All-State Player of Year Smith flying high under pressure

All-State Player of Year Smith flying high under pressure

EDWARDSVILLE — Spring and change are often times synonymous. Last spring brought major changes to Mark Smith's life.

An arm injury kept Smith off the baseball field in early spring. A return to the grassroots basketball circuit with Ramey-Jets United was, at first, a way to stay active while his arm healed.

But by late May, Missouri baseball coach Tim Jamieson had resigned. Unable to pitch and facing the prospect of restarting his baseball recruiting, Smith committed fully down a different path.

Smith's de-commitment from Missouri baseball during the summer was met with a barrage of mid-major basketball offers the same day. Come late December, high-major programs got involved.

Now, Smith is one of the top prospects still available, with a baker's dozen offers from power-six conferences. The 6-foot-5 guard rose to a four-star recruit midway through his senior season and ranks as high as No. 78 in the country by Rivals.

And averaging 21.9 points, 8.4 assists, 8.2 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game — while helping lead Edwardsville (30-2) to a Class 4A super-sectional appearance — earned Smith 2017 News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year honors.

Baseball to hoops

Last spring was tough on Smith. He had goals in mind for summer baseball — goals that were derailed by the strained pronator flexor tendon in his right arm.

His expectations for what a summer on the baseball circuit could bring were tied directly to how he matched a lively fastball that sat consistently around 89 mph with a wipeout 73-77 mph breaking ball before committing to Missouri in December 2015.

"My goal was to get drafted in the MLB out of high school," Smith said. "Once I strained my forearm, I just had to move on to basketball. I didn't want to sit around the house anymore and wait for my arm to heal. My doctor told me I can't throw a basketball 92 mph, so he said I could go play basketball."

Smith's parents urged him down the basketball path, moreso to keep him active through the spring and summer. That's something Smith said his parents always stressed.

"When I think about it, last year at this time he was so kind of down in the dumps because his arm wasn't getting better," said Yvonne Smith, Mark's mom. "He just was really down and out because he wanted to pitch, he had high expectations and he was looking forward to going into a big summer."

"We always said, 'What do we do if the arm never stays healthy?'" added Mark's dad, Anthony Smith. "Let's play a little basketball."

After getting an OK from an orthopedist at the end of May, Anthony Smith reached out to Andre McMurray with Ramey-Jets United. Yvonne Smith said there were no expectations on their end for Mark to start or star. They just wanted him to get some minutes, a little exercise.

"When he was in Overland Park, Kansas, his last AAU tournament, he really did good those four days," Yvonne Smith said. "I just think he realized maybe he did want to play basketball."

Leaning on parents

Smith doesn't claim a favorite sport between baseball and basketball, but was receiving more recruiting interest for baseball.

"I come from a basketball family and love basketball, but I was getting more looks in baseball at the time," Smith said. "I was just getting more scholarship opportunities for baseball, so I stuck with baseball."

Smith's "basketball family" helped define his game. Both of his parents played at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville.

"I'm going to hurt some feelings here," Yvonne Smith joked when asked to break down which part of her son's game came from her and which parts from her husband.

"I would say Mark's passing game and his ability to get to the hoop is definitely his father, but I would say the other aspects of the game are definitely from me. I was a really good shooter, so I would say he's a good shooter like his mom. And the post moves come from me."

Basketball genes on his side, Smith turning his focus solely to basketball wasn't a matter of desire. He started playing when he was 5 years old. He loves the game.

But turning his body from one built for a power pitcher into one of an attacking basketball combo guard took some work.

"In baseball, I was a 240-pound pitcher with big legs," Smith said. "For basketball, I kind of slimmed down and toned my body up. I'm about 230 now. I lost some weight and got more explosive going to the basket. I got to work on basketball full-time, and I think that helped my game."

Edwardsville coach Mike Waldo said he noticed the differences in Smith — his body and his game — when practices started last fall.

"He did a lot of work with conditioning, did a lot of work with weight training and did a lot of work on his game skill-wise," Waldo said. "He got better handling the ball and shooting. His judgment with passing has always been good. I think you could see early in the season he was a much improved player."

Smith said he changed both his eating and workout habits. More grilled chicken. No more burgers and wings — as much as he'd like to enjoy them. He ran more, improved his cardio and added drills to increase his foot speed.

That's in addition to the early morning basketball workouts he completes with his dad, who coaches the Edwardsville Metro East Lutheran boys' basketball team. Workouts that are sometimes hard on dad with as physical as Smith is on the basketball court.

"We do a lot of 4:30 to 5 a.m. training sessions, he and I," Anthony Smith said. "The main thing we worked on was a lot of shooting and a lot of explosive moves so he could get to the basket. Sometimes I go home and the next day I get up like, 'Oh, my gosh, I'm so sore.' He's such a big, physical specimen."

Anthony Smith said his son is "relentless about getting better and better."

"I personally think he's about 65 percent," Anthony Smith said. "Once he gets to a program that really taps into his abilities, I think he's really going to be special."

Consistently strong

Smith scored 22 points in Edwardsville's season-opening 80-52 win against Waterloo. Like he would the rest of the season, the Tigers guard flirted with a triple-double with 13 assists and eight rebounds, too.

That win came five days after the early signing period closed. At that point, Smith's scholarship offers included SIUE, Oral Roberts, Wright State, Western Illinois, Northern Illinois, Indiana State and Elon.

"When November came around and it was time for the early signing, Mark sat with us," Yvonne Smith said. "He said, 'You know, Mom, I've thought about it and prayed about it and I just think I'm better. I've worked hard, God's blessed me and I'm just going to roll the dice.'"

Smith bet on himself and came up big. He averaged 21 points, 7.9 rebounds and 10 assists in Edwardsville's first eight games before his recruitment took off following the Tigers' run in the Collinsville Holiday Classic.

Smith had 35 points, eight boards and eight assists in the title game in Collinsville, outdueling Belleville Althoff's Jordan Goodwin, a Saint Louis signee and top-50 national prospect.

Kansas State was the first power-six conference team to offer, at the end of December. A dozen more have followed. Michigan State is the latest, offering after an in-home visit Tuesday. Kentucky has also entered the picture late.

Yvonne Smith said she wondered during the past three months, as her son's stock skyrocketed, how he would handle the pressure.

"Honestly, I felt like we had a coach at every practice, and since January there would be three to six universities at the games," she said. "What 17-year-old kid just doesn't ever crack with the pressure? He was really consistent. He had a very consistent year, and I'm really proud of him."

Smith said he was able to handle the constant attention because he never let it distract him from his main focus: winning.

"I didn't get too hyped or too nervous about the big schools coming in," Smith said. "I just played my game and tried to win. That's really all I was trying to do. I wasn't worried about anything else."

Recruiting is all that's left on the table for the Smith family now that Edwardsville's season is finished.

Smith considers himself an all-around player, and his wish list for his college destination includes a program that will develop his entire game.

"That's what I'm looking for in a school — a place where I can develop into the best all-around basketball player I can become to get to the next level, hopefully, if that's what God has planned for me," Smith said. "That's my dream, to go to the NBA. That's what I'm looking for — a school I can trust and will get me to that point."

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