WINNING MAKES IT EASIER FOR REBS SMITH
By Chris Burrows
OXFORD When Jason Smith smiles, he has a shiny gold tooth up front. And lately, that tooth has been seen frequently.
“Yeah, we’re all a lot happier now,” said Smith, a 6-foot-6 freshman forward from Wheatley, Ark. “We may not be the best team in the league, but we’re starting to turn people’s heads.”
Smith turns heads every time he leaves the floor. His impressive vertical leap is exceeded only by the explosive quickness that lifts him from the floor in the blink of an eye.
He is the one team member that evokes gasps from the crowds and teammates with his ability to “get off the floor.” He is part of a five-man freshman crop recruited by Rob Evans that’s beginning to be recognized as one of the SEC’s top classes.
“I don’t mind saying it. I think Ole Miss has an outstanding freshman class,” said Auburn coach Cliff Ellis, whose club lost to the Rebels in Oxford. “(Keith) Carter is clearly the best of the bunch right now, but Rob’s got a good group. And I really like that Smith kid.”
So does Evans.
“Before he finishes, Jason has a chance to be outstanding; maybe one of the best players to come through here,” Evans said. “He’s barely 18 (years old) and he’s got a long way to go. But you can see the potential to be outstanding is there.”
That was especially clear in the recent three-game home stand by the Rebels. He is averaging 7.6 points and 5.1 rebounds and has bumped his playing time to 25-30 minutes per game. He isn’t big (210 pounds), but Evans believes he already ranks among the club’s best defenders in the post.
“Jason is an active player and makes things happen,” Evans said. “Sometimes that means he makes bad things happen, but Jason works hard every day to be a better and more consistent player.”
In high school, Smith demonstrated the total floor game, in addition to his ability to score. He averaged a respectable 16.5 points per game, but his other stats were more impressive: 12.5 rebounds, 3.2 steals, 3.1 assists and 2.1 blocked shots.
“I played at a small (Palestine) high school, but it’s a good program in Arkansas and people know about it,” Smith said. “I also played AAU ball, so I had good competition. I felt I could come in and help Ole Miss right away. I just didn’t know how much.”
Smith hasn’t been surprised by SEC competition, but admits, “It’s physical around the basket. You’ve got to play strong to survive.”
Survival is nothing new to Smith, who grew up in a family of seven children, including five girls.
The only thing that has surprised Smith has been his inability to shoot free throws. In an early three-game home span, Smith missed 14 consecutive free throws and has hit only 24-of-61 (.393 percent) for the year. He just shakes his head.
“I shoot better than that. It was a mental thing,” said Smith, who is hitting 53 percent from the field. “It’s kind of like us. We didn’t have a lot of confidence, but now we do and it’s getting better. So are my free throws.”