Just one year ago, Kevin Smith couldn't be stopped.
Baltimore Freedom Academy's sophomore point guard averaged nearly 30 points and eight assists per game, playing in relative anonymity at the East Baltimore charter school on Lombard St.
Today Smith, who moved to Baltimore from Brooklyn, N.Y. before his sixth-grade year, finds himself far removed from city life and his earlier high school basketball existence.
The 6-foot, 200-pound junior now lives in West Virginia, going to school during the day and playing for Huntington Prep at night. The Express (15-5) have faced nationally-ranked powers Findlay (Nev.) Prep, Paterson (N.J.) Catholic and Columbus (Ohio) Northland, suffering close losses to all three. Needless to say, Smith is facing an entirely different level of competition than he saw in the Baltimore Innovative Athletic Conference.
"I think it was the perfect time for me to leave," Smith said. "The competition I've been playing [shows me that] I made the right decision. For me, I see the progress in my game ... by playing a national schedule."A typical day for Smith, who lives in a house near campus with his teammates, goes something like this: wake up at 7 a.m. and work out, go to school until about 3:30 p.m., work out with the team trainer, attend practice and later return home for studying and some much-needed relaxation.
On the weekends, Smith and the Express will often hit the road. Huntington Prep completed a recent trip to Washington, and also regularly plays at nearby venues in Ohio and Kentucky.
While travel and living away from home are obvious differences in Smith's existence this year, his basketball development is probably the most challenging part of the entire transition. Instead of taking over games with his scoring as he did for Baltimore Freedom Academy, Smith has been asked by Huntington Prep coach Rob Fulford to serve as the Express' primary ballhandler and setup man.
"He averaged [around 30 points] per game last year, and unfortunately a point guard can't average that many [here]," said Fulford, who was tipped off to Smith by BFA coach and athletic director Joe Connelly. "So it's been an adjustment for him. Sometimes, he just needs to slow the pace of the game down. It's been a learning experience.
"The one thing we try and have him concentrate on is just cut down the turnovers. When we play the schedule that we have, empty possessions are wasted opportunities that cost you games. It's not a slow tempo by any means -- we run and press -- but at the same time you have other teams with really, really good players, so possessions are crucial. So he just needs to understand that every possession counts. Those are the things he has probably heard me say more than anything else this year."
"Every trip down the court, those kids have to touch the ball," Fulford said. "Our kids need to buy into their roles. Most of these kids were like Kevin -- they were the man at their previous schools and all averaged a bunch of points. ... But Kevin has bought into it. It's an adjustment period, but he's still young. He just turned 17. There's some things he needs to grow into, but I think he's done a good job. It's obviously not easy moving away from home."
Smith agrees with his coach's assessment. Adding strength, becoming more vocal and playing unselfish basketball are all things he has worked on this season.
"Right now I'm becoming more of a team leader," Smith said. "I'm trying to get everybody motivated and make sure everything runs smoothly. I'm more of a [pass-first] point guard than a scorer, but when Coach tells me I need to score, I can do that. But I'm more of a setup point guard than I was last year."
As for Smith's future, the coaches on his Nike Baltimore Elite AAU team handle most aspects of his recruiting. Fulford did say Baylor and Florida State check in from time to time, while Smith said Cincinnati, Houston, LSU, Memphis and Virginia Tech have also expressed interest. There's no question Smith has a high-major skill set. Now it's just a matter of using those skills to develop into more of a true point guard.
"It's one of those situations that as he adjusts and continues learning to be more of a pass-first point guard, those things will pick up," Fulford said. "We're trying to get him to learn and have the ability to run a team and manage a game, things like that. The high-major guys will sit in the background, watch that process before they jump into it."
Smith will be back in Baltimore after the school year for what will be the most crucial summer for his development as a player. Last summer, Smith played up a year on Nike Baltimore Elite with guys like Will Barton (Memphis), C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Jordan Latham (Xavier) and Josh Selby (undecided). This year, he will team with the next generation of top local players.
This year hasn't been easy for Smith, but an easy year wasn't something he expected. He's excited to come back to Baltimore in a few months and put all the knowledge he has learned this year at Huntington to the test on the court.
"Every time I get to go home, everyone's in the gym and it's like we never left," Smith said. "But I like the results that are happening. Everything that makes my future better makes [my mother and I] happy."