If Shawn Smith’s minutes were put on a bar graph, one would easily recognize what a roller-coaster ride he’s had in his first season playing for Texas A&M.
After redshirting his first year on campus, Smith opened the season by starting the first seven games. Two games later he had a DNP (did not play) by his name.
Since then, his court time has ranged from 4 minutes against McNeese St. on Dec. 14 to a season-high 36 against Kentucky on Tuesday. His fluctuating role has more to do with the learning and maturing process than his play on the court.
“Shawn is a very talented player, a good kid. He’s got a good heart, wears his feelings on his sleeve with just being coachable,” A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “… It’s been a learning process for him. He’s young and he hadn’t played in a basketball game in over a year at this magnitude and it’s been an adjustment for him, but he’s gotten a lot better.
“That’s been one of the issues he’s had for his career, he knows it, he’s accepted it and if he continues to get better in that area, he will have a good future.”
Smith has shown some of that potential recently with a career high 14 points against South Carolina on Jan. 15 and eight points, four rebounds and two blocks against Kentucky.
Those two games were a far cry from when he watched the entire Houston game from the bench after seeing his minutes dip during the the Corpus Christi tournament.
“The Missouri State game is where we had the issues, and from that point to today, it’s about a 180-degree turnaround, probably not 180 yet but a big change,” Kennedy said.
The 6-foot-4 Smith, who practiced with the team last season, but was not eligible to play, has dealt with more this season than just carving out a role on the court.
“I’ve been going through some ups and down. I’ve had family losses, some things going on with my grandparents, so I was going through a lot,” Smith said. “I just had to overcome it. I talked to some of the coaches, and they just said there are some things you have to put behind you and last game [South Carolina], my number was called and I came in ready to play and it’s something I got to keep doing.”
Smith not only turned to his coaches, he got help from his teammates. After being a starter last season, senior guard Fabyon Harris was coming off the bench at the beginning of the season, but his attitude and work ethic have earned him a starting role again.
“I wasn’t mad or angry at anybody — I just had to keep working,” Harris said. “So, I told him just keep working your time will come and just stay positive.
“I said don’t get mad when coach is on you, work through it, that is what coach is here for, to get on you, to help you find that motivation within yourself and I see he’s starting to do that and things are starting work out for him. He had to mature in some areas on and off the court, and so far he has started doing it.”
Ironically, Smith’s 36-minute game was when Harris had to sit out against Kentucky because of a “coaches decision.”
Smith said he understands what goes into playing time and that he knows everyone on the team can play. He also appreciated how his teammates were there for him when he was struggling earlier in the season.
“It’s a family atmosphere, and to have guys like that behind you, it shows a lot of a maturity from everybody on the team not just worrying about themselves,” Smith said. “I had personal things going on and they were all picking me up and told me how much they need me and that I need to fight that stuff off and come out here and do what I do.
“[Playing time] wasn’t a problem. Everyone on the team can play and all these guys are my friends, so I don’t mind who comes off the bench and who starts at all, just when my number gets called I got to be ready to play.”
Two games after Smith’s DNP, fellow guard J-Mychal Reese was dismissed from the team. Smith’s minutes have been somewhat more consistent since that time, as has his play.
Kennedy said from the start that Smith was one of the big reasons this year’s team was much more athletic than last and that he‘s A&M’s best on-ball defender.
“I love defense, and defense is pretty much what starts my offense,” Smith said. “If I can go down and get a stop, that is what is going to crank me up on the offensive end. So, I try to take pride in defense and guarding the other team’s best player. I love to get the rebound and push it in transition because obviously you can do multiple things — get a bucket or look for a teammate.”
With fellow newcomers Jamal Jones and Davonte Fitzgerald becoming two of the go-to players for A&M on the offensive end, Smith’s opportunities to shoot have decreased.
The game after Smith had a career-high 14, he shot only once against in 17 minutes against Mississippi State.
He averages 5.4 points and 3.4 rebounds a game, but usually checks the opposing team’s best perimeter player, which more often than not means its point guard.
Smith will likely start against Vanderbilt, his second in a row and ninth of the season. After that there are no guarantees.
“I’m about guys establishing themselves over the long haul,” Kennedy said. “Kids want everything right away and it’s all about getting them to buy into the process.”
For Smith that mans being ready when Kennedy points at him, whether it’s as a starter or coming off the bench.
NOTES — Vanderbilt’s leading scorer Eric McClellan (14.3) was dismissed from the team after the first SEC game. ... Vandy has only 11 players on its roster. ... In A&M’s loss to Kentucky, the Wildcats had five players outrebound the Aggies’ leading rebounder. ... The Commodores will be playing at A&M for the first time. ... Vandy’s one SEC win was over Missouri.
• Matchup: Vanderbilt (9-8, 1-4) at Texas A&M (12-6, 3-2)
• When/where: Noon Saturday, Reed Arena
• TV/radio: ESPNU; WTAW, 1620 AM
• Line: A&M by 61/2
Projected starting lineups
Vanderbilt (9-8, 1-4 SEC)
Ht Class Pts Reb
F Rod Odom 6-9 senior 14.3 5.8
F James Siakam 6-7 junior 7.1 4.6
C Damian Jones 6-10 freshman 11.4 5.3
G Kyle Fuller 6-1 senior 10.9 *4.0
G Dai-Jon Parker 6-3 junior 7.1 *3.4
Texas A&M (12-6, 3-2 SEC)
Ht Class Pts Reb
F Kourtney Roberson 6-9 junior 9.7 7.1
F Jamal Jones 6-8 junior 12.1 3.9
G Alex Caruso 6-5 sophomore 9.3 *5.0
G Jordan Green 6-5 junior 7.3 2.4
G Shawn Smith 6-4 freshman 5.4 3.2
* assists per game