Fayetteville’s Dennis Smith Jr. describes the N.C. State basketball program as “overlooked underdogs.”
That just might change after Smith’s commitment to the Wolfpack on Thursday. Smith (6-3, 185 pounds) is rated as the top point guard in the class of 2016 and ranked as the No. 4 overall prospect in the country by ESPN and Rivals.
Smith, who grew up an N.C. State fan, is the highest-rated recruit to commit to the Wolfpack and coach Mark Gottfried, according to recruiting rankings that go back to 1998. N.C. State beat Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and a host of other national programs for Smith’s services.
Smith might be the first high school player to choose the Wolfpack over Duke and North Carolina since the legendary David Thompson did more than 40 years ago.
“When it comes to Duke and North Carolina, N.C. State is viewed as the underdog,” Smith said in an interview Thursday. “I told coach Gottfried, I like being the underdog.”
And Smith has already started recruiting other top players in the class. Power forward Edrice “Bam” Adebayo, from High Point, is rated No. 8 in the class by ESPN and is one of his best friends and AAU teammates.
“Of course, he was the first person I reached out to after I made my decision,” Smith said.
When it comes to Duke and North Carolina, N.C. State is viewed as the underdog. I told coach Gottfried, I like being the underdog.
Dennis Smith, on why he picked the Wolfpack
Evan Daniels, the director of basketball recruiting for Scout, called Smith a “game-changer” for Gottfried and the Wolfpack program, not only for his talent but his ability to attract other top recruits.
“This isn’t your normal, five-star pickup,” Daniels said. “This 2016 class is absurdly good, and he’s a guy that other kids in the class want to play with.
“This could be the start of a very, very good class for N.C. State.”
Smith has been compared to John Wall, the Washington Wizards’ star from Raleigh, for his natural athletic ability. Smith’s quickness and scoring ability have also put him in the same category with Allen Iverson, the retired NBA legend formerly of the Philadelphia 76ers.
“I don’t know about all that,” Smith said. “I’m a point guard, and I like to get my teammates involved.”
Smith averaged 22.2 points as a junior for Trinity Christian and was having a standout summer with Team Loaded before injuring his left knee on Aug. 2. He had surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament five days later and is expected to be sidelined for six to nine months.
“Rehab is progressing faster than what they expected,” Smith said.
He is hoping to be full speed by April and was confident he would be fully healthy by the start of his first college season in 14 months.
N.C. State was the first major program to offer Smith a scholarship, back in his sophomore year, he said. That helped when Smith was making his final decision. He also pointed out that Gottfried had been at all of his games this summer.
And when Gottfried and assistant coach Orlando Early took a helicopter trip to Fayetteville on Wednesday, to see Smith, that was the “icing on the cake,” Smith said.
Gottfried has had success in his first four seasons at N.C. State, making the NCAA tournament all four years and the Sweet 16 twice (2015 and ’12). He has made progress on the recruiting trail, too, landing 10 players ranked in the top 100 and four McDonald’s All-Americans, but none that were rated in the top 10.
N.C. State has had only had two other top 10 recruits – guard Julius Hodge (No. 7 in 2001) and forward J.J. Hickson (No. 9 in 2007), according to the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, which has tracked classes since 1998.
Recruiting records before then are incomplete, but it’s possible Thompson, who led the Wolfpack to the 1974 NCAA title and is considered the greatest player in ACC history, is the last star recruit who N.C. State landed ahead of both the Tar Heels and Blue Devils.
If Smith has anything to do with it, other top 10 recruits will follow, setting up the 2016-17 season to be a special one for the Wolfpack.
“It’s like dominoes,” Smith said. “You get one piece, and the others will fall into place.”
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio