That’s the longest Smith recalls going without playing a competitive game. And as he and his fellow Hoyas prepare for their season opener against No. 19 Oregon, to be played at Camp Humphreys, a U.S. military base, the 6-foot-10 Smith said Monday that he considered himself “blessed” to be able to take part.
The prodigiously gifted center transferred from UCLA last January. He learned just two weeks ago that NCAA officials had cleared him to compete for the full season, ending his mandated time on the sideline sooner than expected. In a departure from traditional practice, the NCAA also granted him two seasons of eligibility despite the fact that he played six games for the Bruins as a junior — a ruling that, in effect, extended his college career to 41 / 2 seasons.
“Knowing that I can play, it takes a lot of weight off my shoulders,” Smith told reporters at McDonough Arena, where the Hoyas held one last practice before boarding the 14-hour flight to South Korea on Tuesday. “I really love this team, I love this university and I love playing here. I haven’t played a game since I don’t remember, and just being able to go to South Korea and play Oregon, a team I’m used to, it’s going to be fun.”
Coach John Thompson III wouldn’t say whether Smith would start against Oregon or speculate about how many minutes he would play. But he voiced satisfaction with Smith’s progress these last months — particularly in terms of his fitness and conditioning, which was his undoing at UCLA.
“He’s not where he needs to be,” Thompson said, “but he’s working hard, and he’s getting there.”
A former McDonald’s all-American, Smith has practiced and worked out with the Hoyas for nearly a year.
The result, said senior guard Markel Starks, is a player who is in far better shape than he was this time a year ago, when Georgetown toppled UCLA at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in what proved the waning days of Smith’s career with the Bruins.
“He’s in a lot better shape,” Starks said. “How he looks running — he looks a lot better. Everybody is concerned about his weight; we’re more concerned about his productivity, and he has been consistent every single day. Just looking at him right now, he looks 20 pounds lighter to me.”
Smith, who’s listed at 350 pounds, declined to say where his weight stands but attested to a difference on court.
“I’ve just noticed a really, really big change from being able to go just a little bit in practice to now being able to go full practice and feel better running up and down the floor,” Smith said. “I’m thinking I’m on step to get there.”
Given the void left by Otto Porter Jr., who led the Hoyas in points (16.3), rebounds (7.4) and minutes per game (35.4), Georgetown sorely needs Smith’s big body, scoring ability and passing skill. And with a tough nonconference schedule in store, his services are needed at the outset.
Oregon, which finished 28-9 last season, is one of three currently ranked teams the Hoyas are scheduled to face outside the Big East, along with No. 5 Kansas (Dec. 21) and No. 2 Michigan State (Feb. 1). Depending how the Puerto Rico Classic unfolds, the Hoyas could also face No. 7 Michigan and No. 14 Virginia Commonwealth.