Every so often there is that senior who fascinates the basketball fan over the course of the four-month basketball season.
The player explodes during their final season as an unsigned senior and the mystery surrounding that player begins to circulate. Maybe it’s the unknown or the hope of there being this terrific talent out there everyone has missed on that becomes so intriguing.
Or maybe it’s simply a player who has grown and matured as a player in his own way and in his own time.
But it certainly captivates high school basketball fans across the state, and it intrigues those that love to follow the recruiting efforts of their favorite college basketball program. These players and their breakthrough stories are like a basketball bonding experience among fans in gyms and, now, on message boards and Twitter.
Some of these players work out and prove to be the late-blooming player. And some don’t. Some are real and legit, while others remain stuck in a basketball fantasy world the player rides out for a few months.
But these players are always given the proverbial “blowing up” label at some point of their senior year.
Remember Matt Chastain last year?
The athletic 6-5 forward from tiny Leroy wasn’t even a blip on the radar after a so-so AAU run and an injury wiped out some exposure possibilities. He went from having no Division I offers in the middle of his senior season to double-digit mid-major offers –– and one from Utah –– in a matter of weeks last February and March.
Chastain ultimately signed with Loyola after leading Leroy to a Class 1A state championship.
A couple of years ago Marcus Lovett arrived on the scene, transferring to Morgan Park for his senior year. He had a name early in his career out in California, but his star had quickly faded by the time he reached Chicago.
But it took all of one fall league game prior to his senior season for the Hoops Report to declare the flashy 6-0 guard was a high-major prospect and the best senior prospect in Illinois not named Jalen Brunson.
He was magical as a senior for Morgan Park and, after sitting out last season at St. John’s, he’s averaging 16.1 points, 4 rebounds and 3.9 assists as a freshman.
There have been others, to a lesser extent. Remember when Chatham-Glenwood’s Peyton Allen was all the rage among fans during his senior season as an uncommitted prospect with big senior numbers in 2013-2014? How about former Oswego East star, Jay Harris, during the 2009-2010 season? His 30-plus point games brought high-majors poking around by January of his senior year.
This year that player is without a doubt Mark Smith of Edwardsville. The big, physical, broad-shouldered 6-4 guard is putting up monster numbers and grabbing everyone’s attention.
This past week he averaged 22.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists in the Collinsville Holiday Classic, including a whopping 33 points in the championship game to beat Belleville Althoff and Jordan Goodwin.
On the season his numbers are pretty staggering for a high school player: 21 points, 9.4 assists and 8 rebounds a game. He just recently surpassed 1,000 career points.
So where does Smith fall on the late-blooming college basketball recruiting hierarchy?
Here is the quick backstory on a player who is the talk of southern Illinois and should be gaining steam in Mr. Basketball conversations after leading Edwardsville to a sparkling 12-1 start.
While Smith has been a known prospect on the college basketball recruiting scene over the past couple of years, he was also recognized as an outstanding baseball prospect. He committed to the Missouri baseball program a year ago. As a result of that commitment there wasn’t a ton of attention paid towards Smith in regards to his basketball recruitment.
But that began to change when Smith opted out of his Missouri baseball commitment in the middle of July.
While his July on the AAU circuit wasn’t jaw-dropping, it was certainly rock solid and opened eyes. I had to refresh my memory of just what the City/Suburban Hoops Report thought coming out of the summer, so I dug up the summer recap report that went out to subscribing college coaches.
Smith was listed as the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s biggest Division I stock riser at the combo guard position in that report, with a sneak peek here at what that report had to say back in August:
He went out and did his job in July, showing that he’s elevated himself to a Division I player. Have to admit the Hoops Report put Smith on the backburner after he committed to play Division I baseball last winter. But now that he’s opened it up, the Hoops Report has vastly under-appreciated this kid. Smith is a bid-bodied guard who is strong, versatile and raised his stock and ranking as much as anyone. The Hoops Report REALLY likes this kid. He fills a stat sheet without doing so in a fashionable way, can knock down shots, like his shooting potential and finishes with strength around the basket. Plus, he seems to compete.
The City/Suburban Hoops Report had Smith as a no-brainer low-major plus/mid-major prospect coming out of the summer. The recruitment and offers this past fall followed suit as Western Illinois, Oral Roberts, Indiana State, Northern Illinois, Wright State, UMass-Lowell, SIUE and others were involved. He visited Northern Illinois, Wright State and SIUE officially in the fall.
After watching his game with Belleville Althoff and against Jordan Goodwin online earlier this season, in my eyes he became a “must-have” mid-major recruit by the time the pre-Christmas report was sent out to college coaches.
But you know where high-level Missouri Valley prospects and Atlantic 10-type prospects who are unsigned in the middle of their senior year end up? At a high-major. That’s where Smith will end up if he chooses to play at the highest level. And 37 and 33 point efforts against Goodwin’s team certainly helps his case.
DePaul offered Smith in November and Loyola followed with an offer in mid-December. Kansas State and Illinois have been extremely active with Smith as both had assistants and head coaches in to see him recently, with Kansas State offering on Friday. He plans to visit Illinois for the Ohio State game on Sunday. Pitt has also become more engaged.
Smith says it’s now about getting to know the coaching staffs of the schools recruiting him and getting on campus. But he adds there isn’t any timetable for making a decision.
“If I find the right fit and the right feel and believe it’s the right place for me, I will go ahead and commit,” says Smith, who has two official visits remaining. “But I’m just starting to build some of these relationships.”
Now, after taking in three of his games on tape, it’s easy to see the confidence and comfort level he has while playing with his high school team. He also seems to have a little of that “Nobody is beating my team and I’m going to shred anything in my path” thing going. He’s a winner. Smith was the anchor of a team that finished 25-6 last season –– 14-0 in the Southwestern Conference –– and is off to a stellar start this season.
But more than anything, it’s just one of those athletic transformations that happens in different sports and at all levels. A player keeps working hard, things start to click, the chip on the shoulder grows bigger, confidence expands and a comfort level exists that vaults an athlete to another level. It happens.
That’s exactly what has happened with Mark Smith, who has proven and shown that AAU basketball isn’t everything.
“I put in a lot of work after the July period in getting ready for this season, especially working on my jumper and my quickness,” said Smith, a day after winning MVP honors at Collinsville. “I also really think my entire focus on just basketball has helped. That’s made a difference.”
Smith is a different type of player and with a different look. He’s a very versatile guard, though maybe not the typical creating, break-you-down point guard with a burst off the dribble when projecting him to the highest level. But he takes care of the ball and has high-quality passing instincts.
His size allows him to see the floor while his strength allows him to take a bump on the perimeter, get where he needs and finish at the rim. He has a nice blend of power and finesse for a guard, which you see with one of his rollicking, full-court, to-the-basket transition baskets or a down-the-lane drive.
Plus, he has sneaky athleticism off the floor. You don’t expect his big body to get off the floor the way it does and finish with a dunk.
But the area Smith starts to really intrigue you with is his potential as a shooter. He elevates nicely off the floor on his jumper and the mechanics are pretty sound. He can shoot it with range or beat you with a much-improved pull-up jumper off the dribble.
Smith must still show what he can do as a shooter and scorer when he’s off the ball. Right now so much of his impact is done with the ball in his hands, which isn’t a bad thing. But his off-the-ball maturation should come in time as he’s forced to do more of that at the next level.
Now it’s a matter of enjoying the ride for Smith. Now it’s two-plus months of keeping the momentum moving forward.
He’s put himself into POY conversations, high-major consideration and into the Hoops Report’s top 10 prospects in the class. Most importantly, he’s shown he’s a winner, carrying a team that could wind up facing the state’s top-ranked team, Simeon, in the Normal Super this March.
That’s quite a bit of work Smith has put in since putting himself back on the market just five months ago.
“This is all exciting and a good feeling knowing that all the hard work we’ve put in is paying off with this team,” says Smith, who adds he’s been playing together with this group of players since 4th grade. “I just play and let my game do the talking.”
And it’s talking in a big way.
Following Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport