BY Bob Sherwin 04:20PM 03/02/2011

UCLA’s Smith: One who got away, returns

Former Kentwood star to challenge UW’s 7-foot Aziz N’Diaye underneath.

Former Kentwood High (Kent) star Josh Smith of UCLA is a load to handle in the middle / Getty Images

You can stretch the argument that the Washington Huskies have nearly an effective center in 7-foot- 260-pound sophomore Aziz N’Diaye as UCLA’s 6-foot-10, 310-pound freshman Joshua Smith.

As N’Diaye said, “I think it would be hard for him to play our style of basketball because our guards are so fast.”

There’s a kernel of truth to that.

Or as UW Coach Lorenzo Romar pointed out, “if Aziz was playing more consistently, he’d have about the same numbers (as Smith). They just go about their business differently.”

That’s the case in isolated areas.

But given a choice between Smith and N’Diaye, few coaches would prefer the latter. Smith has a game and a future, as Romar said. “He’s going to be in the NBA sooner than later.”

Smith is a process; N’Diaye is a project. There’s not as much to compare as to contrast.

“What Ben Howland (UCLA coach) and his staff have done with that kid, it has elevated the growth of that team,” said USC Coach Kevin O’Neill on his cross-town rival. “Since we beat them here (Jan. 9), they have won 12 of 14 and that kid has gotten better every week. He has really given them an inside presence that everyone else can play off.

“As we go forward here, I think he may be the best player out of this league at the next level, no matter what.”

That stings even now, for we remember that Smith could have been a Husky. As a senior at Kentwood High School in Kent, Smith had the Huskies on his short list but choose UCLA because of its tradition (like an 11-0 edge over UW in NCAA basketball titles). He would have fit nicely here, maybe even given the Huskies a real shot at the Final Four.

Once Smith went in the other direction, the Huskies turned to N’Diaye, a transfer from the College of Southern Idaho.

Thursday night, Smith comes back to his hometown for the first time when the Bruins (21-8, 12-4 in the Pac-10) play the Huskies (19-9, 10-6) at Hec Ed. The Huskies won the first meeting, 74-63, but that was two months ago.

Statistically, it’s a bit of a mismatch between Smith and N’Diaye, particularly offensively. Smith is averaging 10.8 points a game. N’Diaye is at 5.0. N’Diaye has made just 40.9 percent of his free-throw attempts while Smith is a 61.7, having taken more than twice as many attempts.

Smith also has taken twice as many shots from the floor, but N’Diaye has a better shooting percentage, 58.3 to 56.1.

Where they are close is rebounding, with Smith holding a 173-163 edge. Interestingly enough, Smith has more offensive rebounds (93) than defensive rebounds (80). N’Diaye is 68/95.

Both players have had some difficulty adjusting to Pac-10 referees. They each lead their teams in personal fouls despite playing many fewer minutes than the regulars. Smith has 87 fouls with three disqualifications. N’Diaye has 84 fouls and four DQs.

N’Diaye averages four fewer minutes per game, or about 20 percent less time on the floor than Smith. If you add another 20 percent to his numbers, he’d average 6.7 rebounds and 6.0 points.

A comparison between the two is not really fair. Smith is a much different body type. He has been playing all his life and has honed basketball skills and inside moves. N’Diaye began playing only as a teenager in Senegal. He has an intimidation presence inside, as his 38 blocks attest, but his inside moves are rudimentary.

N’Diaye, who speaks three languages fluently, has a full understanding of one key English phrase.

“I’m a work in progress,” he said. “The coaches are helping me a lot. I’m going to get there.”

Smith, in the meantime, has already arrived. He may be the Bruins’ fourth-leading scorer and still struggles with foul trouble, but the reason he’s on a fast-track to the next level is because he’s a load to handle underneath. Once he gets position inside, he’s automatic. He’s virtually impossible to move out and he has such great hands and touch around the rim that there’s nothing a defender can do.

“He is as unique as any player in the Pac-10 in that he is immoveable,” Romar said. “But yet he is more nimble than people think.”

Yet Romar won’t wax on regrets. That recruiting battle was lost. He turns the page and looks for the benefits in what he has. He doesn’t think it’s such a bad consolation prize.

“Several times this year Aziz has gotten a rebound or block at one end and tip dunks on a fast break at the other end,” Romar said. “His speed has really helped us. There have been times when he runs the floor that you can see the defenders just suck in. Even if he doesn’t get it, other guys are open.

“He has done a great job in not allowing Matthew (Bryan-Amaning) to battle the best strongest guy every night. That has freed Matthew up. By the time he’s a senior, he could be Defensive Player of the Year and a guy who could be first or second in rebounding. He can do all those things.”

It will be a mighty matchup inside Thursday with Smith and 6-8 Reeves Nelson against N’Diaye and 6-8 Bryan-Amaning. N’Diaye remembers his first encounter with Smith and how paramount positioning is.

“He has the advantage because he’s a big body,” he said. “Whenever you let him set up deep in the paint, he’s going to score. Nothing you can do. The advantage I have over him is I’m faster than he is. I can run the floor and get him tired so I can get an advantage on that.”

Down the road, this may work out better for Washington. The Huskies can count on having the son of Senegal for two more seasons, time enough to develop and hopefully become a inside offensive factor. His overall improvement has been noticeable this season. He used to be vulnerable to stupid reach-in or over-the-back fouls but he has been playing smarter. He hasn’t fouled out since the last UCLA game. He also is a little better offensively, hitting a career-high 15 points last week against Seattle U.

If Smith continues to improve, UCLA may not have him after next season. He’s not ready yet as he’s still foul-prone and needed better conditioning. In fact, Howland decided at mid-season to bring him off the bench to limit his foul exposure.

There’s also the concern over his weight. He lost 30 pounds from high school to college and Howland expects him to be in much better condition before his sophomore season. But there are those sordid tales of players who have eaten themselves out of careers.

Still, it’s not a push. Smith has the clear edge. He’s going to be a handful for N’Diaye and Bryan-Amaning.

“Since we played they got a lot better as a team,” N’Diaye said. “I saw him play and I think he got better, also. He’s a big guy so it’s tough to push out of the paint. I’m just going to accept the challenge and do my job.”


  • FrenchField

    While Smith seems like a talented kid, I am not that disappointed that he “got” away. He’s overweight, slow and would not have fit the system that Romar runs. There were rumors that he was very lazy as fat, slow and lazy, not a good mix for a run and gun team.

    Wish him luck certainly big. UCLA is not going to win anything while he’s there anyway.

  • Michael Kaiser

    This really all comes back to the press and the public feeding off each other.  They have blown the spectator sport of watching young boys and girls play sports into such a big thing that–given human nature–the corruption we see as a result is inevitable.  Remove live TV and radio coverage from college sports and watch  what would happen over time.

  • doodah_man

    A rehash of the same old story. Too bad you have to read it to find out. Thiel is proof that the bottom of the class goes to sportswriters…

    • Art Thiel

         Thanks for joining me at the bottom. Of the story, I mean. 

  • Johnrstark

    When a baseball player flunks the drug test, they don’t penalize the team because that would hurt the sport. Imagine punishing the Yankees by making them ineligible for the playoffs for the next three years. But that’s exactly what the NCAA does–because the players have usually reaped their rewards and moved out of ncaa jurisdiction by the time it all hits the fan. So two of the NCAA’s biggest football attractions, USC and Ohio State, are pushed to the margins … and this makes everything better how? I’m with Art. Pay the players. Students get paid to work in the library and cafeteria. Why not on the football field. I do think the football players should be required to be real students taking (and passing) real classes. Otherwise, how is the BCS different from the NFL?

  • 1coolguy

    The only  solution to this, and it’s fairy easy, is the institution of a fine system, as pro sports have for their athletes.

    Infractions can be categorized into a few categoeis (bad, worse, worst, etc) and the fines levied against the HEAD COACH AND the UNIVERSITY.

    A scale of say $10,000 for a minor offense to both, $50,000, then $100,000 or higher, believe me, will cause 100% of the NCAA institutions AND coaches to pay attention.

    This is not difficult and for a coach to say there are too many athletes to keep track of – guess what? TOUGH LUCK! Businesses don’t have much problem policing the actions of their employees and they are much larger organizations.

    One place I’d start is all athletes must live in the dorms – not paying rent or for meals takes a huge financial issue away from the athletes, therefore lessens the pressure to scramble for cash.

    If put before a group of corporate HR people, a detailed draft proposal to solve this ongoing issue could be completed in very short order for the NCAA.

    The only thing I can see missing is the will to staighten out the system.

    PS: Paying the athletes is foolish – there are at least 110 D-1 universities with tens of thousends of athletes. How do you pay a football player and not a swim team member? If a kid, after dorm and meals are taken care of (see above) together with their monthly stipend still isn’t enough, guess what? Maybe in the off-season they can GET A JOB! Maybe they don’t need a CAR. Maybe they can go to a JC their first few years, as Warren Moon did.

    To say simply “let’s pay them” is a lazy solution where solutions already exist.