Big things come to those who wait
Josh Smith is big. Really big.
The stories of Smith's prodigious size sound mythical. Too crazy to be true.
In kindergarten, he was taller than his teacher. In second grade, he couldn't get into his class on the first day as the teacher told him repeatedly that the fifth-grade classroom was upstairs. By the time he really was in the fifth grade, he had outgrown every desk in the elementary school, so one had to be imported from the local junior high. While everyone else put their books and pencils in their desk, Smith had to get a box to put all his supplies in.
"Back then, I wished I was normal-sized," Smith says. "I felt out of place."
These days, the 6-foot-10, 275-pounder has embraced his role as the biggest and baddest kid on the block, if not the country. Smith entered his senior year at Kentwood (Covington, Wash.) as the No. 1 center in the ESPNU 100. He averaged 25 points and 16 rebounds per game last season. He has scholarship offers from UCLA, Washington, Duke, Kansas and many others.
Back in elementary school, though, Smith was the epitome of the gentle giant. As a fourth-grader, he was so much bigger than everyone else that his parents worried about him hurting his opponents if he went full throttle.
So one day when Smith accidentally elbowed a defender while coming down with a rebound, his first instinct was to help the kid up. The only problem was that the referees hadn't called a foul and the ball was still in play. So the kid accepted Smith's hand, stood up, stole the ball and made a layup.
Smith used to consider baseball his best sport. Throughout elementary school, he was the prototypical power-hitting first baseman. But since he was growing into a frame that would make Ryan Howard look like Ichiro, he knew his future was in basketball.
"You don't see a lot of guys my size playing baseball," says Smith, who decided to play a more size-appropriate sport -- football -- this year in addition to hoops.
In the sixth grade he joined the elite Seattle Rotary AAU program and began practicing extensively with his father (known as Big Josh, even though son now has about seven inches on dad).
It wasn't an immediate success.
"You could see there was some potential there, but like most big kids that age, he didn't know how to work with his body," says Seattle Rotary coach Daryll Hennings. "Sixth and seventh grades were mostly spent getting him to like the game and give a consistent effort. In eighth grade, we concentrated on skill stuff and teaching him it was OK to be aggressive."
By the time Smith entered Kentwood, he had started to improve. He was a legit baller by then, and the only question was where he'd play.
Kentwood coach Mike Angelidis, who would be the Conquerors' first-year coach in Smith's ninth-grade season, was philosophically opposed to playing freshmen on varsity. So for the summer before Smith entered the ninth grade, he was relegated to the JV summer league. When Kentwood's JV squad won four straight games by 50 or more points, putting up 100-plus in each contest, Angelidis quickly reconsidered.
Even then, he was going to take things slowly. Smith started the year on the bench but quickly forced Angelidis' hand. By Christmas, he was in the starting lineup for good.
"We didn't do him any favors," says Angelidis. "He earned it."
Smith quickly made his coach look smart. He repeatedly put up double-doubles and established himself as a one-man wrecking crew.
"I go hard to the boards and try to dunk everything," he says.
After the first game of his junior year, Smith already owned the school's career rebounding record and was an automatic 20-and-10 guy. His masterpiece came last year against rival Kentridge when he had a career-high 43 points to go along with 21 rebounds and five blocks in a 62-60 come-from-behind victory.
"That was the game where he put it all together," Angelidis says. "He put us on his back and carried us to victory."
Performances like that have put Smith into the discussion for best player in Kentwood history. The one baller standing in his way is Detroit Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey. The two have become close over the past couple of years, getting together whenever Stuckey returns home.
Smith owns or is on pace to break most of Stuckey's records, but he's quick to point out Kentwood was just grades 10-12 in Stuckey's time and is now 9-12.
Of course, Stuckey has one thing that means a lot more than a scoring title.
"He told me, 'You can break all my records, but I still have a state championship and you don't,'" Smith says.
Smith is working hard to change that in his final season. After making the state tournament in his freshman year, the Conquerors have failed to return the past two seasons.
While trying to get back to state, Smith has also handled the pressure of being a wanted man in recruiting circles. When coaches were first able to contact him, he was getting at least 15 calls a day. It quickly got tiresome, so he backed off, letting his father handle all communications.
Wherever Smith ends up next year, he's going to make an impact. He's already a college-level rebounder and shot blocker, and he's determined to improve his offensive game. Most of his points now come off dunks, something he knows won't continue at the next level. He's in the process of extending his range and softening his touch.
"It's gotten better, but it still needs work," Smith says.
Luckily, he's starting from a place most players don't dream of reaching.
"You don't get 6-10 guys who are explosive off the ground like he is," Hennings says.
It's only a matter of time before his game catches up to his body.
Ryan Canner-O'Mealy covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.
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