Terquavion Smith’s unlikely decision to return to college basketball

  • Basketball recruiting insider.
  • Joined ESPN in 2014.
  • Graduate of University of Delaware.

WHEN NC STATE TOOK on Purdue in mid-December of last season, the attention was all on the Boilermakers. They had just moved to No. 1 in the AP poll, and guard Jaden Ivey was in the midst of a sophomore campaign that would ultimately vault him to becoming a top-five pick in the NBA draft.

Ivey didn’t disappoint on that Sunday afternoon, finishing with 22 points and seven rebounds in the 82-72 overtime win. But it was his NC State counterpart who caught the eyes of NBA personnel watching.

Terquavion Smith, a borderline top-100 high school prospect who was averaging 11.0 points over the first month of his college career, had a breakout performance, scoring 21 points and going toe-to-toe with Ivey and Purdue before losing in overtime.

“That dude has cojones,” an Eastern Conference scout recalled thinking. “The reason they went to overtime was because he looked at Jaden Ivey and said, bring it on. He had no fear.”

While Ivey’s trajectory garnered headlines the rest of the 2021-22 season, Smith’s rise in NBA draft circles was equally impressive. He ascended into the second round of mock drafts after a stellar freshman season, and then became a potential first-round pick after a standout showing at the NBA draft combine.

“He’s the next guy with that quickness and burst,” another NBA scout said. “Like Jaden Ivey, Ja [Morant].”

But Smith returned to college basketball, and is now a projected lottery pick in June’s NBA draft. He is considered the best NBA prospect to return to school.

“I’m excited for him,” NC State head coach Kevin Keatts said. “That was earned, not given. I’m excited for the kid because he’s put so much work into it. He’s always been the underdog. He’s worked his butt off … I thought he could have a great year as a freshman. Twelve points, 14 points. But I would be lying if I told you I saw lottery.”

Including the Purdue game, Smith scored 20 or more points in 12 of his final 21 games and hit the 30-point mark twice. He finished his freshman season averaging 16.3 points. He also scored 34 and 20 in two games against North Carolina, and 19 against Duke. This, for an NC State that struggled last season, losing 11 of its final 12 games.

“In all of the big games, he was one of the best players on the floor,” Keatts said. “He didn’t want to lose. He played with grit. He won three state championships [in high school]. I thought, this guy’s fearless.”

Here’s the thing, though: Smith didn’t become a household name when this season began. He was one of the best freshmen in the country last season, and projected as a borderline first-round pick in mock drafts last spring.

So for him to return to NC State after a strong showing at the combine came as a surprise to some. After all, the Wolfpack finished last in the ACC in 2021-22, going 11-21 overall and 4-16 in the ACC.

Smith could have kept his name in the draft. He also could have transferred, and been the most sought-after player in the portal.

None of that appealed to the Farmville, North Carolina, native, though.

“It’s just the environment of NC State and Raleigh,” Smith said. “The love for college basketball. You only get that once. I feel like I have more to prove. I feel like I stayed because I’m big on loyalty. They recruited me at the age of 15, they never switched on me or never lied to me about what I could do at NC State.”

Despite the three high school state championships, Smith didn’t have the recruitment of a highly touted prospect. He committed to Keatts and the Wolfpack — his first scholarship offer — during his sophomore year. And only East Carolina Pirates and High Point Panthers joined the Wolfpack in Smith’s recruitment.

Since Smith opted to return to Raleigh, Keatts has noticed a few changes in his star guard.

The 6-foot-4 sophomore is taking on a bigger role this season. Dereon Seabron, who led the team in scoring, rebounds and assists last season, left for the NBA draft last spring, and veteran forward Jericole Hellems, who averaged 13.7 points in 2021-22, graduated.

“He’s listened to everybody,” Keatts said. “His mentality is a little bit different. He’s making a concerted effort to put extra work in. He’s making a concerted effort to put on weight. … And he’s also making good plays. He’s gotten better. And he’s focused and he’s locked in.

“He doesn’t come off as arrogant,” he added. “I kind of wanted that, so I could go at him a little. But he hasn’t done that. I don’t have to worry about cockiness. But when he starts playing, he’s a court personality. When he’s playing, he’ll go at your neck.”

Through the first few games of 2022-23, Smith has picked up where he left off last season. But his focus on becoming more of a distributor, someone who can play in pick-and-rolls more effectively, read the game and make the right decision, is showing.

He’s averaging 19.0 points through four games, opening the season with a 26-point performance against Austin Peay, and leads the team in assists and steals. Smith’s biggest strides so far have come in his distribution and offensive efficiency. After averaging 2.1 assists and shooting 39.8% from the field last season, Smith is up to 5.7 assists and 51.2% shooting.

But NC State’s level of competition will jump a level at the Battle 4 Atlantis, when the Wolfpack face Kansas on Wednesday (12 p.m. ET, ESPN) and then play either Dayton or Wisconsin on Thursday.

“He’s a special talent, man,” said fifth-year guard Jarkel Joiner, who spent the past two seasons at Ole Miss. “He can take it as far as he wants to. We’re going to need him this year, to play big for us, each and every night. Not just one night, not against certain teams, every night. And he knows that. And he’s going to do that, he’s going to prove why he’s a lottery pick.”

Of course, NBA personnel have their questions about Smith: shot selection, decision-making and his ideal position at the next level. Can he play point guard, or is he more of a pure bucket-getter in the mold of Collin Sexton and Cam Thomas?

“I wouldn’t be shocked if he plays his way into a lottery-level role by the end of the season or by combine time,” a Western Conference executive said. “He’ll blow testing and measurements out of the water. He might be the quickest player in college basketball. He’s as quick-twitch as they come. He shoots it with confidence. There’s a lot of value there.”

Smith isn’t concerned about that right now, though. The lottery-pick projections, the preseason first-team All-ACC honors — it’s all noise. He’s just focused on getting better and leading NC State to more wins.

“Stuff like that, I acknowledge it, but I always have a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I always go hard. Regardless of what I receive or what I get from doing what I do, I’m going to always go hard and keep getting more than I’ve already got. There’s something about being humble and keeping a chip on your shoulder.”

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