Finishing unfinished business: Stevenson grad Smith does so at Arkansas
While at Indiana University, Justin Smith was all business.
The former Stevenson basketball star graduated in just three years in 2020 from the university's Kelley School of Business, all while being a key player for the men's basketball team.
But one piece of business that Smith knew was unfinished was his desire to play in the NCAA tournament. The Hoosiers didn't get an invitation to the tournament in Smith's three years there from 2017 to 2020.
"My goal had always been to play in the NCAA tournament," Smith said.
So after the 2020 season last spring, Smith entered the transfer portal. And he ended up signing with the University of Arkansas.
Once again, Smith, a 6-foot-7 graduate student forward, got down to business, and that unfinished business of his, got finished. With an exclamation point.
Smith started all season for Arkansas and led the Razorbacks into the NCAA tournament this spring. And in his first appearance in the Big Dance, Smith got all the way to the Elite 8 before he and the Razorbacks fell to eventual NCAA champion Baylor.
In that 81-72 loss to Baylor, Smith scored 10 points and grabbed 6 rebounds over 37 minutes of action.
"If you had asked at the beginning of the season if we would have been satisfied with making the Elite 8 this year, we probably would have said, 'Yes,' " Smith said. "But then we started playing so well. We won 12 of our last 13 SEC games. And then once you win your first NCAA tournament game, you believe you can keep winning. There was a level of satisfaction of getting to the Elite 8, but then when you get here and don't win, you wish you could have done more."
Smith, whose best game in the NCAA tournament was a 27-point, 12-rebound, 5-steal performance against Colgate, was one of two former area players to advance to at least the Elite 8 of the men's NCAA tournament this season. The other was former Libertyville star Drew Peterson, who helped Southern California get to the Elite 8 before losing to eventual national runner-up Gonzaga.
"I really appreciated my three years at Indiana and it went well, but I was just looking for a change of scenery and I was really looking for a place that would give me the best chance to win and play in the NCAA tournament and it's been one of the best decisions I've ever made," Smith said of his transfer to Arkansas. "It was great for my career, and it was great to get a look at how another program does things.
"I was able to reach my goal and I think I also put myself in a better position to play professionally. I gave my all to Arkansas this year, and Arkansas gave it right back."
Smith is hoping to be selected in July's 2021 NBA Draft, and he saw the Arkansas coaching staff as a good resource for producing NBA-ready players.
Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman has been an NBA head coach and every coach on the staff, including former Chicago Bull Corey Williams, has some form of NBA experience either as a coach or a player.
"They all have (NBA) connections," Smith said of the Arkansas coaching staff. "That was a big selling point for me (in the decision to transfer to Arkansas). You could tell in the way they run their program that they have that experience.
"I think every young basketball player dreams of playing in the NBA someday. I did," Smith said. "I'm not there yet but my coaches are telling me that I have a great opportunity to get drafted. To be among the lucky few where that is still a possibility is just incredible."
Smith believes he could be a valuable piece to any team in the NBA.
His role throughout his college career was to be a well-rounded stat-stuffer who did a little bit of everything.
This season for Arkansas, he ranked second on the team in scoring at 13.6 points per game, and first in rebounding at 7.5 rebounds per game. He also had the highest field goal percentage (54.5 percent) and was among the team leaders in steals (34, 1.2 spg).
"I'm a Swiss Army knife," Smith said. "I'm able to adapt and adjust and do what is necessary for each game. Sometimes the team needs me to score, sometimes rebound, sometimes defense, sometimes all of that.
"In the NBA, you have to have those kinds of players, too. Not everyone is going to score 20 to 30 points per game. You need those role players who can accept whatever role you need in a game and be able to do that on a consistent basis. My versatility helps me fill a lot of different roles and I hope that helps me (professionally). I just want an opportunity to prove myself."
In the meantime, as Smith trains and works out hard for that chance, he is marveling at how quickly time has passed since he was an all-stater at Stevenson just four years ago.
"It was a quick four years," Smith said. "College basketball is a lot of fun. It's stressful sometimes, and there are a lot of ups and downs. But it's very cool and it has given me great memories that I will have forever."