For Jalen Smith, he knows the time is right to go to the NBA
After two seasons at Maryland, his preparation could make him a first-round draft pick
A few weeks after the Big Ten canceled its annual March tournament due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon called Jalen Smith to suggest he enter the 2020 NBA draft and not return for his junior year.
“That’s when I decided to declare, because he pretty much said the season I had was the statement point that I needed,” Smith said.
This was not the case at the end of his 2019 season, when LSU eliminated the Terrapins in the second round of the NCAA tournament as Smith contemplated whether he should declare for the NBA draft. Weeks following the loss, Turgeon met with Smith and his parents, Charles and Orletha Smith, to discuss the freshman’s future. He suggested that Smith return to Maryland for another season to develop and better position himself for the 2020 NBA draft by having a standout sophomore year.
When Smith arrived in College Park, Maryland, for his freshman campaign in 2018, ESPN had projected him as a first-round pick. The former five-star recruit from Mount Saint Joseph High School in Baltimore struggled with inconsistency throughout the season, and, at times, did not appear ready for the level of physicality he would face from opposing big men in the Big Ten.
He still averaged 11.7 points and 6.8 rebounds as a freshman and averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds in his NCAA tournament debut against Belmont and LSU, which earned him a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman team and revamped his draft stock. However, NBA evaluators wanted to see a more complete season.
“After McDonald’s All American practices, a lot of scouts came away very excited about him, but he didn’t live up to the expectations his freshman year,” said an NBA scout who has had an eye on Smith the last two seasons.
During the March 2019 meeting, his parents agreed with Turgeon about the basketball part. They trusted that a Division I head coach with eight years of experience at the helm knew when a player was NBA-ready or not. Basketball aside, however, his parents thought another year in school would benefit their son from a maturity standpoint.
“He wasn’t independent,” said Orletha Smith, Jalen’s mother. “He still needed us to do some things for him that you think, ‘OK, you’re 18 now, you’re a man, and you can make those decisions. You’re dealing with grown men with grown men issues, and you are still an 18-year-old kid who has not lived life.’ ”
Smith ultimately decided not to attend the NBA scouting combine and return for his sophomore year at Maryland. He joined the team for spring workouts and devoted himself to the gym. During the summer, Smith woke up around 8-9 a.m. to work out, then he returned to the Xfinity Center, a four-minute walk from his off-campus apartment, to shoot 500-600 shots at practice.
A Maryland graduate assistant, Brenton Petty, helped him adjust his form. Smith had a habit of shooting the ball flat, like in a straight line. Though the center stood at 6-foot-10, he wanted to develop a higher release point to shoot over the defender’s head more easily. The two also did other drills, including boosting Smith’s explosiveness, his ability to dribble into the lane quickly and dunking when around the rim. He also worked substantially on cutting to help with foot mobility and sprinting to help with conditioning. This elite work ethic had already existed in Smith, but adjusting to the college life of school and basketball made it difficult to find time for extra workouts.
When the 2019 fall semester began, he was able to better intertwine his workouts with his classes. He did the same drills before his first class for 30 minutes to an hour. He arrived for practice early and stayed late to put up extra shots and work on his conditioning before calling it a day. In the weight room, he lifted more and did extra sets after his teammates finished theirs. Physical makeup aside, his parents and Turgeon recommended that Smith meet with Michelle Garvin, the director of clinical and sports psychology at Maryland.
Smith had played significant minutes alongside starting center Bruno Fernando, who declared for the 2019 NBA draft after an enticing sophomore season and was selected by the Atlanta Hawks with the 34th overall pick. Following Fernando’s departure, Smith returned to his natural position of center with significantly higher expectations, which made him feel nervous and overwhelmed. Smith and Garvin met for 45 minutes to an hour once a week. They talked about dealing with outside distractions, how to be a great teammate and the importance of having a positive outlook on everything.
“Michelle helped me find ways to make myself a lot more confident on the court and just have fun, rather than taking everything so serious all the time,” said Smith.
Kyle Tarp, the director of basketball performance at Maryland, focused on adjusting Smith’s diet. He normally ate hamburgers, fast food from Chick-fil-A and other junk food. Tarp told Smith what kinds of foods he should be consuming and placed him on a nutrition plan. With Tarp’s advice, Smith changed his diet to include more plant-based foods.
“Another reason I became more consistent was because of the way I treated my body,” said Smith. “I started to focus more on what I ate and what I did for recovery. And I was able to control my body better and stay on the court longer.”
The extra training and adjustments paid off as Smith became one of the best players in college basketball last season. He averaged 15.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game as a sophomore, shooting 54% from the field and 37% from long distance. All career highs. The five double-doubles he notched during his freshman season surged to 21, which ranked first in the Big Ten and third nationally.
Smith helped Maryland capture the Big Ten regular-season title with an 18-point, 11-rebound, four-block performance against Michigan in the season finale. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors with teammate Anthony Cowan Jr. and also was named to the conference’s All-Defensive team.
“His confidence really grew,” said Turgeon. “He had put on a few more pounds of weight, so that contributed to it. But to be honest with you, he just got better in every phase: rebounding, defense, shooting, post-ups, passing — all improved.”
For the upcoming draft, Smith is projected as a mid- to late first-round pick.
“I believe Jalen will go as high as 18-20 in the draft,” said an NBA scout. “His ability to stretch the floor as well as protect the rim makes him intriguing to NBA teams. He is incredibly long. Has a good understanding of the game. A high care factor. And his decision-making makes him a trustworthy player.”
Mount Saint Joseph’s First Mcdonald’s all American
Pat Clatchey, who is in his 28th season as varsity head coach at Mount Saint Joseph High School, coached Smith from 2014 to 2018. He keeps in touch with his former player through texting. During Smith’s freshman season, if Maryland happened to play while Clatchey searched for something to watch on television, he tuned in and texted Smith detailed critiques: Be more active against the zone, don’t stand when you flash, have your hands up and make the timing in the gaps to get catches.
Smith’s usual response was, “Hey, thanks, coach. I remember that stuff from Saint Joe. I’ll be aware of it.” When Smith checked his iPhone after a game his sophomore season and had unread notifications from his former coach, the messages were typically “congratulations” or “great game.”
Clatchey first laid eyes on a 10-year-old Smith at the Banneker Community Center in Catonsville, Maryland. Jarvis Thomas, one of the most popular coaches in the area, coached the team. Their program was where Smith earned the nickname “Sticks,” because he was the skinniest person at the camp. Clatchey attended frequently to scout and recruit players. He cited Smith’s length, smoothness and fluidity. The timing of his rebounds. The touch on his shot — elements that young players rarely had in their repertoire. Clatchey began to recruit him and won his services over rival McDonogh High School in Owings Mills, Maryland.
The summer before Smith’s freshman year, Mount Saint Joseph hosted its annual summer camp. The program featured infinite amounts of talent but never a McDonald’s All American. One play from Smith at the camp had the coaches thinking that could change.
“He had this one play at camp where he was on the left wing, he drove down the lane, was about the middle of the lane, and dunked on this kid left-handed,” said Clatchey. “It was quite impressive. My assistant coach, Doug Nicholas, walked over to me and said, ‘That might be our first McDonald’s All American.’ And it turned out to be true. His junior year, yeah, you could really see the McDonald’s All American and the potential NBA player.”
Smith developed under Clatchey on his way to receiving various other accolades, including two-time Baltimore Sun All-Metro Co-Player of the Year, two-time Maryland Gatorade Player of the Year, two-time Baltimore Catholic League Player of the Year, a Jordan Brand Classic selection and a finalist for the 2016 USA Basketball men’s under-17 world championship team.
PREPARING FOR THE DRAFT AND A NEW LIFE
The NBA draft was scheduled for June 25 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, but has been rescheduled for Oct. 16 due to COVID-19. In the meantime, Smith has been working out in a gym in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. He models himself after Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka because of his defensive presence, rebounding, shot-blocking prowess and ability to score.
Smith is excited by the opportunity to eventually play basketball at Staples Center in Los Angeles, his favorite NBA arena. He grew up a Los Angeles Lakers fan because of his favorite player, Kobe Bryant, who made it a personal mission to destroy the opposing defense. It’s a mentality that Smith marveled at and tries to emulate.
The one player he looks forward to matching up against and learning from the most is Lakers star LeBron James.
“He’s pretty much everybody’s one go-to person because he’s one of the greatest players of all time,” said Smith. “I just admire how he takes it and he continues to play his game. And being able to play against him and watch him is going to be a moment to remember.”
Smith is on track to receive his bachelor’s degree in information science within three years. He also plans to continue his classes. His family says they will evaluate options for him to take classes online and eventually return to campus when his schedule permits. He also plans to continue meeting with a psychiatrist, especially as more NBA players admit their struggles with mental health.
Smith is now 20 years old, an age his parents don’t view as grown in their eyes. However, they believe he’s more self-sufficient. This has been a learning process for them as well. Neither were high-profile athletes or ever featured in the spotlight. They would rather see their son graduate college in a normal time frame of four years, but they also understand he’s not just any regular college student. That became glaringly apparent when Clatchey placed Smith on the varsity team at 14 years old.
“We were like, ‘Oh, no, he can’t be that good at his age. You’ve got juniors and seniors on the team that should be better. And he should be progressing to that point, not already be there,’ ” Orletha Smith said.
Whether Smith ends up on a team located on the East or West Coast, his parents plan to check on him. Their plan is to attend games, guide him and let him live his life. His mother compares this experience to when her husband — a retired Navy officer — left for the military at 19 years old. Even so, she acknowledges that the military has more discipline, guidance and restrictions than the NBA.
When thinking about everything the league has to offer, Smith says, he’s not worried about fame or money — luxuries he believes simply come with the profession. The focus will be on a successful NBA career attained through hard work and staying true to himself.
“My goal is to get drafted as high as I can,” said Smith. “Then when I get to the team, work hard and earn my playing time — try to become a starter my first year. By the end of my career, I would like to win at least two championships, but if that doesn’t happen, just being one of the best players to come out of Baltimore and succeed in the NBA.”