The UCLA men’s basketball team is primed to be one of the top programs in the country once again in 2020, being picked to win the Pac-12 Conference in the preseason media poll and being named as a Top 25 team nationally. And at the heart of the Bruins team is senior Chris Smith, a 6-foot-9 Chicago native who was named to the Julius Erving Small Forward of the Year award watch list by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Since I’ve been here, he’s been unbelievably coachable, which is why his rate of improvement has accelerated,” said head coach Mick Cronin during the Pac-12 Conference media day. “From day one he’s had such a tremendous attitude.”
Smith was a four-star recruit coming out of Huntington Prep in West Virginia and was ranked as a top 100 player in the nation, according to Rivals.com. His freshman season with the Bruins saw him come off the bench as a key role player where he played in all 33 games and averaged just over 13 minutes per game, only reaching double-figure points in three of those outings.
Smith saw an increased role on the offense his sophomore season, playing in all 33 games for the Bruins once again, starting in 12 contests. He averaged 19 minutes per game while ranking third on the team with 43 assists and shot 40.3 percent from the field.
His breakout season came his junior year with UCLA, where he started in 26 of the 32 games he played. Smith led the team averaging 13.1 points per game, was second in rebounding averaging 5.4 rebounds per game, averaged 28.3 minutes per game and shot a career-best 45.8 percent from the field en route to first-team All-Pac-12 honors. Smith also took home the Pac-12’s Most Improved Player of the Year award, becoming the first Bruin to win the award since it began in 2008-09.
After his junior season, Smith was flirting with the possibility of declaring for the 2020 NBA Draft. He ultimately decided to stay with the Bruins and return for one final year, coming back as the lone senior on the UCLA roster due to the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic which canceled the workouts of NBA prospects and delayed the draft.
“I’m returning for my senior year because I’d really like to finish what I started at UCLA,” Smith said in a message to Bruins fans on Twitter. “We have some unfinished business and I want one last run with my teammates and coaches. These guys mean the world to me. It’s also very important to me to finish up strong in the classroom and earn my degree.”
Smith’s return means all five of the team’s starters from a year ago will be together for at least one more season, giving them a good chance to add some more silverware to the team’s trophy cabinet. Although Smith had improved in nearly all facets of his game during his junior year, he said he felt like the work was not complete and he could always be better both on and off the court.
“The number one thing that I’m trying to do well this year is to be a leader,” Smith said. “I’ve never been the vocal guy on the team but that’s something my coaches and teammates are looking at me to do, so that’s something I need to work on and I’ve been doing so far. Secondly, [it] would be my decision making. A lot of my turnovers were created off of my careless ball-handling last year so that’s something I’ve been working on. I need to be the player on this team who can make the right play at all times.”
Smith could repeat as the team’s leading scorer, becoming the presumptive go-to option on offense that will control the team’s pace up the court. The team chemistry from last season is expected to grow since the starting lineup is very familiar with one another, allowing for everyone to elevate each other’s overall game while getting more acclimated to Cronin’s coaching philosophy.
Smith said absorbing Cronin’s approach to the game now than it was a year ago is a lot better for him as well as the other returning players.
“I’d say it’s a lot easier now,” Smith said. “Obviously, [Coach] Cronin is not new anymore. He’s already implemented his culture, and everybody here already has a good feel for him. So, I don’t think he can implement himself anymore. He’s already made his stamp. We know how serious it is to him, how big of a deal winning is for him. So, I mean it’s just pretty much giving the new guys a good feel for Coach Cronin. He does a great job himself, obviously. But you know, somebody like me, who was here last year who he was on a lot, you know, I try to, you know, give some of my wisdom to the newer players so that, you know, the transition is easier for them than it was for us last year.”
Smith has cautiously emerged as the voice of UCLA’s men’s basketball team, acting as a player-coach that can relay messages in a unique way to his teammates. His draft stock rose tremendously after his junior season, and Smith will look to continue his upward trajectory in his senior year. If the previous seasons are any indication, his draft stock will likely rise more, elevating him from a possible second-round pick into a first-round selection for the 2021 NBA Draft.