Sometimes it’s as simple as honesty and interest.
At least it was for fifth-year senior Mike Smith.
Last spring, as the former Columbia point guard narrowed down his list of transfer suitors, the candid and persistent approach of Michigan coach Juwan Howard stood out among the rest. In early April, Smith chose the Wolverines over Gonzaga, Arizona and Seton Hall.
“I think coach Howard just showed a little more interest than some of the other schools,” Smith said. “He just reached out to me and from day one, he’s always been honest in telling me where I’d fit in and what kind of player he’d need for next year.
“He said it was between me and Bryce Aiken, who is now at Seton Hall and went to Harvard. He said me and him were the only two guards he was recruiting and from everything I had seen back then, I knew he was being honest because nobody else was being recruited. So I knew he was trustworthy and a man of his word.”
With Zavier Simpson graduating and junior guard David DeJulius transferring to Cincinnati, Michigan entered the offseason in need of backcourt depth. Smith, who led the Ivy League with 22.8 points per game as a senior, provides exactly that.
Though Big Ten competition is a significant step up from that of the Ivy League, Smith is no stranger to high-level opponents. As a senior at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Ill., Smith finished second in Mr. Basketball voting, helped the Friars win the notoriously competitive Chicago Catholic League championship and a school-record 28 games, and finished his career second on the school’s all-time scoring list behind 14-year NBA veteran Corey Maggette.
Smith committed to Columbia relatively early his senior year. Just 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds at the time, most of his suitors were at the mid-major level. Smith’s success that season earned him a bit more attention on the recruiting trail, but he stayed committed to the Lions throughout. Looking back now, he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I think Columbia was the best decision of my life,” Smith said. “There’s always going to be a life after basketball. I’m setting myself up now for when I’m 36, and I can’t touch a basketball anymore. I’m going to be set for life with just the connections I’ve made and the Ivy League degree that I have.”
With a bachelor’s degree in Sociology in hand, Smith is now pursuing his master’s at Michigan. He’ll have the opportunity to test himself in one of college basketball’s best conferences, too. It’s a challenge those who know him best think he’s ready for.
“Mike’s got a great personality and a lot of charisma and confidence,” Fenwick basketball coach Staunton Peck said. “One of his best traits is his confidence. He instills confidence in his teammates as well. It didn’t matter who he was playing against, he thought he was as good or better than the guys he was playing.”
Smith attributes that confidence to his work ethic and practice schedule — both of which have improved under the tutelage of his mentor and friend, Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler. The two first connected during Smith’s senior season at Fenwick when Butler played for the Chicago Bulls. They’ve trained together ever since with Smith even spending summers out at Butler’s home in Calabasas, Calif.
“Being around Jimmy so much and our little crew, we all work out together,” Smith said. “We work out four times a day in the summer. And ultimately, since he’s in a spot I wanna be in — you know, I want to be able to play in the NBA, I want to be able to make that type of money and play in those types of games — if that’s what it takes, then that’s what I’m going to do. I think my confidence comes from my work and repetition.
“If you continue to work hard, you can feel confident in yourself when you get stuck that you’re going to make that shot that you shot 300 times the day before or the morning before the game. With all things in life, when you do things repetitively and keep doing that, then you’ll feel more confident.”
Smith’s relationship with Butler also gave him unique insight on Howard’s demeanor and coaching style due to Butler’s connections around the league. On top of Howard’s honesty and interest in Smith, as both a player and a person, Howard’s Chicago roots and experience as an assistant coach with the Miami Heat also played a role in Smith’s decision.
“I was at (Howard’s) camp when I was younger,” Smith said. “That was so long ago. I think Chicago people look out for Chicago people, and I hold that dearly. If I see someone from Chicago, I would say what’s up and ask them where they’re from.”
Smith added: “He lived through the (LeBron James), (Dwayne Wade) and (Chris Bosh)-era so he has a little bit of that Heat culture that he’s bringing to Michigan. I for sure wanted to be a part of that. I couldn’t miss out on that opportunity.”
With the Wolverines, Smith has an opportunity to earn a starting spot alongside senior guard Eli Brooks. Through limited offseason practices, Smith has relished playing in Howard’s fast-paced, transition offense noting his speed in the open floor is one of his greatest attributes.
A season ago, Michigan’s offense was also predicated on the frequent use of ball screens, relying on its floor general Zavier Simpson to make the right read. Though Smith is far from a direct replacement for Simpson, he believes he’ll thrive in those half-court sets. In addition to leading the Ivy League in scoring, he finished second in assists and holds the all-time record for assists at Columbia.
“I think I’ve always been a great passer. It’s just the past four years I’ve had to score more,” Smith said. “It goes unnoticed when all you do is see me shoot a lot but I love to share the ball. Ultimately it makes my game easier too.
“I love to let everybody else eat first and I eat after. Just like a dad or mom or something, you let the kids eat first and then you eat after. It’s the right thing to do and the right way to play basketball.”
At times last season, Smith was Columbia’s entire offense — he ranked third in the nation in field goal attempts and first in usage rate in the Ivy League, per KenPom. That won’t be the case with the Wolverines. Smith understands and welcomes the fact that he no longer has to be the go-to option all of the time and can defer more to his teammates, even if he does become Michigan’s primary ball-handler.
Given his confidence and positive personality, if Smith can successfully adjust to a different role with the Wolverines, he certainly possesses the talent to be a difference maker.
“He picks up plays and sees basketball very quickly,” Peck said. “What he accomplished at Columbia doesn’t really surprise me at all. I know he’s worked on his shot a lot too.
“I think he’s going to have a great season at Michigan and I think a lot of people are going to be surprised at the impact he makes.”