To say Dennis Smith Sr. and his son Dennis Smith Jr. are ‘close’ would be an understatement. The two are nearly inseparable.
Senior, a single parent in North Carolina, didn’t just raise Dennis Jr. to be one of the best incoming freshmen in college basketball next season (not to mention a projected top 5 NBA Draft pick next spring), but like so many parents before him, literally put a ball in Junior’s hands before he could even walk. He spent his son’s childhood teaching him the skills of a point guard, knowing that whether he grew tall or not, he’d always have a place on the court. And he coached him through thousands of games, from the youth level straight to high school, where Smith Sr. ran Team Loaded, one of the best youth programs in the country over the past few summers.
Smith Sr. has literally been there every step of the way, making it a bit ironic that in one of the most important moments of his son’s career, he was 3,000 miles away, at home in North Carolina. In one of the few games, and few events he didn’t attend, Adidas Nations — a top high school showcase in Garden Grove, California — Smith Jr., went down with a knee injury.
The terrified father received an unexpected call from a friend traveling with Smith Jr. Details were scarce, and Smith Sr. was terrified.
“Dennis is hurt, Dennis is hurt,” Smith Sr. remembered his friend screaming into the phone. “I’ll call you right back [he said]. It was the worst feeling possible.”
It was the worst feeling possible, but if you’re worried about there being a sad ending to the story of a can’t-miss basketball prospect, don’t be. It’s actually quite the opposite. Dennis Jr. returned to the court this weekend at Adidas Nations — this time as a college counselor — and on the same courts where there was fear that his basketball dreams would be taken away, Junior instead added the latest and arguably most important chapter this past weekend. Playing in his first signature games since the injury, Smith Jr. not only survived, but thrived. Against some of the top college players in the country, Smith Jr. was a bona fide star, scoring 17 points, to go along with four assists and six steals, in front of NBA scouts, in his first full, five-on-five game with referees since the injury.
Most importantly, he showed both Friday night and throughout the weekend, that a year after the first major injury of his career, he was back to 100 percent.
Actually, even better than that.
“110 percent,” Smith Jr. said, when asked, on a scale of 1-100 how his knee was feeling. “110 percent for sure.”
For Smith Jr., the road to recovery was hard, and started the day of his diagnosis last year. Smith Jr. knew before he even left California that he had torn his ACL, an injury that would require him to sit out at least 10 months and miss his entire senior year of basketball. But when he got home, he quickly realized that the injury — while serious — might not have been as worse as originally feared. There was no pain and swelling in his knee, allowing doctors to operate almost right away. And when they did go in for surgery, they found a surprise:
Smith Jr. had an extra ligament in his knee. If you didn’t even know that was possible, you’re certainly not alone, as only 20 percent of all humans have one, doctors told Smith Sr. But those who do have the added benefit of quicker recovery times when coming off serious injuries like the one Junior suffered.
LONG BEACH, CA- July 31, 2016: adidas Nations at the Next Level Sports Complex, Long Beach, CA. (Copyright: Todd Burandt/adidas)
“Adrian Peterson has the same thing,” Smith Sr. said. “That’s what allowed him to come back so fast.”
Smith Jr. wasn’t back right away, but frankly it didn’t take nearly as long as many might think.
“I’m a single parent, I still had to take care of him like a baby for a while,” Smith Sr. said. But after those first few days, Junior did the rest. He began lifting free weights in bed just days after surgery, strengthening his back and shoulders, and making sure that even if his lower-body started out a little weaker, his upper body wouldn’t be.
Then came the lower body, which came a short time after. Just a few short weeks after the surgery, Smith Jr. wasn’t just back on his feet. He was back dunking.
“I had to slow him down,” Smith Sr. said. “He was dunking two weeks after he got out [of surgery].”
With Smith Jr. on the road to recovery, it led to the biggest decision of his life, and then the surprising, arguably even bigger decision that followed afterward.
Smith Jr. committed to NC State in November, deciding to attend the school that his father and grandmother grew up rooting for. He chose the Wolfpack because, as he said, their coaching staff built trust ‘by coming to every game they could come to." But then came another decision: He wanted to enroll early. With his senior year of basketball off the table, he began to wonder: Why wait to the summer to get to campus, if he could possibly get there in January, in time for the winter semester?
“His dream was always to play in the McDonald’s All-American game,” Smith Sr. said. “Once we realized that was off the table, he asked me ‘Dad is this possible?’ It was actually his idea [to enroll early]. It came from him.”
The idea behind the decision was multi-fold. For starters, he needed to rehab, and both father and son knew that the best possible treatment he could get on the knee would come from the NC State coaching staff. Plus, it would also give him a jump-start on academics. Once on campus, Smith Jr. thrived academically as well. He finished 18 credits during a time that he could have easily been at home, cruising through his final season of high school ball.
Instead, he was on campus getting to know his teammates, making friends and enjoying one class in particular.
“Sociology,” Smith Jr. said, when asked what his favorite class was. “That’s my major. I like sociology. It’s the study of human interaction.”
That last statement is ironic as well, since Smith Jr. spent plenty of time interacting on the court with his teammates. He watched from the sidelines as the team struggled last season, but was cleared to play in April, and has spent as much time on the court as possible getting to know them.
He played with teammates Maverick Rowan and Abdul-Malik Abu at Adidas Nations this weekend, and anyone watching closely could see an already emerging chemistry among the trio. Add in other members of a highly-ranked recruiting class and several other returning upperclassmen, and the Wolfpack could be in for a surprise 2016-17 season.
Things didn’t go as planned last year, but Smith Jr. is coming to change that next year.
“Come in and win games,” Smith Jr. said of his stated goal. “The ultimate goal for everybody is to win the national championship, but we’ll take it one game at a time.”
That’s obviously music to the Wolfpack fans who spent the whole weekend following Smith Jr.’s every move at Adidas Nations. Articles were written and tweets were shared about his progress, but most important, they were simply glad to see him 100 percent. Or 110 percent.
Now it’s time to win big, and Smith Sr. thinks that’s exactly what NC State will do.
“I’m going to tell you, his mentality is just completely different,” Smith Sr. said. “He’s bigger, stronger and he’s not backing down from anyone.”
As they say, what a difference a year makes, right?