Patience, as the saying goes, is a virtue. For Naje Smith, patience – as well as determination – is paying off.
On Wednesday, the 6-foot-7 Smith, a 2018 graduate of Lewis and Clark High School, signed a National Letter of Intent to play next season at Boise State.
“We have a long history with Naje and we can’t wait to get him on campus,” BSU coach Leon Rice said.
A four-year starter at LC, Smith was named to the All-Greater Spokane League first team following his junior and senior seasons and was named honorable mention all-state by The Associated Press in 2018, after leading the Tigers to a third-place finish in the State 4A tournament.
“When we made our run at the state tournament, there was no question in anybody’s mind that Naje was the best player on the court,” LC coach Jim Redmon said. “Yeah, we had some other talents, but it really was Naje’s show, and if he wouldn’t have played to the ability that he did, there is no chance we would’ve gotten third.
“What got me upset is that, with the numbers he put up, when the awards came out, they had him as honorable mention all-state. It was just beyond me.”
While there was interest from several Division I programs, including early offers from Eastern Washington and Boise State, Smith was an academic nonqualifier and, as a result, had to put his D-I dream on hold.
“I had been talking with coach (Donny) Daniels (a then-assistant coach at Gonzaga) and he put me in touch with coach (Jerry) Carillo at Cochise (College),” Smith said.
The rest, as they say, is history. Smith packed his things and headed 1,600 miles south to Douglas, Arizona – a town of fewer than 20,000 people on U.S.-Mexico border – to play for Carillo at the junior college level.
“Most of these kids were the best player at their high school and they get to junior college and have no clue,” Carillo said. “When Naje was a freshman, our starting five were all D-I signees and he just didn’t understand the grind. At the collegiate level, it’s about putting in the work and then stacking that, getting up and doing it again the next day.
“To Naje’s credit, he showed that resolve, that character. He has grown leaps and bounds off the court. He was willing to accept coaching, to get up at 6 a.m. to lift weights, to take care of his school work and get a work-study job washing and drying towels in the athletics building.”
In 2018-19, his first season at Cochise, Smith was the sixth man, coming off the bench for the first time since early in his freshman year of high school. He shot 58.8% from the field while averaging 12.4 points and 6.7 rebounds in 27 minutes, helping the Apaches to a 26-5 record and an Arizona Community College Athletic Conference title.
“He was probably the best sixth man in the nation as a freshman,” Carillo said.
As a sophomore, Smith blossomed into one of the premier junior college players in the country as his role became that of Cochise’s go-to guy.
“Naje probably wasn’t even on the (opposing team’s) scouting report as a freshman,” Carillo said. “This year, particularly early on, he was every team’s focal point on defense, but he’s got so much ability. He plays a team game, and his teammates bought into the ball going through Naje.
“He can play multiple positions on the floor – he played the 2 through 5 on offense and guarded the 1 through 4 on defense – and can really score. The second half of this year, Naje really carried us. Not only did he put up points and rebound the ball, but he made guys around him better and was a great teammate.”
Smith led the Apaches to a 23-8 record and their second consecutive conference title while averaging 23.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks while shooting 56% from the field and 38.3% from 3-point range. He was named the ACCAC player of the year and became the school’s second player to be selected first-team NJCAA All-American.
“He is a freak of nature,” Redmon said. “He can play any position. I think the future is just going to be even better for him going down the road.
“His basketball IQ is extremely high. He analyzes the game. He sees the game and he makes it slow down. He’s got a great skill set – he can shoot the 3 and he can take anybody off the dribble. He can guard multiple positions as well. His senior year, he was our glue defensively. We kind of kept him in the paint and with his 7-foot-1 or 7-foot-2 wingspan, you just couldn’t get to the rim.”
Smith believes that versatility will help him have an immediate impact at Boise State, which, as is the trend in basketball today, plays virtually positionless basketball and has won at least 20 games in seven of the past eight seasons.
“At Cochise, I could be anything they really needed, 1 through 5,” Smith said. “In desperate situations, when they needed me to take care of the ball, they could rely on me. When we needed a rebound or a defensive stop, I feel like I could step up and make that play at all five positions.
“Cochise did a lot of great things for me. It really brought me back to the basics because I always had the skill but it was never perfected, but I got a lot of time and a lot of reps. That really helped me be more explosive, it helped me slow the game down, and it helped me be able to find my teammates and create better shots for myself.”
The experience and confidence that Smith gained in his two years at Cochise will be invaluable for the Broncos, who, despite their recent success, have appeared in just three NCAA Tournaments this century.
“Earning first-team NJCAA All-America speaks for itself,” Rice said of Smith. “He is going to continue to grow and improve as a Bronco.”
And if that growth doesn’t happen immediately, just be patient.
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