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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Team Naje: With guidance from former Lewis and Clark High mentors, Smith carves out perfect role at Boise State

By Dave Cook For The Spokesman-Review

Douglas is a small desert town in the southernmost part Arizona, right on the border of Mexico. It can be a lonely, solitary place for a not-quite 20-year-old from Spokane, playing for the Cochise Junior College basketball team.

And when COVID-19 locked him out of in-person teaching and computer usage, Naje Smith turned to his roots in Spokane to help guide him toward completion of his greatest triumph.

Thanks to the help of his former high school coach at Lewis and Clark, Jim Redmon, and Spokane teachers Greg and Patti Goeller, Smith was able to complete the associate degree that would enable him to transfer to Boise State. Three years later, he is a starting senior forward for a Broncos team expected to play in a second straight NCAA Tournament when pairings are announced on Sunday.

Boise State outlasted UNLV 87-76 in the Mountain West tournament quarterfinals on Thursday.

“He got behind and it wasn’t getting better where he was at, so we had him come to Spokane and stay with my wife and I,” said Redmon of Smith’s decision to return to Spokane in spring 2020. “During the day we would take him to Greg and Patti, and they helped him through the processes.”

Smith developed into a junior college All-American at Cochise, but standing in the way of what should have been a flood of D-I offers was his academic standing.

“(Online learning) was really difficult for him, and it was just overwhelming,” continued Redmon, who spent eight years as head coach of the Tigers after 17 seasons coaching the LC girls. “We just got him back to Spokane and his roots. He did all the work – he was really driven and really wanted to go to Boise State. He was chasing a goal to get there.”

“One hundred percent,” Smith says of the importance of his mentorship from Redmon and Goeller. “Even before that, they were there for me as teachers and when I was a young high schooler. They took me in and gave me a shoulder to lean on and were people I could rely on. They’ve always been close to me and have really impacted the person I am and the journey I’ve had.”

Besides getting his degree, Cochise was also where Smith had to make the decision whether to be a college basketball player. Mainly, the decision to put in the work – if he didn’t, his career would be derailed.

“Definitely junior college,” when asked what was his biggest hurdle after graduating from LC in 2018. “Cochise is one of the toughest jucos there is, and it’s a very respectable program. That was definitely a hard journey where I really had to decide if I wanted to play college basketball or not. That was the biggest obstacle I overcame.”

Smith’s mother, Dez, eventually moved to Phoenix to be closer to her son. Smith’s older sister and younger brother also moved there, but they were still some 500 miles away from Douglas.

When he arrived, head coach Jerry Carillo told him he was both fat and skinny, and that he was slow.

“Jerry was another person at the right time in Naje’s life,” said Redmon. “He toughened him up and got him to start eating better, and he became stronger and leaner. Naje really worked his tail off. He just needed to hear it from somebody else, but college is tougher than high school.”

A key connection all along was also Mike Burns, an assistant at Boise State. The former Eastern Washington coach is quick to credit Redmon for continuing to mentor Smith, starting in high school when the Smith-led Tigers finished third at the 2018 State 4A Tournament, the school’s best finish since 1958.

“Having Jim Redmon in his corner was extraordinarily fortunate,” Burns said Wednesday as the Broncos prepared to begin defense of their Mountain West Conference Tournament title in Las Vegas. “Coach (Redmon) had nothing but Naje’s best interests at heart, and there was no agenda. He wanted to do what is best for Naje and how he could help him the most.

“He didn’t always tell him what he wanted to hear, but he told him what he needed to hear,” Burns continued. “Because of that, Naje has the college career that he’s had.”

Smith announced in April of 2020 he was headed to Boise State, and it was a gratifying feeling knowing the relationships forged along the way had helped him realize his dream.

“It was reassuring for me to know there were basketball people who knew me and I knew them, and we had looped back to the same background a little bit,” Smith explained. “It was cool to have that and help me grow. It was definitely good to have them and have those connections.”

At BSU, he averaged just 6.7 minutes as a junior and 16.7 as a senior, then made his first start earlier this year in his COVID season. He’s exemplified the team’s rise and culture the past few years, and this season is averaging 27.7 minutes per game.

“Everybody wants to be the guy, but I think this really helped my journey and growth,” he said of paying his dues off the bench. “I’ve grown into a person with resilience and the player I am now. It wasn’t an easy start here and I kind of struggled trying to find my role. I had a role last year that maybe I wanted a little bit more, but it was definitely a good fit for me. It all has really helped me find my way with this team, I believe.”

Smith has started 28 of 31 games this season, and has averaged 9.7 points, 5.5 boards and just over a blocked shot per game. He’s also made 20 3-pointers for the Broncos, 23-8 heading into Thursday’s MWC Tournament quarterfinal against UNLV in Las Vegas.

On Senior Night on Feb. 28, Boise State head coach Leon Rice was emotional when he saw Smith about to be introduced to the crowd for a final time at sold-out ExtraMile Arena in Boise. After all, Smith and all his exuberance and skill on the court made him a crowd favorite. And there were 12,208 on hand that night – including the Redmons and Goellers.

“The team loves him and everybody in the crowd loves him,” said Rice after the game. “I didn’t want to get emotional when those guys were coming out, but I had that moment where I’m like, ‘No more Naje? You’re kidding me.’ There is a lot ahead of us, and Naje will always have a part of our lives and be a part of it.”

Rice was an assistant at Gonzaga from 1999 to 2010, and at that point took the job at BSU. His son, Max, spent plenty of time playing in Spokane, and would eventually become a teammate with Smith on Washington Elite before he joined his dad as a Bronco. Max and Smith would eventually be reunited at BSU.

Smith laughs out loud when recalling his days in Spokane, and realizing the origins of his relationship with Max Rice would develop into the friendship they have now.

“Max and I played together all the time,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of history through AAU in playing on teams together and being around each other.”

“I loved Hoopfest,” he added. “I’d definitely see Max and the guys he hung around at Hoopfest – but it seems like everybody is at Hoopfest. That was a cool time to hang around each other.”

In that Senior Night win, Smith had 10 points and six rebounds – including a pair of important offensive rebounds during BSU’s rally from an eight-point deficit with just less than five minutes remaining. Rice scored 26, including a stretch of 12 straight Bronco points during a game-ending 14-0 run.

After the game, in a postgame news conference, their mutual respect shined through.

“It means so much to me to watch him grow as a player and a person,” said Smith, “and how his game has evolved and changed his game to take over games. I’m just glad I’m here to help him do it.”

At one point, Rice leaned over to Smith while saying, “I couldn’t dream of anything better than this and sending out one of my best friends right here with a huge win, which in my opinion secures us in the NCAA Tournament “