Theron Smith: Working To Prove His Value

It didn’t take Theron Smith very long to learn one huge lesson of the NBA: Life in the league is almost always a roller coaster ride.

He no doubt anticipated the inevitable bumps that pop up in the road for all but a rare few who immediately make the adjustment. Smith couldn’t have foreseen, however, the circumstances that eventually brought him to Charlotte as one of 18 players in the Bobcats first training camp.

In a little over one year, the 6-8 forward has felt the sting of going undrafted, the adrenalin rush of landing a free agent contract with Memphis, the low of missing 53 games with an injury, the mixed emotions of being left unprotected in the expansion draft and then the high of knowing he was wanted in Charlotte.

“You have the feeling that you constantly have to prove yourself,” Smith said Wednesday after a morning practice at the Bobcats’ training center in Fort Mill. “Every team I’ve played on so far has been that way. I had to show them that I could play, show them what I could do in a game.”

That, of course, is what every player has to do on a regular basis to create a career in the NBA. Smith knows that but he also has created an instant reminder for himself, should he ever forget.

After steadily improving through his college career and eventually becoming an All Mid-American Conference selection at Ball State, Smith had high expectations for the NBA’s college draft in June, 2003. He felt good about his chances despite missing all but three games of his final college season with right knee tendinitis. But he waited through the draft’s two rounds without ever hearing his name called.

He now wears 0 as his uniform number as a reminder of his draft status.

“Coming out of school, I thought I was going to be picked in the second round,” Smith said. “I was passed up. It hurt me. I was shocked. It was like, ‘Ohhhhh, man, I didn’t get picked!’ ”

The reality set in and he suffered helplessly for two days. Then, on June 26, his home telephone rang.

Smith remembers the conversation this way:

“ ‘Hello.’

‘Jerry West here.’

A moment of silence, then…

‘WHO?...Nooo…Really?’ ”

West, the legendary Los Angeles Lakers All-Star, former coach and general manager and the player silhouetted in the NBA logo, now runs basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies. He was calling to invite Smith to join the Grizzlies’ team in the Los Angeles Summer League and offering a make-good chance to land a free agent contract.

Smith recovered from his surprise enough to quickly respond: “ ‘Alright, I’ll play for you in the summer league.’ ”

Smith went to Long Beach, Calif., for the summer league and, despite his jitters, received a contract offer from the Grizzlies after playing two games.

“I was nervous going out there,” Smith said. “I was playing for my life and everything, basically. I guess I play better when I’m a little nervous…It worked out. I played in two games, they signed me and I was on my way to Memphis.

“I think now that some teams probably shied away from me in the draft because I got hurt that last season in college. Not getting picked motivated me to work harder. It lit a fire in me.”

Bobcats General Manager & Head Coach Bernie Bickerstaff believes that going undrafted can sometimes be a blessing for players.

“That’s happened a lot in this league,” Bickerstaff said. “Sometimes it’s better that there are only two rounds so a lot of guys in those situations can be free agents and pick the team that they go to that’s conducive to them.”

The Memphis experience was good for Smith, he believes, despite the tendinitis that flared and limited him to 20 games. His best moments came when he returned to the team late in the regular season, and he wound up averaging 2.2 points and 2.1 rebounds in 8.9 minutes.

“They had so many talented people there,” Smith said. “I learned a lot from Jerry West, Hubie (Brown, the Grizzlies head coach) and the players. I’m grateful to them for taking a chance on me.”

The depth of the roster forced Memphis to leave Smith unprotected when it came time for the Expansion Selection in June. West told Smith about two weeks before that he would likely be exposed in the draft and, a short time later, Brown called to tell him he was a member of the Bobcats.

“The Grizzlies had to do something that they didn’t want to do because they’re loaded,” Bickerstaff said. “They might be the deepest team in the league.

“Theron is just a good basketball player. He does everything right. He rebounds from the three and the four positions (small forward, power forward). He’s just one of those guys who sneaks through the cracks. The appreciation comes from coaches.”

Smith found himself with mixed feelings, sad that he was leaving Memphis, happy that Charlotte wanted him. Now he finds himself battling again, trying to prove himself and earn playing time on a new team.

“I’m positive about it,” Smith said. “I’m just going to keep working and see what happens. On to bigger and better things, I hope.”

Leonard Laye covered the NBA, ABA and college basketball for more than three decades for the Charlotte Observer and the old Charlotte News until his recent retirement from writing sports fulltime. He will cover the Bobcats for throughout the season.