Pass-first point guard wants to prove to everyone he can also score
POSTED: Jun 11, 2015 11:06 AM ET
Speedy Smith came within seven of having as many assists (858) as he did points (865) in his collegiate career.
When Michael White was hired as basketball coach at Louisiana Tech in 2011, he took one look at the team that was coming off a 12-20 season he had inherited and recognized an urgent need.
"We had one point guard on our roster," said White, who's now in the legend-replacing business, having succeeded new Oklahoma Thunder coach Billy Donovan at Florida. "I knew with the way we wanted to play -- fast -- I needed another point guard. And two if we could get them."
To begin the search, White turned to assistant coach Dusty May, whom he had retained from former La Tech coach Kerry Rupp's staff. One of May's first calls was to Scott Golden, who runs Elite Basketball Services in Florida.
"He had told me about a kid the year before," May said. "But we ended up passing on him, and he became a double-figure scorer in the Southeastern Conference. This was a kid who had no Division I scholarship offers."
He's a relentless competitor and tough as nails. Speedy Smith is one of a kind.
– Florida's coach Michael White
Suffice it to say, after that recommendation, Golden earned May's trust. So he reached out to Golden again, and the latter provided a list of four or five prospective point guards. The one at the top caught May's eye right away:
Smith's given name was Kenneth, but after he decided to enter the world as his mother lay on a gurney in the hallway of a hospital, waiting for a delivery room to be prepped, the newborn was immediately given a nickname by his grandmother.
Little did anyone know how important that handle Speedy would become, or how appropriate it would be for the young man who has lived his life on full-tilt boogie from day one.
"Because [Golden] had been right about that kid the year before, I figured there had to be a player on that list of point guards he gave me," May said. "Speedy was the guy we reached out to first. To be honest, it was because of his name. I figured they called him Speedy for a reason, and that's how we wanted to play."
May got a copy of Smith's highlight video and brought it to White. That Smith and his family even needed to put together a highlight video in order to bring him to the attention of Division I schools seems absurd now. He had averaged a double-double -- 18 points and 10.2 assists -- his senior year at Boca Ciego High School in St. Petersburg, Fla. But despite those gaudy statistics, by the end of his career he was holding one college scholarship offer, from Division II Lynn University.
Smith had been recruited by a handful of Division I programs, notably USF, but the knock on him was that he couldn't shoot, and thus not even a low-level D-I school made an offer. But what few people realized, it wasn't that Smith couldn't shoot. He was just philosophically disinclined to do so.
"He picked and chose his spots [when to shoot]," Golden said. "And he understood his role as a point guard for the teams [high school and AAU] that he was on. I guess a lot of times, people, myself included, are going to assume that if you don't shoot, you must not be a great shooter."
Whether Smith could make jump shots was irrelevant to White and May as they watched Smith's highlight tape, because another skill that was clearly in evidence astounded them.
"One thing that jumped out to us was that he could really pass," May said. "The offensive players wouldn't even be in the screen yet, and there was Speedy, stopping and throwing a cross-court hook pass that was right on the money."
White, who had played point guard at Ole Miss, knew exactly what he wanted, and that he was looking at a chance to pull one over on a lot of people, future opponents included.
"Usually, with a highlight reel, you've got to take it with a grain of salt because it's a highlight reel," White said. "It's tough to really judge a player's weaknesses. But there were two things you couldn't argue with on that tape of Speedy's -- how hard he played, and his ability to pass the ball. You could tell that he saw things before they happened, and was incredibly accurate as well."
White and May drove 13 hours to St. Pete to watch Smith work out with his high school team, and they were pleasantly surprised to find out that Smith could shoot better than they had been led to believe. That was a deal sealer. They offered him a scholarship on the spot.
"I really didn't have to go on an [official] visit after that," Smith said. "But I went anyway, and during the visit, I told coach White, I was coming. It was the only Division I offer I had, but as it turned out, I was going to be playing for a coach that mirrored my personality, that wanted to play fast, and, as a former point guard, could help me grow at the position."
White and May still weren't exactly sure what they had in Smith, but they could live with the worst-case scenario.
"We knew that, at worst, we had a capable rotation point guard," White said.
It didn't take long for White and his staff to upgrade their assessment of Smith, who had been hard-wired to share the ball, regardless of what sport he played. Smith was a promising middle school football player, a dual threat quarterback who was fast and elusive. He could have called his own number any time he wanted, but he had an uncanny knack for knowing when it was time to involve his skill players.
"There were many times I'd call a play for someone else who needed the attention at the time," Smith said.
Smith was on track to become an SEC-level football player, but as he began his high school career at Boca Ciega in St. Pete, he gave up the game for basketball. Again, his instinct to share served him well.
"Passing has always been something I loved to do," Smith said. "I love making my teammates better. I love to pass the ball because I love my teammates feeding off the energy I give. Passing the ball excites me."
About a month into practice, White realized that Smith was trending more toward the best-case scenario than the worst.
"And a month or two after that," White said, "Speedy broke into the starting lineup and never left it. He made me play him, made me start him, and then he made me build what we were doing around him. By February of his freshman year, we knew we could really play up-tempo, and that we could run our press, because he was so disruptive defensively."
As a freshman, Smith averaged just 3.6 points, but more important, 4.2 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals. Tech finished 18-12. Smith had help -- two other freshman recruited by White and his staff, guard Raheem Appleby and forward Michale Kyser, made vital contributions and would become four-year starters -- but it was Smith who was at the controls.
"He was like a quarterback who sees plays before they happen," May said. "He has the ability to make the defense move, to make the defender think he's going to score when he's really trying to set up a pass. He can make an entire team think he's going to one guy, and then he flips a behind-the-back, no-look pass to another guy, and it's right on target. That was fun to watch as a coach."
As a sophomore, Smith averaged 5.0 assists, 4.0 rebounds and nearly two steals. His scoring average was still low, 6.8 points, but he shot 37 percent from beyond the arc, putting to rest the belief he wasn't a perimeter shooter. The Bulldogs finished 27-7, won the Western Athletic Conference with a 16-2 record, and played in the NIT, where they took out ACC stalwart Florida State in the first round.
As a junior, Smith averaged 7.7 assists and 2.5 steals and Tech was even better, 29-8 and 13-3, good enough for first place in a new league, Conference USA. It was more of the same in Smith's senior year. His 267 assists led the country and he was chosen C-USA Player of the Year after leading the Bulldogs to a 27-9 record and first place in the league.
Tech never could get past its league tournament championship game, but played in three consecutive NITs in Smith's tenure. In March, the Bulldogs lasted three rounds before losing at Temple. One of the victims was Texas A&M of the SEC, prompting Aggie coach Billy Kennedy to rave about Smith, who delivered 16 points, eight assists and just two turnovers.
"[Smith] is probably -- besides Kentucky -- the best point guard we've played against this year," Kennedy said.
No story about Smith would be complete without tossing in this little nugget. He came within seven of having as many assists (858) as he did points (865) in his career. That's unheard of for a four-year starter in college basketball. And that pre-college bad rap about his lack of shooting ability was just a matter of a lot of assistant coaches not doing their homework. Smith shot a more-than-acceptable 35.6 percent from 3 in his career.
"For four years I begged him to shoot more," White said. "Not only from behind the arc, but in the paint. There were times when opposing front lines dared him to shoot it. He was obviously scouted as a passer. Yet he still managed to fill up the assist charts [finishing as La Tech's all-time leader]. And it never failed -- he always hit timely shots in big games."
I love to pass the ball. Passing the ball excites me.
– Speedy Smith
These days, despite playing on a tender ankle he injured against Temple in Tech's final NIT game in March, Smith is making the NBA workout circuit. And just like old times, he's still trying to convince people that, although he is and always will be a pass-first point guard, he can score. In his private practice sessions, he's been focusing on shots he thinks he'll need if an NBA team is astute enough to give him a chance to earn a roster spot.
"I've been working on shooting floaters off the dribble, shooting off glass, making the corner 3," Smith said. "In the NBA, you've got to be able to knock down that shot."
He may be working on shots, but Smith knows his real value to a team.
"I love passing the ball," he said. "I love defense, taking charges, getting the steal and throwing the lob, or over to somebody for a 3. I think I'd bring toughness, and basketball IQ, being smart with time and clock."
As to that latter point, Smith possesses more than just hoops smarts. He graduated from Louisiana Tech, with a degree in sociology, in less than four years, a promise made to his mother and paid in full.
White, a former Ole Miss player and assistant coach and now the head coach at a perennial national championship contender, has seen plenty of future NBA players, and he thinks that, given the right team, the right system, Smith could play at the highest level.
"He's the most unselfish kid that I've coached," White said. "He's as good a passer as I've ever seen in person. He's a relentless competitor and tough as nails. Speedy Smith is one of a kind.
"I have no idea if he gets drafted, but he should. Can he stick in the NBA? Absolutely. I think there's always a place up there for a guy who's unselfish to a fault, makes people around him better, and who's as good a guy as there is in the locker room."
Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.