FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. – Dennis Smith Jr. can understand why you’re mystified.
If what he says is true – that he feels “overlooked,” “underrated” and “unknown” – then how does he explain the more than 1.5 million views on his YouTube highlight videos? What’s with the thousands of Twitter followers who beg for retweets and a commitment to their respective colleges on a daily basis and what about the hordes of autograph and picture seekers who hold him hostage after games?
The truth is that Smith, a sophomore point guard at Trinity Christian (Fayetteville, N.C.), is about as overlooked, underrated and unknown as Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman is humble.
“Yeah but you’ve gotta understand,” explained Smith. “This is all new to me. I still feel like I’ve got something to prove. It’s just how I’m built.”
Smith doesn’t have the whole “child prodigy” story.
He wasn’t Damon Harge, the 14-year-old hoops phenom at Orlando Christian Prep (Orlando, Fla.) whose exceptional abilities allowed him to play varsity ever since he was a 12-year-old sixth grader.
In fact, the first time most people, outside of his hometown of Fayetteville, N.C., had ever heard of Smith was when he wound up on the Sportscenter Top 10 after posterizing an opposing player during an AAU tournament last summer.
“I got him pretty good I think,” Smith said with a laugh. “It was a pretty good dunk.”
That was one of many highlights during one of the most productive summers of any player on the circuit. When that dominant play was met with a snub in the national rankings, Smith had a familiar reaction.
“I was expecting to be left out of the national rankings,” he said. “I’m just so used to people overlooking me. I mean, of course, I wanted to be ranked; who doesn’t? But did it surprise me? No.”
Smith’s father Dennis Sr. kept a consistent message that was as simple as it was difficult to accept.
“I just told him not to worry about any of that stuff,” Dennis Sr. said. “We’ve always known that he had the talent and the one thing he could control was how hard he worked. My consistent message to him was to keep working hard; the benefits would come in time.”
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Still, c’mon, the whole “everything will work itself out” spiel is a tough sell for a kid whose dominant play basically went unnoticed nationally.
“I’d definitely get a little down at times,” Smith said. ‘But I just had to listen to my dad and everyone telling me to just keep playing hard. I started to believe that my time would come.”
Ironically, it came right around Christmas.
Smith’s coming out party, at least nationally, was just last month at the High School OT Holiday Invitational, one of the country’s top Christmas tournaments which brings in elite talent from around the country.
There he averaged 28 points, eight assists and seven rebounds against elite players like Hammond’s (Columbia, S.C.) Seventh Woods, HCYA’s (Houston) Justin Jackson, a North Carolina signee, and Carlisle’s (Axton, Va.) Thon Maker, the top ranked player in Smith’s class.
“Everyone took notice after that,” Trinity Christian coach Heath Vandevender said. “He put on the full display of what he’s capable of on the biggest stage. It was perfect because he showed everyone that he’s a lot more than just a dunker. That’s all you see in those highlight videos.”
Phenom Hoop Repot recruiting analyst Justin Byerly agreed that typecasting Smith as a creative dunker is a mistake; not for a player with “no glaring weakness to his game.”
“What I love about him is that he really gets better every year,” said Byerly, who ranks Smith No. 2 in North Carolina among 2016 players. “He doesn’t have a real weakness; he’s got things that he could improve on, but, honestly, he’s still good at even those. He’s a special player. Definitely a lot more than a dunker.”
Still, don’t get him wrong, Smith is perfectly fine with the dunker label.
“One hundred percent,” said Smith, who is averaging 18 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds a five steals a game this season. “I like to dunk on people, and if fans come in thinking that’s all I do they won’t leave thinking the same thing. So I’m OK with it. I’m just enjoying basketball right now.”
Smith came up watching All Americans like Connecticut’s Rodney Purvis, former N.C. State star C.J. Leslie and former No. 1 pick John Wall dominate on the court in high school only to get bombarded by fans before they could reach the locker rooms.
Now, to have it happening to him…
“Is unreal,” said Smith, who holds down a 3.75 GPA. “One of my friends still has an autograph posted up that he got from John Wall years ago. I can’t even believe people want to take pictures with me and get my autograph. It’s crazy. I know people say this all the time, but I really mean it; I’m humbled by it all. I appreciate it all.”
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Especially the attention from college coaches.
Charlotte, N.C. State, Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest and VCU have all expressed interest in Smith.
“I actually grew up an N.C. State fan,” said Smith, who stands 6-foot-2. “My grandma liked them a lot and I liked whatever she liked. But none of that will affect where I’ll go to college. I’m liking all of the schools now that I’m getting to know the coaches better. I’m not thinking about that seriously right now anyway. It’s so early; but I know that’ll be tough.”
The new struggle for Smith is to keep the “underrated player” chip firmly planted on his shoulder despite his newfound fame; a feat that is arguably more difficult than reaching elite status.
“It’s definitely different,” Smith conceded. “But this is how I think; if I’m not No. 1 then I’m not where I want to be. But even if I get to be No. 1 there will always be someone out there that thinks I don’t deserve it. I want to leave that person with no doubt. That’s how I play. All my life I’ve been thinking, ‘People just don’t know.”
Now they’re starting to learn.
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY