A good mid-range shooter with a long wingspan, the 6'9" Smith found himself squarely on scouts' radars after a strong showing at the Chicago camp last summer. After deliberating, Smith and his advisors decided he would return to La Salle for another season. Smith isn't an all-world athlete, but he's a crafty and successful basketball player. And we you'll read, he's well aware of what he's getting himself into.
I catch up with Smith the afternoon after a day full of workouts, and he's gracious to take the call. Turns out, this day is not much different from most others in Smith's life since April.
"Well, basically, I just get up in the morning, me and one of my teammates, he's trying to get a job [in the pros] as well. We get up at around 7 o'clock and we go to this place called The Summit, a sports and athletic training facility that my agent [Steve Mountain] owns, he has a couple of them here in Philly and out in Westchester (Pa.). ... we cover all the bases of athletic training and we do a whole lot of stuff that you might not do anywhere else. It's a pretty unique place.
"When we go there there's no basketball, we do everything, we do speed work, footwork, core, ab work, agility, change of direction, a whole array of things. ... And it's so much different from the things you might do in the regular season, and it's so much different from probably what a lot of people are doing in my position, trying to get a job [in the NBA] next year."
I told Steven that it sounded like he was approaching this year's draft process with a real sense of urgency, and asked whether this sort of specific and deliberate training regimen was at all a result of his experiences last year at this time, when the then-junior in La Salle Steven Smith declared for the draft, went to the Chicago Pre-Draft Camp and then decided to pull his name out in time to return to school.
"It was a good experience, no. 1, and now I know, pretty much, what I'm getting myself into this year at the [Pre-Draft Camp], should I play there would be no surprises, and I'll pretty much know how things go."
And what would that entail?
"The main thing is, once they get there, that people need to make sure that they maintain a high level of focus and don't get distracted. You only have a week out there in front of everybody, and if you get distracted, it might really throw you off your game. [Focusing] is what I did last year, and I don't plan on doing anything differently this year. I want to take the same approach and hopefully will have just as good a result."
And it's true, Smith had an outstanding showing in front of the NBA establishment last year, and our very own on-hand scouts rated Smith as one of the three best performers at the 2005 NBA Chicago Pre-Draft Camp. But if he did so well in his audition, why did he choose to return to school for his senior year?
"I had no regrets this year, and, also, I really wanted to come back to have a winning season in college and finish my last year with my teammates, we had been through a lot and those guys mean a whole lot to me. Also, it was pretty much a business decision on my part. I had a good camp last year, but you never know how things are going to go on draft night, so I didn't want to risk anything, especially seeing how last year's draft [process] went, I just wasn't exactly sure... so I decided to safe the safe route. I figured the worst that would happen over the year, other than injury which is on everybody's mind, is that I would be in the same position this year as I was last year, in terms of people knowing who I am and coming from a small school. Just having to prove myself again, and that wasn't too hard. I knew I could [prove myself].
"Luckily, it worked out and I had a great year at school, and now I only have one decision, and it's pretty much the only one. I don't have to worry now about staying in the draft or going back to school because I'm done now."
Well played, I thought. For every Smith out there, there are two Marcus Taylors -- he of Michigan State early-entry fame -- it seems, guys who burn their one chance by shooting for a distant moon with a slingshot. Then again, for a guy like Smith, such forethought isn't that surprising. This guy isn't just earning his college degree this May, he already earned it, last year.
But degree or no degree, don't think for a moment that Smith isn't totally trained in on the short-term NBA future he has set himself up for.
"Right now, I have one focus, and that's getting up and working out and preparing for the draft camp and the months ahead, and that's all I can think about. As far as goals IN basketball, I want to make sure I make a good impression in there and really push myself so that I can have a good career. I don't want to just be on the scene for a little bit, I want to be there for a while and get better."
Smith is already pretty good, you see. A two-time first-team All-Atlantic 10 selection, and the co-player of the year this season, not to mention an honorable mention All-American, Smith felt that there were still skills and talents that private workouts and the Orlando draft camp could provide scouts that he hadn't yet shown them with his outstanding collegiate career. Smith downplayed the common argument that a player who is 24 years old can't have any upside left in NBA scouts' minds.
"I could display [to them] a little versatility. Since school has been out, I have been paying a lot more attention to playing out on the perimeter -- offensively and defensively. I was always kind of a mix-it-up [down low] guy in college. But I have decided to do more of that [versatility], either back down smaller defenders or use my size to gain advantage over smaller defenders and then I could go outside and be a bigger defender.
"Coming from a smaller school, you know, there were plenty of people out to see me, but my agent sometimes says they might still need to see exactly what you can do, so my mindset right now is just to be prepared so that when I go these workouts, I can make these teams remember some of the things that I can do and things that I've been improving on."
And it's true that some swingman skills could help Smith's draft profile, as he won't be able to physically dominate in the NBA the way he did against a Rhode Island, a Fordham or even a Temple. Smith felt his NBA position would need to be similarly nuanced.
"Honestly, I'm not sure. I think it depends on the situation, on the guys I'm playing with, how I fit into the system, but that's what I'm really geared up for, to be a better perimeter player, whether that's a small forward. But I think in the right situation, at certain times, I could maybe step over into the '4' [power forward spot]. Some people think I'm like 6'6", I'm actually about 6'9", so hopefully I can surprise some people with that when I get out to the camp."
Smith's size could play into his draft status, and his agility makes an exact comparison to a current NBA player tougher than for some of his fellow prospects. After deliberation, DraftExpress tabbed Smith as a David West-like power forward with some shooting touch. Smith had another, perhaps surprising, comparison in mind. One that many NBA teams would be happy to see from him.
"Since the college season has been over, I've been watching certain players and, not comparing really, but I've been watching what they do for their team, and I've been watching a lot of Tayshaun Prince. I watch a lot of the things he does on the floor, and he's 6'9". I think his wingspan might be a little longer than mine, but we're the same size and height. And he contributes to the team in many ways and he's a big defender; I've been watching the way he defends people, so that's kind of how I want to fit into a team, especially coming in. I want to show them that I'm big, but I can defend, I can knock down shots and just contribute to the team from there."
As the Cleveland Cavaliers can attest, defenders of Prince's stature are a nightmare, and as the recently re-signed, starting forward Prince could add, having the versatility to shoot, defend and rebound can prove to be a useful and invaluable skill set for an NBA future.
Smith plans on playing at the Pre-Draft camp in Orlando, unless his private workouts prove so good that he would only hurt his image by mixing it up with hungry second-round talent. Still, he says. "My mindset right now, and how I approach it every day, is that I will be playing and participating in everything. And if I have to play, I don't care. I love to play."
As for the tougher question of potential draft spots, Smith was cautious but confident that there was some positive movement for him as the draft gets ever-closer.
"I talk every now and then to my agent Steve Mountain [who also represents fellow Philly native Jameer Nelson] and he mentions some of this stuff to me, and he's been telling me that in the past month or so I've been moving up, and people are starting to come around they're starting to pay a little bit more attention to me. ... it seems always, like, [pick] 22, 20-40, something like that."
But Smith isn't getting caught up in mock drafts, predictions or potential spots.
"Me, personally, I don't like hearing too much of that cause it's a business now. I'm just going to sit back and do what I have to do in terms of preparation and go hard in my workouts and just wait until that [draft] night actually gets there and we'll see what actually happens. I don't want to get my hopes up, I don't want to get disappointed, I don't want to be angry, I'll just go into it with a level-head, an even mind, and we'll just see what happens on that night."
Focused, driven. What you'd expect from a small school star accustomed to not seeing himself on ESPN, to scratching his way for the extra rebound, the last shot. So will he relax once the draft is here, and see what happens?
"I've thought about it some," he said, in regards to whether he'll watch the draft from the seats in New York or at home. "I haven't decided whether I'll go up there for the draft or not. I'm thinking about keeping it low key with my mom and my girlfriend and her mom and just a few of my closest friends. I don't really have a whole lot of people around me. Just watching it, and celebrating with the closest people to me."
Sounds like the sort of thing a guy who returned to La Salle for his teammates and for a winning season might say.
And, finally, having played the draft declaration game through completely, what advice would Smith have for sophomores and juniors playing the same delicate game of "walk the line?"
"Number one, make sure you push yourself. Be prepared. Even if you're just testing the waters, approach every day like you're keeping your name in the draft. Don't have any reservations about, 'I might be going back to school,' because that might be the case, but you want to push yourself to the level as if you might keep your name in the draft, that you're going to be drafted this year. That will just make you work harder and make the workouts go harder, and then you never know what might happen.
"And then No. 2, for me, I think the process was a whole lot easier for me because I didn't have a lot of people telling me a lot of things that I wanted to hear or that they thought that I want to hear. I didn't get advice from a whole lot of places. Just make sure that you keep your circle of advice, keep it small and limited and make sure you're getting good advice, and don't just trust anybody. Because there's a lot of people who will tell you what you want to hear because they're trying to get ahead.
"Just approach every day like you're in the draft, and make sure the advice you're getting isn't coming from everywhere, and that the advice you are getting is trustworthy and that the people giving it actually have your best interests at heart. ... My advisor last year, who's now my agent, I knew he had my best interests at heart. He told me all the things I didn't want to hear, so [those are] the main things."