Speaking with Terps basketball commit Jalen Smith, a former player for Mount Saint Joseph. (Don Markus / Baltimore Sun video)
Jalen Smith doesn’t love the spotlight.
When he decided last summer to end the speculation and announce that he was going to Maryland, he declined the offer of a news conference at Mount Saint Joseph, as former and future teammate Darryl Morsell had done the previous year.
Smith simply tweeted it out — without even telling his father, Charles.
“I didn’t want really make a big fuss about it. I knew I was committing,” Smith said recently. “I was thinking about doing a press conference, but I saw how many were here for Darryl’s. There’s probably going to be a lot for me. It’s no need to take up all that space to say a few words.”
Charles Smith, a retired Navy officer who is close to completing his undergraduate degree in criminal justice from Maryland, said the older of his two children is “very quiet," much the way he and his wife, Lisa, are. The Smiths also didn’t like the idea of a news conference.
“It’s not always the loudest person who turns out to be the best,” the elder Smith said. “To be honest, when he committed to Maryland, I didn’t even know. We had come back from the official visit and I was asleep. I woke up the next morning and had all these text messages. I said, 'What’s going on?’ ”
Charles Smith recalled how when Jalen was being recruited, college coaches would call to check in with him because his son wasn’t picking up his phone or returning their calls or texts. Many seemed concerned the younger Smith was not interested in their school.
“All that stuff doesn’t impress him,” the elder Smith said. “He’s thankful for it. He still a kid and he doesn’t think he's any better than anyone else.”
As much as Smith has tried his best to avoid being the center of attention, his exploding talent seems to be getting in the way. When he arrives on the Maryland campus Monday with the rest of a recruiting class ranked as high as No. 7 in the country, the spotlight will undoubtedly find him.
After all, Smith is rated as the No. 14 prospect in the country by 247sports.com and has been recently mentioned in a couple of NBA mock drafts as a potential first-round pick in 2019. A player longtime Mount Saint Joseph coach Pat Clatchey called “the best player we’ve had here” understands what’s in store when he gets to College Park.
Asked where his game has made the biggest jump since coming to Mount Saint Joseph, Smith said: "I would say my confidence. Freshman year and sophomore year, I was kind of passive, giving it to the older guys. … Once my confidence built up, I felt like I could do pretty much anything.”
Said Clatchey, who started Smith for four years: “He was playing guys who were three and four years older than him every single night. His role was more limited. As he got better and better, his role expanded. And he delivered. We’ve had some really good players, but what he accomplished he really separated himself.”
What Maryland coach Mark Turgeon will need Smith to do as a freshman depends largely on whether center Bruno Fernando returns for his sophomore year or keeps his name in next month’s NBA draft. Fernando and rising junior guard Kevin Huerter have until 11:59 p.m. Wednesday to make their decision.
“Me and my family, we’ve been watching that closely between Bruno and Kevin,” Smith said. “I want him to stay. … I like playing with Bruno [in pickup games]. He’s pretty much one of the best big men I’ve ever played with. If it comes down to him leaving, I’ll just have to put on a bigger role than what [it’s] expected to be.”
Smith said he hopes to get his weight up between 220 and 225 pounds by the time the season begins in early November. While acknowledging that he must get bigger and stronger to have the same success as in high school, Smith doesn’t think his skinny frame will be a deterrent on the college level.
“I’ve pretty much been battling against people way bigger than me. I’m prepared for it,” he said. “The last few weeks, I’ve been picking up a lot of weight. I’m actually starting to come into my body now. The muscle mass is starting to come in. I’m becoming a lot stronger.”
Smith sees himself as primarily a post player who can step out and hit midrange jump shots and, potentially, 3-pointers.
“I pretty much see myself as an inside-outside player,” Smith said. "I wouldn’t say bang inside, but make my moves inside. I said I focused my game on the outside game this year. That’s the one thing I’m trying to improve on. But I’m not going to forget about the inside as well.”
Recruited heavily by Virginia and Villanova as well, Smith eliminated the Cavaliers after racial incidents in Charlottesvile last spring. It came down to a team that had won the 2016 national championship with another former Mount Saint Joseph star, guard Phil Booth, on its roster and the Terps.
Despite the Wildcats being reigning national champions after winning again this year and Maryland coming off a disappointing 19-13 season and no postseason, Smith said he made the right choice.
Charles Smith said that it was typical of the kinds of decisions his son had made for a long time. The elder Smith recalled how after playing on two Baltimore AAU teams where he was the only true center, his son decided to join more nationally known Team Takeover in Washington to expand his game.
“He knew in order to become more of a factor in the game, and impose his will on the game, he had to play different positions,” Charles Smith said. “He was the top big guy in Baltimore and there wasn’t really anyone to push him. We went to visit [Team] Takeover, there were so many big guys there.”
As low-key as the younger Smith is, he is aware of how others feel. He did see that his name has been mentioned as a 2019 first-round pick.
Asked whether it changed his thinking more about the possibility of being a one-and-done, Smith said: “It had some impact. I didn’t think I would [be mentioned] this early. It’s kind of hard to decide. If I do well, do I want to go to the NBA or stay a couple of more years? It’s a decision I’ll decide with my family and my coaches and see what’s best for me.”
Charles Smith said the family has already had discussions about it with Turgeon.
“Coach Turgeon said, ‘If he’s a possible lottery pick, I'm going to encourage him to go,’ ” Charles Smith said. “He said, ‘No matter what, his scholarship would still be here at Maryland for him to come back and finish his degree.’ Coach Turgeon said, ‘I will not hold you back if they call for you.’ ”
In turn, Charles Smith pointed out to his son that the average NBA player’s career is 4½ years.