingspans, Smith’s a textbook example of why they are so important. Smith didn’t attend the NBA Combine, thus not getting measured, but his last measurements in 2014 had him at a 6-foot-3 wingspan at nearly 6-foot-2. He was listed at 6-foot-3 at N.C. State, indicating there wasn’t much significant growth and from the looks of it, he didn’t get much longer.

Even in some of those (good) finishes against Duke, Smith lacks explosion and doesn’t get very high off the ground on layups. Lacking a freakish wingspan, Smith’s unable to lay the ball off the backboard as naturally as many NBA guards. This presents the defense several opportunities to contest him at the rim, which showed up on the tape.

Smith will need to either improve his bounce on those finishes or become more crafty. It is worth noting Smith is coming off a torn ACL in the summer of 2015, which could still be hurting him in those moments. He athleticism could come back over time.

Lastly, Smith is still learning how to become a pure point guard, something he didn’t get much practice at carrying so much of the offensive load as a freshman. He has the passing ability and vision, but at N.C. State he was still battling to understand the right time to pick his spots.

Like scouting Fultz at Washington, it’s a challenge between reading too much into a bad situation and understanding a legitimate concern.

Regardless of which team is picking Smith, if it’s a top-5 pick, anyone would be betting on his upside coming to fruition and him becoming an All-Star point guard.

The possibility of Smith being picked at No. 4 all depends on the Suns’ read on him. Given the situation they were put in after the lottery and the chance the top-3 prospects are off the board, there’s no clear-cut prospect that fits.

If Phoenix views him as a top-5 prospect, Smith’s a fine choice. If Ryan McDonough and staff are worried about his development, though, several prospects will be ranked ahead of him.

Besides the selection of Smith in a vacuum, the case against taking he or Fox at No. 4 is that drafting a point guard puts the Suns in a bind regarding Bledsoe and Tyler Ulis. Both prospects aren’t sure things worth shipping out Bledsoe, but they’d need playing time from the jump and that would push Ulis out of the rotation after he proved his rookie season he’s at least a capable backup point guard.

Smith’s upside, however, is extremely tempting and if the scouting reports of the top-10 players in the draft lean a certain way in the Suns’ front office, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear his name called at No. 4.

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