Eager to finally watch North Carolina State freshman Dennis Smith Jr. after he tore his ACL in the summer of 2015, NBA scouts already appear willing to look past the injury.
"Best point guard in the draft," one scout told Bleacher Report. "He has the opportunity to be an All-Star in the future. You rarely see college guys with such a killer instinct," he continued.
In September, one Western Conference executive named him his preseason favorite to go No. 1.
"I think Dennis legitimately, realistically, is the kind of player with a great year that could be the No. 1 pick in the draft," his head coach, Mark Gottfried, added during ACC media day, per NC State's official website.
Despite the fact that the last real game he played came over a year ago, there has been no shortage of preseason love for Smith due to his talent and upside.
Listed at 6'3" and 195 pounds with a 6'3" wingspan, Smith's measurements highlight fine size and a strong frame but limited length. Compared to Washington freshman Markelle Fultz (6'4", 6'9 ¾" wingspan)—another popular pick for the nation's No. 1 point guard and prospect—Smith's arms are significantly shorter.
It's something to watch as he attempts to finish among the trees, where he's not always as efficient as you'd think based on his athleticism. But he puts pressure on the defense with the ability to explode off both dribble hesitation and leaps at the rim.
A potent weapon in transition and constant threat to go coast-to-coast, bank on his current and future coaches emphasizing the need to push the tempo, particularly off misses. Smith's bounce is elite for a ball-handler, an attribute that fuels exciting upside but also keeps his knee under the microscope.
Smith fits the mold of the new true point guard in today's NBA: a scorer. Though a capable setup man, he's a bucket-getter first.
Other than transition, he generates most of his offense in the lane off runners and hang-time layups. Smith mixes quickness and ball-on-a-string handles to change speed and direction, break down defenses and create scoring chances. He's difficult to stay in front of, and his shiftiness opens up gaps that he can slice through and find space to either attack, toss up a floater or dish if a shot isn't there.
He has also flashed pull-up-scoring potential, a key for every guard, especially in ball-screen situations.
Though not known as a shooter, Smith has developed the shot-making ability to convert difficult and improvised jumpers, another attribute shared by the NBA's toughest scorers.
Smith is visibly confident, something that leads to fearless offense and points in bunches, as well as questionable shot selection and some lack of urgency.
He has the tendency to dribble too much and let the ball stick. He'll also settle for hero shots. Some are forced around interior traffic off drives, while others are low-percentage jumpers, either off balance or deep and out of rhythm.
He can be impulsive, too, trying to make unnecessary plays and look nonchalant while pulling the trigger.
Three-point shooting is the weakness likely to show most during his expected one-and-done college season. Clearly more comfortable attacking or finding stop-and-pop opportunities inside the arc, Smith doesn't take or make many triples.
On 196 attempts logged by DraftExpress (72 games), he's hit 29.1 percent, per Mike Schmitz. Smith should convince scouts that his long-range shot can improve—when he's hot, he can knock them down from anywhere.
How far away he looks from being a constant threat outside could be a needle-mover in the Smith-Fultz debate.
Smith's knack for pushing the pace, shaking defenders and penetrating naturally all lead to assist opportunities. He'll inevitably pick up a few dimes per game off drive-and-kicks or drive-and-dump-downs.
He has room to sharpen his pick-and-roll reads, though he can freeze the defense and deliver all the passes. The question is how efficiently he can run an offense and balance his own scoring with moving the ball and distributing.
Smith has strong playmaking potential if he can master the controls and timing. But knowing what buttons to press and when to hit them will be challenging as a primary decision-maker.
At the other end, foot speed, strength and competitiveness give Smith the chance to develop into a plus defender. He forces turnovers with pressure, and when engaged he can lock down opposing ball-handlers and blow up screens.
He doesn't offer the versatility to guard 2s or wings, though. And almost every one of his assignments will have a length advantage.
He didn't participate, but Smith joined NC State last winter after graduating high school early, a move that should only help him acclimate faster to his teammates and the system.
He looks poised to put up numbers for a squad whose previous starting point guard (Anthony Barber) registered a giant 30 percent usage rate, per Sports-Reference.com, and averaged 23.5 points and 4.5 assists.
Assuming Smith's knee returns to form, he'll cakewalk his way into this year's top-five conversation. He's physically and athletically gifted, with an advanced skill level and the intangibles lead guards require.
He'll start the year at No. 3 on my preseason draft board behind Fultz, who's bigger and more well-rounded with a superior perimeter game, and Kansas' Josh Jackson, an electric and versatile two-way wing.
Only time will tell how Smith develops as an orchestrator and shooter. Long-term, the answer could determine whether we're looking at an average, productive starter or one of the game's next franchise players.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted.