Stevenson's Smith flashing big potential
Now Justin Smith has the ring.
He already had the bling.
Smith, Stevenson's long, lean, often airborne 6-foot-7 forward, is the only starter back from last year's Class 4A state championship team. As a sophomore, he averaged about 10 points and 5 rebounds for the Patriots, easily earning himself the gigantic commemorative state title ring that sits on the dresser in his room.
"The top of the ring is a Patriot head in green and gold," said Smith, now a 16-year-old junior about to begin his third year on varsity. "I really don't wear it, it's still in the case. But it's cool. The football team also won state last year and their ring is smaller than ours. We got a big ring."
Big and flashy fits Smith's game.
Before he was known as a state champion, Smith was known for his dunks, perhaps the most exciting and artistic in the area. He made between 30 or 40 dunks last season (he lost track), which is hands down the most dunks in Lake County by any one individual player.
He also missed quite a few.
"I probably attempted at least 55 dunks," Smith said with a laugh. "I missed a ton of dunks, probably because I had too much adrenaline going. But I kept trying it.
"Especially in this area, you don't see a lot of dunks, so I like to be able to dunk and have the crowds react. It's fun. I'm working on being more creative."
Smith can dunk with one hand, two hands, off one foot, off two feet, he can do a windmill, a 360 and a backwards dunk as well. He's working on going between the legs.
"I haven't been able to do that one yet," Smith said. "I probably wouldn't do it in a game either. (Head coach Pat Ambrose) might have some choice words for me. But, he has said that as long as you make it, you're OK. So maybe not."
Smith is certain to be given some creative license this season. He is Stevenson's most tenured player and will be looked to first in go-to situations. He is this season's version of Jalen Brunson, the all-American guard who is playing at Villanova now. Smith is already being courted by Villanova and many other Villanova-caliber programs. He's got offers from Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Northwestern, DePaul, Wake Forest, Purdue and Rice and major interest from Notre Dame, Michigan State, Duke, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Stanford.
"Justin is a different player than Jalen, but he definitely wants to be that same go-to player," Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose said. "He knows the opportunity will be there for him. He wants to be more of a leader this year. That's something he really wasn't able to do as a sophomore and he didn't need to do that with Jalen and Connor (Cashaw) and Matt (Johnson) there.
"He's working on being that vocal leader."
It doesn't necessarily come naturally.
For as big and as flashy as his game can be, Smith doesn't have a big, flashy persona. He's shy, unassuming, and into his studies.
"I tend to be quiet and just lead by example," Smith said. "But the coaches have been telling me how I'm going to need to speak up to help our team. I'm going to need to be a leader in the huddles and at practice."
While the vocal leadership is a work in progress, Smith says he's ready to be an active leader.
"I know I can be that player that we can fall back on as a team," Smith said. "I do well under pressure. I like a challenge. I want to be the one to get the bucket when we really need one. I want to be relied on."
With the weight of the team set to ride on his shoulders, Smith hit the weight room hard during the off-season.
He added muscle and strength to add a power game to the finesse and glitz game he already has.
"He's definitely gotten stronger since last year," Ambrose said of Smith. "He's thicker and sturdier in the shoulders and midsection. He's not going to get bumped off the ball too much.
"Justin's explosiveness is still high and now he's got that strength. I think that's making him even more confident."
Not that Smith is lacking in confidence. Being a part of the rock band atmosphere that was sometimes the Stevenson basketball team last season couldn't help but give Smith a bit of a swagger.
"You learn how to deal with all the attention, you learn to deal with hostile situations and big games," Smith said. "What I took from last year more than anything was dealing with all those different kinds of experiences.
"It was a great season. But now, we've all moved on from it and we're looking forward to this year."
Bring on the between-the-leg dunks.
• Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw