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In the frightening reality that our world has become due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 NBA Draft in June barely registers in most shelter-in-place households. But for some college basketball players, trying to make a decision about whether to forgo their remaining eligibility or return to campus for another season can weigh heavily on their minds.
The outcome of this potentially stressful chapter came into focus Tuesday for Maryland’s Jalen Smith, when the 6-foot-10 sophomore forward affectionately known as “Stix” announced that he was turning pro.
Any last shreds of doubt Smith and his parents, Lisa and Charles, might have had about him making the jump to the NBA was erased by an email he received from the NBA’s undergraduate advisory committee.
According to Lisa, the committee reported that “90 percent” of the teams were going to take her son in the first round, including “12 percent” that had him as a lottery pick.
“Somebody is going to take him [in the first round],” she says. “You want him to go as high as he can so he can have a fighting chance … We had information that he would go 12 to 25.”
Typical of her low-key son not getting caught up in his accomplishments—as a senior at Mount Saint Joseph High School in Baltimore, Smith celebrated making the McDonald’s All-American team by taking a nap in the gym before practice—he didn’t even know the document from the NBA had arrived Friday.
Smith finally saw it when he was going through his emails on Monday.
“It’s something I’ve been working for,” Smith says. “After my freshman year, I came back with the mindset of trying to improve myself. Just seeing it, it put all the affirmations into my mind that I was ready.”
A year ago, Lisa didn’t even want her then 19-year-old son to even go to the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago because she didn’t feel he was mature enough to turn pro.
“He’s just a child,” she said at the time.
In making this decision, coming a few days after his 20th birthday, Smith’s mother had a much different viewpoint.
“He was more interested in [turning pro], he might have assessed the landscape and if this is his ultimate goal, juniors and seniors are kind of shied away from, which is really unfair,” she says. “That might have pushed him some.”
A former 5-star prospect, Smith finished an up-and-down freshman year with a breakthrough performance in the 2019 NCAA tournament that saw him average 17 points, 12 rebounds, and three blocked shots in two games.
As a sophomore, Smith was one of the most consistent big men in the country, earning several third-team all-American honors to go along with first-team Big Ten and making the league’s all-defensive team. He finished with 22 double doubles, including 13 in the last 14 games.
Smith also seemed to use the 30 pounds of muscle he put on since going to Maryland to hold his own defensively in the paint, something he won’t have to do in the NBA, where he is expected to be more of a stretch 4 who has the capability of being a small-ball center.
Told by NBA scouts and general managers that they wanted to see him shoot 3-pointers with more success after making just 26.8 percent of them as a freshman, Smith became one of the Big Ten’s top 3-point shooters in league play at over 41 percent.
The season had started with Smith missing his first 10 3-pointers.
“It was just mental,” says Smith, who wound up shooting 36.8 percent on 3s for the season. “Shots weren’t falling for me. Then I kept getting in the gym after every game and just figuring out what was going on with my shot. After awhile, I kept hitting them consistently and Coach [Mark] Turgeon got a lot more confidence in me to shoot the 3.”
Smith’s improvement was also derived through the weekly sessions spent with a sports psychologist working with Maryland’s athletes.
“Pretty much I had someone to talk to,” Smith says. “They specialize in figuring out ways to cope with things and how to relax. That helped me out a lot, dealing with the pressure of the season and the expectations I had on myself, allowing me to play my game and forget about everything else.”
Lisa says she has seen the growth in her son’s maturity, both on and off the court.
A state employee who works in the office of Maryland’s Comptroller, she recently looked at a video of a game he played as a high school senior against another local team, the John Carroll School, that featured Immanuel Quickley, a Kentucky sophomore who is deciding whether to return for a third year.
“To see him at 18 and now to see him at 20, you can just see naturally that he’s growing up,” she says of her son. “He’s not a little boy anymore, he’s a lot more responsible. He’s a lot more wanting to take control of his own destiny. Before you had to push him and hold him and shove him and nudge him and then make him. Now he’s coming to you with his plan.”
When he left for Maryland, Lisa told longtime Mount Saint Joseph coach Pat Clatchey that she hoped her son would play long enough to get his college degree. Smith was on target to graduate in three years.
Pointing to the fact that her husband got his degree after a 23-year career in the U.S. Navy, Lisa says, “There’s no reason Jalen can’t get his degree as a working adult, he’s got a two-year head start [on his father].”
The Smiths worked in tandem to keep their son focused on both the pursuit of his degree and a pro basketball career. Lisa gives a lot of the credit to her husband.
“A lot of it comes from him and his understanding of basketball,” she says. “I’m just maybe the voice, he’s the reason.”
Unlike other former Terps who had their minds made up before playing a final season that it was going to be their last—the one recent exception might have been Kevin Huerter, a first-round choice of the Atlanta Hawks following his sophomore year—Smith didn’t reach a conclusion in his mind until a dominating performance at Indiana in late January.
“It was like a progression, and you could see the difference in how he played,” his mother says. “Right after that game he decided.”
Smith was sad about ending his college career without getting another chance to play in the NCAA tournament, but not torn about leaving his teammates, including former high school teammate Darryl Morsell, behind.
“I wouldn’t say I was conflicted,” Smith says. “Of course I wanted to play in the tournament and improve on what we did last year [losing in the Round of 32 to LSU on a last-second shot]. Everybody was telling me to do what’s best for me, even Darryl. They felt that if it was my time to go, [I should]. Everything played out a different way than was expected.”
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