Friends Dennis Smith, Markelle Fultz on same frustrating path to NBA Draft

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Ben Simmons has yet to play a game in the NBA. He’s been set back by a foot injury, meaning so much of Simmons’ reputation is still tied to his NCAA Tournament-less, one-and-none season at LSU. 

One of the greatest players in program history, Simmons was a runaway pick for Freshman of the Year but his season came with a jinxed dichotomy. Despite being great, the Tigers were erratic and underwhelming. Not only did LSU fail to make the NCAA Tournament, the program opted out altogether from any postseason play after being booted from the SEC tournament. 

It was a strange thing seeing a massive talent frequently compared to LeBron James nonetheless fail to reach a bracket that includes 68 teams. It didn’t hurt Simmons’ NBA stock, though. He was the most gifted player in college basketball and rightfully got picked first in the draft. His journey was framed as an anomaly, though: Simmons was the rare guy to go No. 1 but never play in the Big Dance. That had not happened in the modern era of the expanded NCAA tourney (since 1985), and you’d have to go back to 1978 (Minnesota’s Mychal Thompson) to most recently find someone who’d come and gone in college, failed to make the NCAAs, yet still get drafted No. 1. 

What were the chances we could see that again any time soon, you know?

Yeah, how about this: It might well happen in a matter of months -- with the top two picks.

In fact, we might see the No. 1 and No. 2 choices not only miss the NCAA Tournament but fail to even finish at .500. At least LSU went 19-14. This year’s Washington team, led by projected No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, is 9-16. And yet Fultz has been incredible, without question one of the two best and most efficiently productive freshmen. You can’t blame him for his team’s inexperience and unreliable defense. He’s the real deal.

On the table for No. 2 is North Carolina State’s Dennis Smith Jr., who I rank as the third best frosh so far this season. But State (14-12) is mired in a nightmare, having lost five straight and facing a game Wednesday night against supreme in-state rival, North Carolina. Plus, the team is now dealing with the public rumor mill about Mark Gottfried’s standing as coach

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Fultz, left, and Smith could make history but for bittersweet reasons. USATSI

Fultz has played in obscurity but been beautifully dominant against almost everyone. He’s averaging 23 points, six rebounds and six assists while shooting 50 percent from 2-point range and 42 percent from 3. With State, Smith has two triple-doubles in ACC play (something that had never happened before in the history of the conference), while putting up 19 points, seven assists, four rebounds and two steals per game. It’s strange how we’re seeing these all-world talents continue to thrive on an individual basis, yet their ability is not translating to team success. 

Ultimately, NBA teams probably won’t care. But do Fultz and Smith? Have they been worn down by all this losing? I spoke with both about this topic, among other things, and came to discover -- this isn’t known by most -- they’re really good friends. This despite not growing up near each other. Smith is from Fayetteville, N.C. Fultz is from Upper Marlboro, Md. Now they’re on opposite coasts, yet have as much in common as any two players not on the same team. 

“That’s my brother,” Smith told CBS Sports. ”I’m proud of him, all the way. ... We can talk, relate so much as to what’s going on with us now.”

They met after being assigned to the same Adidas Nations team in a tournament in Atlanta almost three years ago. Smith remembers it vividly. Fultz, who was a late bloomer and an overlooked player for a couple of years, wowed Smith early. 

“I remember asking, ‘Who’s this guy on my team? He’s nice,’” Smith said. “Of course being on the same team, we started talking. We clicked before anyone knew he was that good. We were then playing on the same team in Los Angeles, when I tore my ACL.”

Smith planted two feet while going up for a layup in transition and heard the pop. In the title game at that tournament, Fultz wore his jersey. 

“I knew about him but he didn’t know about me,” Fultz said. “I had a lot of respect for him.” 

Smith refers to Fultz’s mom to being “like another mother” and said he and Fultz have frequently texted and talked over FaceTime throughout this season.“It’s really like he’s my little brother,” said Smith, who is a year old than Fultz.

That dynamic also leads to trash talking. Smith loves J. Cole, and Fultz insisted Smith know that, while J. Cole is good, Kendrick Lamar is better. Then there’s the league-on-league shade, like Smith reminding Fultz there’s no reason to be that bad in the Pac-12. At least NC State is playing in the deepest league in the country, the ACC.

“Y’all should be winning more games,” Smith said. “No disrespect, but your conference is definitely not as thick as ours.”

Markelle’s response was great: “I think the way we play basketball and how competitive we are, so like, it’s pretty much like we challenge each other. We go at each other all the time. We’re both struggling this season, but our teams are both better than what people say. We go back at each other with how he scores, how people try to stop me in transition. We’d beat his team, no doubt. Easy. And with us guarding each other, he’s not going to stop me. I get on him a lot for that. I say, ‘Dennis, who’s going to stop me on this team?’ A so-called lockdown defender, and he’s a good defender, but there’s no way he’s guarding me.” 

Fultz also told CBS Sports the college basketball experience has been “a lot easier” than he anticipated. 

“I thought it was going to be way harder than this,” he said. “Everybody telling me everyone is a lot stronger and athletic, and that’s true, but my scoring ability, it feels the way that it did in high school.” 

Yet for all of his individual success, Washington is one of the worst power-conference teams in the country. And now NC State can’t get out of its personal twister of hell. Neither guy is a lead-by-voice type of player. They’re understated, both fairly flatlined on the floor; you’re highly unlikely to see Smith or Fultz be demonstrative or even break a furrowed brow in frustration. 

“I’ve always been the type to do something and not talk about it,” Fultz said. “It hasn’t really gotten to me. I don’t let it come out on the court because I don’t want other people to see it. ... I am used to failure. In order to be good, you have to fail, so that’s the way I look at it. There’s always something positive in everything you do so I just look at it like that.” 

If these two wind up having tremendous interviews and workouts for NBA teams, they could very well navigate their way to the top two spots. But despite their talents, this is an unexpected swing of events. A pair of close friends separated by 3,000 miles will parlay their skills to millions but in their wake will leave a sub-par team legacy in college hoops. Does it even matter? Hard to argue it does. Team failure has clearly become a passed-over part of the evaluation process for pro scouts and general managers. Whether that’s right or wrong isn’t on the players, because these two have been as good as almost anyone this season. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his seventh season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics and... Full Bio

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