Fenwick High School point guard Mike Smith is listed at 5-9 but insists he is 5-10.
Either way, Smith is average height for an American male.
So why, then, is the junior drawing major interest from Division I schools?
“It just says that his talents are really special to be that small and to have interest like that,” Fenwick forward Mike Ballard said. “He has to have an all-around great game and be a good leader to get looks like that at his size.”
Ballard is correct on both counts. Already in his third season on varsity, Smith has improved greatly with each passing year and is now the unquestioned leader of a team that is enjoying a surprisingly good season at 20-7.
Along with Ballard’s career-high 36 points, Smtih scored 15 points and dished out 11 assists in the Friars’ 72-63 win over Hales Franciscan in the third-place game of the Chicago Catholic League Tournament. Smith and Ballard were recently selected as all-conference players.
Smith leads the Friars in scoring (17.9 points per game), assists (4.3), steals (1.3) and minutes (30:02). A do-everything dervish, he is second on the team in three-point percentage (45), shoots 79 percent from the free-throw line and snags 3.1 rebounds per outing. He’s also getting it done in the classroom with a 3.2 grade-point-average.
“I feel like I’ve grown since freshman year,” Smith said. “I’ve been playing varsity since freshman year and it helps a lot, and also playing on a great AAU team (Mean Streets).”
College recruiters have had their eye on Smith for several years but interest has picked up as a result of his performance this winter. Loyola has offered a scholarship and other offers figure to follow once Smith starts visiting Big Ten schools after the season.
“I’ve talked to a lot of schools since eighth grade,” Smith said. “I learned you probably get offers when you visit campus. I’ll probably go to Iowa, Wisconsin and the other local schools first.”
Smith attributes his improvement – and the uptick in recruitment – to working hard every day, trusting his teammates and taking advantage of opportunities.
The biggest opportunity was the chance to be the team leader after three standout big men graduated after last season. It is a role Smith is comfortable with as he often appears to be an island of calm in the sea of controlled chaos that characterizes many Catholic League games.
“That’s a role I try to take before a game, go out there and have fun and believe in myself,” Smith said. “I think I’ve done that well. I’m working on things like shooting and I think it just comes natural.”
It certainly appeared that way during Fenwick’s 60-43 home win over Leo on Feb. 10. Smith and Ballard turned into, with apologies to ESPN, a local version of the Mike and Mike Show, scoring 28 of the Friars’ 30 points in the first half and 42 overall.
Smith scored 19 points, making all four free-throw attempts and 6-of-7 shots from the floor, including a trio of three-pointers. His only miss was a desperation half-court heave that rimmed out at the end of the first quarter.
“I think [Smith’s greatest improvement] is definitely his outside shooting,” Ballard said. “I know over the summer we worked out a lot on our shots so just this year it’s really coming together.”
“I think my shot has been going better and me stepping up as a leader, just being better in practice and off the court, and its’ been working,” Smith said. “Coach [Rick Malnati] has been pushing me to do that and I’ve been willing to try it and it’s been working out well.”
Smith also dished five assists against Leo, four of which went to Ballard, who had 23 points and 12 rebounds, and took a charge. But those stats may not be the most impressive thing about Smith’s game.
“I think what’s so special about him is his speed and ball handling,” Ballard said. “All year teams just aren’t able to press us that much.
“He can literally dribble in and out of all presses so that takes a lot of pressure off of all our other guards right there, and also just his ability to get into the lane. Not many people can stay in front of him so he’s always getting into the lane, getting to the free-throw line or drawing defenders and kicking it out to our other teammates.”