A lot of the most talented American players in today’s NBA get discovered at very young ages, usually as part of an AAU team that travels and plays in front of prestigious colleges coaches long before they’re anywhere near adulthood. As a result, most of today’s American stars all know each other long before they get to college, let alone the pros. It’s a well-oiled machine that paves the way for a lot of young professionals, but it’s not the path every player takes to the NBA.
Washington Wizards big man Jason Smith, for example, was just like any other high school kid in Colorado for his first couple of years at Platte Valley High School. And he didn’t get his first sniff at the possibility of a future in the NBA until the end of his freshman year at Colorado State University a few years later.
To be clear, Smith was a really good high school basketball player that was named the state’s top player two years in a row and was at one point considered Colorado’s top prospect, but even with those credentials, his spotlight was nowhere near as bright as the one shining on players like Jabari Parker or Jahlil Okafor or Anthony Davis when they were in high school.
“My high school coach got bombarded by recruiters more than I did,” Smith told Basketball Insiders. “He took care of a lot of it, and he asked me, ‘What do you want to?’ and we narrowed it down. I wanted a school big enough where I’d be seen, but I didn’t want to be too big and then just sit the bench the whole time.”
Smith ended up getting a key bit of advice from an expected source: former Denver Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe.
“Going into my junior year of high school, I went to a Nuggets game. I met with Kiki Vandeweghe and I asked him, ‘What one thing would you say, for a person going into college, does it matter going to big schools or little schools?’” Smith recalled. “He said, ‘It really doesn’t matter where you go. If you’re good, we’re going to find you.’ That kind of put it in perspective. It didn’t really matter what school I went to, as long as I was happy with my choice.”
Smith had a school he wanted to attend the whole time, anyway, so that news was welcome for him.
“I never took any recruiting visits to any other place. I went to Colorado State,” he said. “I’m a little biased since my parents both went there and one of my siblings went there. It was close to home, 30 minutes away. My family came to pretty much every game at home so it was nice to have that local support.”
Local support never was a problem for Smith, though he didn’t come from an area that really cared all that much about basketball. There absolutely were Denver Nuggets fans in the area, but Smith was a Chicago Bulls fan, just like everybody else in the 1990s.
“It was more about football where I’m from,” Smith said. “Obviously you catch an NBA game here and there, but I came from a place where you didn’t really have cable TV. We could catch the nationally-televised games on ABC, NBC or CBS, but there weren’t too many of those. When there were, it was always the teams that you kind of saw over and over and over, like those Jordan Era Bulls.”
With basketball so low on the list of priorities for Smith’s Colorado community, he found his love for the game through a general competitiveness and growing up in a household where pretty much everybody played every sport possible.
“I have three older siblings and they were always in athletics, so I was always at basketball games, volleyball games, football games,” he said. “I was always around the stuff, so I guess I just kind of picked up the idea of, ‘Man I can’t wait to do that when I get older.’ Really the love of the game kind of just worked from there. For me it was just going out there, having fun, and trying to get better and better every time. That’s what it was all about back then, just having fun and going out there and playing as hard as you can.”
While Smith will openly admit that he loves his career, he also remembers the care-free nature of high school basketball as the happiest he’s ever been playing the sport.
“I always liked playing in high school. It was the fun of the game, going against other teams with your best friends in high school,” he said. “I came from a small school so it was a bunch of farm boys playing. High school is part of my favorite memories of basketball, that’s for sure.”
It wasn’t charter planes and five-star hotels back then, but Smith remembers the charm of simpler times.
“Back in the day you had bus rides, and I’m of the generation where you had CD players and you had all your CDs, or you had a Gameboy or Game Gear or you just sat there and talked for hours and hours on end as you rode the bus to different games. Some were fun, some weren’t. The more you win, the better the bus ride is.”
Anybody who ever played high school basketball knows that the bus ride after a loss is a very delicate time, particularly for the head coach. Smith remembers his own high school coach giving him many of the skills he would need throughout the rest of his high school and college basketball careers.
“Dave Mekelburg was my high school coach. He was the quiet, silent, workout guru guy,” Smith recalled. “He never really was satisfied with anything that you did, no matter if it was good or bad. But if it was bad, he was definitely going to get all over you. He held you accountable, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better in high school. It made me work hard. I really appreciate where I am today from the days I had in high school.”
Then, Smith ran off to Colorado State, where he was prepared to get his education and move on with his life. Playing in the NBA, at that time, wasn’t even on his radar.
“I was majoring in business,” Smith said. “I was there to get an education for sure. My parents were both very education-oriented. They told me, ‘You’re going to school. You’re a student-athlete, not an athlete-student.’ So for me, the NBA was non-existent. I was fighting for some playing time. If I got some playing time, that would be cool. If I didn’t, okay, that’s cool too, I was happy to be getting my education paid for.”
Then, thanks to an internet mock draft, which in 2007 was nowhere near as ubiquitous a thing as it is today, especially in the era before Twitter was the all-encompassing go-to news source that it has since become, Smith got his first glimmer of hope as an NBA draft prospect.
“I think it was probably the end of my freshman year that some people had put me on draft boards, like going number two, number three,” Smith said. “I was like, ‘What the hell is this crap? What is this? There’s no way I’m going to the NBA.’ These guys think I’m going to play against Shaq? Never.”
In fact, Smith thought those mock drafts freshman year were gags, just his teammates messing with the freshman.
“I didn’t even notice the mock draft,” Smith recalled. “All my teammates knew it, and I was like, ‘Shut up.’ I thought they were joking with me, I thought they were pulling my leg. They showed it to me and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty credible source, too.’ I was like, ‘Uh, I don’t think they really know who I am. That’s got to be a different Jason Smith.’”
Eventually, though, he came around on the idea and realized it really was happening. That’s when he embraced it and started working toward the goal of playing at the highest level of professional basketball.
“Sophomore year comes around, and I had a great year,” he said. “The thought became very, very real, but at that time, I wasn’t ready to go the NBA. I was 19 years old, having fun in college, trying to gain weight and wrap my mind around having a good chance of playing in the NBA.
“It was surreal to me. After going through my junior year at Colorado State and knowing that I’m going to come out, and getting drafted 20th in the first round, it’s been the best decision of my life. I never had a thought of even having a chance of playing in the NBA, but all the hard work and dedication I put in, really paid off for sure.”
He still remembers high school and college as much simpler times, when he played basketball for fun rather than as a profession, but that doesn’t mean he’s lost his passion for the game. He still loves basketball just as much as ever.
“This is the best job ever,” Smith said. “I picture myself, I could be doing a nine-to-five in an office, sitting at a desk, completely uncomfortable, hating my life. But I wake up, I work maybe two to three hours of the day playing basketball, and I get paid a lot of money to do it. A lot of people dream to be professional athletes… I’m very blessed to be where I’m at, and I don’t take it for granted. That’s for sure.”
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