Justus: Kentucky a place where you get better and play around great players
On the day before basketball prospects in the class of 2021 were allowed to start receiving direct contact from college coaches, Georgia native Jabari Smith ran down his list of early scholarship offers and interest, then talked about who else he’d like to hear from.
“Everybody wants to hear from the blue bloods,” Smith said. “Duke, Kentucky, Kansas — all those big programs known for winning.”
That was June 14. The following day is the spot on the calendar that high school recruits between their sophomore and junior years can begin taking calls from college coaches, and the Herald-Leader has been told that Kentucky is one of the schools that has reached out to Smith over the past couple of weeks.
The 6-foot-9, 194-pound forward from Tyrone, Ga., has already had quite a spring.
He made it through the USA Basketball U16 tryouts last month, then became the second-leading scorer on an undefeated team that won a FIBA Americas gold medal in Brazil this month. UK assistant coach Joel Justus made the trip to see that squad play, and Smith averaged 13.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game — going 7-for-19 from three-point range (36 percent) to show off his versatile scoring ability.
About a week later, Smith was at the annual NBPA Top 100 Camp in Virginia, and Kentucky’s coaching staff saw him there, as well. Though he later told Rivals.com that Auburn, Georgia and Louisiana State were the first three schools to call him on June 15, the Cats have also reached out to express interest, and Smith is proving himself as the type of highly ranked recruit that John Calipari covets.
No player made a bigger move within five-star territory of the new Rivals.com rankings than Smith, who jumped from No. 33 overall all the way to the No. 5 spot in the 2021 class. “Smith will soon become a national, blue-blood priority target,” Rivals national analyst Corey Evans wrote this week.
ESPN pushed Smith up to No. 10 overall in its update Monday morning. He’s still at No. 31 on 247Sports’ list, but those rankings are set to be refreshed any day now, and national analyst Evan Daniels has already said that he’ll be due for a bump when that happens.
Arkansas, Florida, Florida State, Georgetown, Kansas, Kansas State and Maryland are among the other schools showing strong interest heading into the summer. Smith’s father, also named Jabari, was a standout player at LSU before being selected with the No. 45 overall pick in the 2000 NBA Draft and playing several additional years of professional ball overseas.
The only recruits in the 2021 class with confirmed scholarship offers from Kentucky are Jonathan Kuminga, Terrence Clarke and Paolo Banchero — all ranked in the top four nationally, according to Rivals.com — and Smith is now just below them in those rankings and certainly worth watching as the Wildcats continue to cast a wider net in his class.
He said he’ll continue to work on getting physically stronger while refining his ball-handling skills to make himself more versatile in the frontcourt.
“I think my advantage is at the ‘4,’ because I feel like I can guard the ‘4’ and the ‘5,’ but I feel like they can’t guard me,” Smith said. “I feel like I got the advantage and the quicker step on them.”
When asked if he would compare his own style of play to a recent player at any of the blue-blood schools, Smith mentioned one of Kentucky’s lottery picks from this year’s draft.
“I look at PJ Washington — how he plays,” he said. “That’s really all I think about, comparing to my game. … I just know that there’s a high chance of going to the NBA out of that program. They’re all about winning, and I like what Coach Calipari’s philosophy is — just how he coaches.”