A smattering of spectators trickled in and out of the Lombard Middle School gym last Saturday for a late-season Baltimore Innovative Athletic Conference boys basketball matchup between host Baltimore Freedom Academy and Coppin Academy.
Most of the 60 or so fans in attendance appeared to be friends or family of players at one of the two city "innovation" charter schools -- a far cry from Sunday's MIAA A Conference championship at UMBC's RAC Arena, both in terms of atmosphere and city-wide recognition.
Smith's usual theatrics were limited by a recent, minor knee injury. He scored eight first-half points, but really made his mark leading the break and finding the open man. More than a few times Smith surprised his teammates with a pass, turning a should-have-been assist into a bobbled ball.
"Sometimes they don't even know they're open, but I can see that they're open," Smith said. "They don't see it themselves. ... So it's been working out good. We're getting better day to day."
BFA jumped to a 44-16 halftime lead. With the game well in hand, Baltimore Freedom Academy coach Joe Connelly let Smith rest his knee on the bench for the entire second half. The team cruised to a 57-24 win, its twelfth straight.
Smith, who averages 27 points and eight assists per game, wasn't at all bothered by his second half on the bench.
"[Sitting on the bench doesn't] bother me. I don't have to be in the whole game, especially since I'm on the injury list now," Smith said. "It's [fun] just cheering on my team and having fun with the kids on the bench with me. We were getting them motivated to do what they've got to do."
Smith's unlikely arrival at BFA is just the latest stop on his basketball journey, which began three and a half hours north of Baltimore 16 years ago and will almost certainly lead to a high-major Division I scholarship two years from now.
New York to Baltimore
Smith was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., growing up in the same neighborhood as Denver Nuggets star and ex-Towson Catholic standout Carmelo Anthony. Smith and Anthony's fathers were friends, so the current and former Brooklyn-to-Baltimore ballers are close.
Smith honed his game on the New York City playgrounds, taking pointers from Anthony and his cousin, former St. John's point guard Omar Cook.
"He used to take me to games at St. John's," Smith said. "He's [playing professional basketball] in Spain right now. ... We talk like weekly about what's going on over there and how his newborn's doing. It's family. It's real cool."
Smith followed Anthony's path from Brooklyn to Baltimore before his sixth grade year. He latched on with the Team Melo AAU program, and by the time he was an eighth grader at Mount Royal Middle School, the word on Smith throughout the city's basketball circles was out. All the major A conference schools came after him. But after Smith and his mother, Julie Torres, weighed the pros and cons, they decided on Baltimore Freedom Academy, a Bronze Medal-ranked high school according to U.S. News & World Report.
Serving grades six through 12, BFA has about 320 high school students, giving students a more personalized education. Plus, the low-profile school gave Smith a chance to work on his game away from the spotlight.
"I was going to go to an A conference school, but me and mother discussed it and we wanted me to be able to do my own thing. I could start fresh and build up [the program] and see what I can do in my first two years of high school."
Smith's enrollment at Baltimore Freedom Academy wasn't a basketball-based decision. Smith knew of Coach Connelly and Connelly had heard about Smith. But Smith's enrollment at BFA had much more to do with academics and keeping a lower profile than anything else.
"I started knowing [who] Joe [was] toward the end of my eighth-grade year," Smith said. "For school, [my mother and I] wanted to be different, so we were just looking at the schools and talking to the coaches. It was funny because I came in my freshman year, probably the second day of school, and he was there. He didn't know who I was, but he knew of me. So we had tryouts one day and he started talking to me and my mother. He didn't know it was me. So I came here and hit every shot I took and he was like, 'OK, that's what I've been looking for.'"
Connelly added: "I think he knew about me, but obviously when you're recruited by [A conference schools] that are top-notch publicity-wise, it's sort of humbling to come to a school like our school. But we got together on the basketball court and it's really been a smooth thing. He's been a real humble guy and a pleasure to coach. A lot of times [players of Smith's caliber] have adults gravitate to them based on their basketball skills. They have a tendency to be somewhat of a prima donna. Fortunately for me he hasn't displayed any of those signs whatsoever."
It's been a mutually-beneficial relationship for both parties. Connelly landed a player who's taken the program to another level, while Smith found a coach with a proven track record in player development.
Connelly grew up in Baltimore City, the oldest of seven children. He attended Towson Catholic and played for ex-Owls and current City College coach Mike Daniel. Four Connelly brothers currently work in basketball -- Joe with BFA, Tim (assistant director of player personnel) and Pat (advance scout) with the Washington Wizards and Dan (director of basketball operations) at Princeton.
After graduating from Towson Catholic, Joe Connelly moved on to Morgan State, where he earned a bachelor's degree. He eventually was hired as an assistant at TC, where he stayed for 10 years, tutoring Carmelo Anthony among many others.
Connelly eventually earned a master's in education from Johns Hopkins and stayed active in the local basketball community, branching out with local AAU programs like Baltimore Blue (where he coached Anthony and ex-North Carolina guard Melvin Scott) and Charm City AAU (which featured future NFL players Tommy Polley and Keion Carpenter).
After teaching stints at Douglass, Edmondson and Dunbar, Connelly found his way to the Baltimore Freedom Academy, where he currently serves as the school's athletic director in addition to his role as boys basketball coach. His BFA tenure coincided with the rise of his other career -- player development specialist.
So just by chance, one of the top sophomore point guards in the country ended up with a high school coach that trains NBA players for a living.
"He just fell into my lap. God works in mysterious ways," Connelly said. "It was a blessing, but I think for him it was good because [coming to BFA] took him away from a lot of hype. We don't really have any hangers-on or people that follow the program around. It's just a really good foundation for him to be successful."
The results of the Smith-Connelly partnership speak for themselves. As a freshman, Smith led BFA to the conference championship, averaging 32 points and six assists per game. Scoring wasn't ever a problem, but at 6 feet, Smith and Connelly knew that his sophomore season had to be focused on developing into more of a true point guard.
"Guys his size that score a lot generally don't go very far," Connelly said. "With his size and quickness, he has very good handles. I think his best asset is his ability to see the floor. But there are other ways to take advantage of your talents over putting the ball in the hoop. I think he enjoys setting his teammates up. I think he's all about it now. Around New Year's he really bought in and we've been rolling ever since."
Smith said he'll watch games with Connelly and try to pattern his game after Chris Paul and Steve Nash. Smith said he's well aware of how lucky he is to be able to work with a coach who can speak with authority on training NBA players.
"In the offseason or the summer time when I've got nothing to do, or like on a Saturday, he'll take me out there and we'll work out with some of the NBA players and see what they're doing and match my skills up to them," Smith said. "So he lets me play against them and work out with them. That's a great thing for me to see what I can work on and what I need to do to get to the next level."
There's little doubt that in two years, Smith will join the likes of Malcolm Delaney (Virginia Tech), Jack McClinton (Miami), Sean Mosley (Maryland) and a host others as a Baltimore guard playing at the highest level of college basketball. His national profile will surely increase this summer on the AAU circuit with Nike Baltimore Elite. It's still early, but Smith's already heard from a nice selection of major programs.
"Virginia Tech was here last week," Smith said. "Florida State, I've been talking to them here and there. They've been coming through. Villanova, they've been coming around. Maryland, they're all around. Syracuse and North Carolina [have recruited me] here and there. So it's a lot. It's a lot. So we're just seeing what we have going for my senior year."
Recently Smith, Torres and Connelly decided it would be best if Smith played his final two years of high school basketball at a prep school. Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., Brewster Academy in New Hampshire and Montverde Academy in Florida have all been discussed as potential destinations.
"In the long run, it's a better move for him," Connelly said. "His team will still go on and I think he'll be in a situation where he can be in the gym and get the most out of his God-given ability. We alternate days of practice in the gym with the girls ... so it's not the ideal situation for someone of his talent and ability. That's just me being a realist, as athletic director and coach. Some schools are in the gym seven days a week, which might be a bit of overkill, but it does have some benefits in that regard."
Smith said he'll always be thankful for his time at BFA, but understands it makes sense for him to test his game against the top players in the country before moving onto college.
"I'm going to miss [Baltimore] but I'm originally from New York, so I'm good with traveling," Smith said. "I don't get homesick, so I'm just ready."
For now Smith and Connelly are focused on winning a second consecutive Baltimore Innovative Athletic Conference championship. After the season they'll start getting more serious about choosing a prep school. Connelly's confident Smith will be a success wherever he goes.
"He has some skills that no matter how good a coach or teacher you are, you can't teach some of the skills he has," Connelly said. "He's blessed with a lot of athleticism and innate things like balance. It's a rare thing ... to have that kind of quickness and lateral movement. He can work on his jump shot and improve his handles, but stuff like that is teachable. He's just blessed with natural talent that needs to be cultivated."
The next step in that cultivation process will likely take place away from Baltimore. But thanks to his time at BFA with Connelly, Smith said he's prepared for the next step in his basketball journey.