The first time Malachi Smith entered the transfer portal, he did so as a Horizon League reserve averaging 5.4 points and 2.9 rebounds per game at Wright State.
Suffice it to say Smith’s second portal experience, as the reigning Southern Conference Player of the Year, Lou Henson Award winner and leading scorer on Chattanooga’s NCAA Tournament team, looked substantially different
“My first transfer, I didn’t get any phone calls really, except for two (Chattanooga and Southern Illinois),” he said. “Next time, I got a phone call every 10 seconds.”
Within hours of Smith entering the portal, one of the calls the coveted transfer received came from Gonzaga assistant Roger Powell. Eventually, the Chattanooga guard heard from every member of the Bulldogs’ coaching staff. Gonzaga’s commitment to Smith over the past two months paid off earlier this week when the top-rated player remaining in the portal gave the Bulldogs a commitment of his own, bolstering a backcourt that could shape up to be one of the strongest in the country next season.
Smith’s recruitment had been relatively quiet until On3 Recruiting reported last week the guard was seriously considering two schools, Gonzaga and Texas Tech, after withdrawing his name from the NBA draft. He planned to keep his name in the draft, but Smith saw opportunities to shore up certain aspects of his game after working out with the Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz.
At Gonzaga, specifically, he saw an opportunity to win at the highest level.
“Coach Few’s a hall of fame coach,” Smith said. “You know you’re going to get better, you’re going to improve as a player in that program. They play super fast, which allows everyone to touch the ball and be successful.”
Over the past four years at Chattanooga, Wright State and Belleville West High , Smith never endured a losing season, compiling an overall record of 98-31. At Belleville West, he won an Illinois Class 4A title playing next to Ohio State standout and projected first-round NBA draft pick EJ Liddell. He went to the second round of the NIT with Wright State and nearly led 13th-seeded Chattanooga to a first-round NCAA upset of fourth-seeded Illinois, losing 54-53.
“I’m excited to just get there and work, continue to get better and build a bond with my new teammates and just make something special happen this year,” Smith said. “Why can’t we be the team that wins a national championship?”
Nearly every Gonzaga team over the past decade has been aided by a transfer guard. That was a common thread between the two teams that advanced to the national championship game – one lifted by Nigel Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews, the other by Andrew Nembhard.
As for the type of guard Smith will be at Gonzaga, he said he’ll fill whatever role the Bulldogs need, although he projects as a point guard at the next level and prefers to be in position to help teammates.
“I’m a point guard, teams view me as a point guard, so I’ve got to showcase that ability at the next level and that’s what they’re going to be viewing me upon,” Smith said. “But also I can play off the ball. I can do multiple things. But putting my teammates in the right position, leading an offense, those are things I excel at.
“… Very versatile and do whatever it takes to win.”
Smith averaged just shy of 20 points per game last season at Chattanooga, scoring efficiently at all three levels. He made 49% of his field goals, 40% of his 3-point field goals and went 82% from the free-throw line. Smith also averaged better than 3.0 assists per game in each of the past two seasons and rebounded especially well at his position, grabbing 7.7 boards per game at Chattanooga.
On the other end of the floor, Smith said “being a good defender is kind of what I’m known for,” and the 6-foot-4, 205-pound guard is eager to show he’s just as effective defending “bigger, stronger athletes.”
Within days of his commitment, Smith had already connected with the majority of his new Gonzaga teammates. His announcement capped a pivotal 72-hour period for the Bulldogs in which Few’s program learned three starters from last year’s 28-win team – Drew Timme, Julian Strawther and Rasir Bolton – would return before GU got a commitment from someone who was considered college basketball’s most outstanding midmajor player in 2021-22.
“They’re great players and the fact they decided to come back shows the type of program it is,” Smith said. “You want to surround yourself with greatness and great players, so them coming back just showed my game is going to get better, but also I can learn from them and we can just do whatever it takes to win.”
Smith gave a positive review of his official visit to Gonzaga, singling out the school’s facilities and resources and suggesting he was pleasantly surprised by the Pacific Northwest scenery, specifically “the trees and the water and all that.”
He’s stationed in Washington, D.C., working out with friends and plans to spend time with his mother Connie at her home in Tampa, Florida, before officially moving to Spokane. The past three days have been hectic for Smith, who’s fielded hundreds of messages and a handful of interview requests since committing to Gonzaga, but there was a sense of relief that came with knowing where he’ll be playing basketball in the fall.
“It’s been a blessing, getting to talk to some of my future teammates and just build that relationship,” Smith said. “That’s what helps create national championship-winning teams, the team chemistry and the foundation. I’m blessed to be a part of that.”