Playing basketball for Vols is dream-come-true for Smith
The play of sophomore guard JaJuan Smith is among the biggest surprises of the surprising 2005-06 Tennessee basketball season.
Smith, a former walk-on from Athens, Tennessee, scored 11 points Wednesday in the Vols’ 88-65 road win over Mississippi State. Smith was 2-4 from behind the three-point arc, including one at the first-half buzzer to give the Vols a 15-point halftime lead.
Smith had a stellar high school career at McMinn County High but with a thin body on a 6’2” frame, Division I schools did not offer a scholarship.
Smith turned down offers from mid-majors like Tennessee-Chattanooga, Middle Tennessee State and Arkansas State to chase a dream in Knoxville.
Former UT coach Buzz Peterson offered Smith an opportunity to make the Vols’ roster as a walk-on. A lifelong UT basketball fan, Smith decided to pay his own way the first year of college and see what happens.
When Peterson resigned following last season, Smith took on a bigger role under Bruce Pearl, Peterson’s successor. After getting only limited playing time during his rookie season, Smith has thrived in Pearl’s up-tempo style of play.
Smith has been instant offense coming off the bench for the 13-3, 19th ranked Vols. He’s averaging 8.7 points per game and hitting close to 40% of his three-point attempts. In the Vols’ 16 games played, Smith has gathered 25 steals, dished out 29 assists, and is averaging 2.9 rebounds per game.
His high school coach, Keith Elliott, isn’t surprised by the success of his former pupil.
“It’s not surprising to me at all,” said Elliott in a phone interview from his office at MCHS. “I think he can be one of the top players in the Southeastern Conference.”
Elliott feels the style of play that Pearl and his staff have implemented at UT is the ideal set-up for McMinn County High School’s all-time leading scorer.
“JaJaun is a very good player,” Elliott commented. “He has all the athleticism, he’ a good shooter, a good rebounder, and he was our best defender when he was here.
“They’ve put about 20 pounds on him and made him more of a physical presence. He was a little slight when he was here. But he loves that style of play (at UT) and we both agree that it suits him very well.”
Elliott said that Smith tries to keep tabs on his old team as much as his schedule will allow.
“He’s been back a couple of time to watch our games,” said Elliott. “Sometimes the coaches will get together and watch him play (on television). And I know the players enjoy getting together and watching him play too.”
The McMinn County coach said Smith became a starter for the Cherokees after Christmas his freshman year. His best year was his final one when he averaged 22 points per game and had several outings of 40 points or more. Smith scored a school-record total of 2,007 points at MCHS.
Pearl extended Smith a scholarship offer before this season. His former coach said it really is a dream-come-true for Smith.
“He always wanted to play for UT,” Elliott remarked. “He’s doing what he always wanted to do, and I couldn’t be more excited for him.”