A forearm sprain and a coaching change altered the course of of Mark Smith’s future.
At the start of the summer of 2016, The Edwardsville (Ill.) senior point guard looked headed to Missouri on a baseball scholarship. He had been committed to pitch there for six months.
But head coach Tim Jamieson resigned on June 11, leaving Smith’s future in doubt. He didn’t feel as comfortable with the new coaches, who were all in place about a month later. When the injury to his throwing arm occurred, it seemed like a sign to move on and try his hand at a future in basketball.
Smith de-committed from Missouri on July 17, decided to play out the last two weeks of the AAU season and saw the offers roll in: Elon, Indiana State, Northern Illinois, Oral Roberts, Western Illinois, Wright State and his parents’ alma mater, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville. All in about two months.
“Since I’ve been focused just on basketball,” Smith told Land of 10, “it’s really helped me a lot with my game, my consistency as a basketball player, shooting the basketball. (I’m) just quicker, and my ballhandling is crisp. A lot of things are clicking right now.”
It’s only gotten better since. Smith, a 6-foot-4 point guard who says he models his game after LeBron James, has exploded on the scene while leading Edwardsville to a 20-1 record.
DePaul offered. Then Loyola-Chicago and Kansas State. Soon enough, John Groce and Illinois gave Smith his first Big Ten offer on New Year’s Day, opening up the possibility of playing alongside AAU teammate Javon Pickett, an Illini commit.
“They stand out,” Smith said of Illinois. “They’ve got their seniors leaving, so they need guards to come in and playmakers to come in. Coach Groce thinks I can come in and help.”
Two days later, No. 25 Northwestern came four coaches deep to see him. Head coach Chris Collins and assistants Patrick Baldwin, Armon Gates and Brian James saw him post 19 points, nine assists and eight rebounds in a win.
The staff approached him after the game and extended an offer, setting the stage for a in-state recruiting battle between Big Ten teams.
“They just said they liked my game, how I’m a playmaker, can get to the basket and finish,” Smith said of Northwestern. “I just have a high basketball IQ and can knock down open shots, just another playmaker that can be on the court.”
Boston College and Missouri (this time for basketball) have since offered as well, and Indiana marked the latest suitor. Hoosiers coach Tom Crean echoed Northwestern in complimenting his IQ and feel for the game.
Along with the three Big Ten schools that have offered, Smith continues to hear from Nebraska as well. Assistant coach Jim Molinari, he said, “wants me to keep Nebraska up in my list.”
Purdue had shown interest but just landed a commitment from 3-star prospect Sasha Stefanovic on Friday.
Smith has already taken official visits to Northern Illinois, SIU-Edwardsville and Wright State. With a limit of five, he can only make two more such trips and has to be selective. DePaul, Illinois, Kansas State and Northwestern appear top candidates because of the level of interest they’ve shown.
“I’m still trying to build a relationship with the coaches,” Smith said. “That’s important to me, and just seeing how I fit in and come in and make an impact as a freshman. That’s something I’m looking for in a school for me to take an official visit there.”
The regular signing period for basketball starts on April 12, leaving Smith with plenty of time to make a decision. He won’t rush into any sudden moves, as he already has plenty of experience with recruiting.
Plus, he’s having too much fun to do anything rash.
“I’m kind of enjoying it,” he said. “It’s always fun to get recruited.”