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Mark Gottfried not afraid to call Dennis Smith best guard in the nation

Michael Berg/Icon Sportswire

Six years ago at the start of the 2010-’11 season, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski declared unequivocally that Kyrie Irving was his starting point guard. He considered him one of the best players in the nation.

Irving didn’t disappoint.

He was a one-and-done as the first pick of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers. He was impressive despite playing only nine regular-season games before a toe injury sidelined him for all but three NCAA Tournament contests.

I haven’t heard a coach as confident in his freshman guard until now. North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried said unambiguously he believes freshman point guard Dennis Smith Jr. is the best guard in the nation.

“I will stand here in front of you today and say I think Dennis Smith is the best guard in the in the country – period, hands down, that’s my opinion,” Gottfried told the media on Sept. 29 before the start of preseason practice.

“He’s young, and he still has to learn. There is a learning curve, even for those players who are very talented. But I have a strong opinion on how good I think he is. I wouldn’t choose anybody over him.”

NBA scouts apparently agree. Some mock 2017 NBA draft boards have projected Smith as the No. 1 overall pick.

The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Smith from Fayetteville (N.C.) Trinity Christian is highly touted despite having missed his senior year of high school with a torn ACL. The injury he suffered August 7, 2015, required reconstructive surgery, but he graduated in December and spent the winter rehabbing his knee while enrolled as an N.C. State freshman.

“I’ve never had a player do what Dennis did,” Gottfried said. “I think it’s a big advantage for him. A lot of times we forget these guys are student-athletes – students on campus. It gave Dennis a chance academically to get familiar with our campus and to go to classes. He did exceptionally well at school.

“He also had the opportunity to get integrated with the team and to practice and to watch and to see. He was around our team and coaches to learn our culture and how we do things. From that perspective, it’s been a big benefit to him.”

The man Mark Gottfried couldn't get: Dennis Smith Jr. (NC State) in action during the adidas Global Nations at the Next Level Sports Complex in Garden Grove, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

The man who will help Mark Gottfried: Dennis Smith Jr. (NC State) in action during the adidas Global Nations at the Next Level Sports Complex in Garden Grove, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

I was fortunate to see Smith play in high school as a junior at the Holiday Invitational in Raleigh. You didn’t have to be John Wooden to see he had the talent and savvy beyond a kid that had recently turned 17 years old in December of 2014. Smith could have played college ball then. He instinctively knew when to attack and when to pull the ball out. It’s not something easily taught.

Some guys just have an “it” factor to them. Earvin “Magic” Johnson – who became known as simply Magic in the NBA – was such a player.

I was a student scribe on the “State News” when Johnson played for the Spartans. He turned around the program as a freshman in 1977-’78. As a sophomore in 1978-’79, led Michigan State to the NCAA title.

Johnson came out of nearby Lansing (Mi.) Everett in 1977. He was considered one of the top three high school recruits in the nation along with Albert King of Brooklyn (N.Y.) Fort Hamilton and Eugene Banks of West Philadelphia.

King and Banks received more attention from national publications such as Sports Illustrated (this was long before the Internet and endless recruiting service rankings). They were players from the East committed to colleges with grander basketball reputations than Michigan State had in the 1970s – King went to Maryland, Banks to Duke.

Yet, anybody who had seen Johnson play doubted King or Banks could be better, with or without seeing them. Johnson had the “it” factor.

History proved Johnson was better. Magic is in the Basketball Hall of Fame with an NCAA title and five NBA crowns. King and Banks both had limited NBA careers and finished their pro days playing overseas.

I’m not predicting that kind of success for Dennis Smith, but Gottfried isn’t the type to fire from the hip. For him to state this much confidence in Smith prior to his freshman season, believe him.

Something else to like about Smith is that he grew up an N.C. State fan. He committed early once he trusted Gottfried from having watched him guide the Wolfpack to the NCAA Tournament his first four season in Raleigh.

Smith otherwise could have joined one of the cartels at Kentucky or Duke. In this age of social media, elite recruits follow each other like lemmings. Kentucky is more of an NBA combine than a college program. Duke is attracting talent in the same proportions.

Smith decided to stick with his heart. He won’t be just another star to come out of Kentucky or Duke. He will make his own name at N.C. State. He may need only one year to do it.

Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter @shanny4055.

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