On court, nice guy

plays a mean game

Liberty senior Jason Smith's pleasant demeanor belies his dominant, physical inside play.

February 22, 2006|By RICH SCHERR | RICH SCHERR,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At 6 feet 4 and 235 pounds, Jason Smith is an intimidating presence on the basketball court.

But despite being built like a bruising defensive end, Smith might just be one of the nicest guys at Liberty High School.

"He'll knock you down, then pick you up," Lions coach Steve Johnson said. "In practice, he punishes people, and then he feels bad about it. I've never heard a kid or been around a kid that has said anything bad about him."

You're not likely to hear Smith say anything bad about his opponents, either. Rather than engaging in trash-talking, he prefers to let his dominant play in the paint speak volumes.

"If I knock you down, I'm not just going to just talk trash to you," the senior forward said. "I can play physical, but at the same time I can show sportsmanship. I can show attitude - I just don't let it get out of control."

Smith is averaging about 19 points and 12 rebounds a game, the latter leading the 22-team Monocacy Valley Athletic League by a wide margin. Earlier this season, his 24-point, 13-rebound effort was the deciding factor in Liberty's 76-66 win over then-unbeaten Winters Mill.

The performance left a lasting impression on Falcons coach Dave Herman.

"He can completely take over a game," Herman said. "He's unbelievably physical, he's very skilled and he's got great feet. He takes up a lot of room, and he plays much bigger than 6-4. There's no doubt that he's one of the best big kids we've seen all year."

Prior to this season, however, opponents hadn't seen very much of him at all.

Though he averaged around 20 points at both the freshman and junior varsity levels, Smith spent last season playing the role of sixth man behind a senior-dominated lineup. It was a frustrating scenario for a player so eager to burst onto the scene.

"We had so many seniors on the team, and I understood that you play your seniors ahead of underclassmen," Smith said. "But at the same time, I just always wanted to try and prove myself. "

Said Johnson: "He got the minutes, but he really didn't get the touches. Now, we try to make things go through him. He probably touches the ball every third time down the floor."

Few can match Smith's strength in the low post.

Though he only began seriously lifting weights last summer, he already can max out at more than 1,000 pounds on the leg press. He's about 15 pounds slimmer than a year ago, but with significantly more strength, as he shows time and again by powering through double teams. But he's hardly a one-dimensional player.

Over the summer, Smith attended both the Eastern Invitational Camp in New Jersey and the Five-Star Camp in Owings Mills, where he focused on improving his shooting range and technique. Now, he can consistently hit jumpers from about 17 feet, and has become a much better ball-handler, as well.

He had hoped to show off some of his newfound abilities by switching to small forward this season - the position he will most likely play in college - but he was forced back into the paint when one of the team's younger post players moved to Chicago.

No matter. Smith has been outplaying taller opponents for much of his career.

When he was 15, he played on an Amateur Athletic Union team for 17-year-olds, where he occasionally had to battle for rebounds against opponents who were 6-8 or 6-9. "I would out-rebound them because I knew how to play the post," Smith said. "By sitting on their knee, they're not going to move. They're just going to be stationary, and you can just spring up and get the board, even though they're a lot taller than you. It's just technique and how well you use your body."

When he finally got the chance to start this season, he used his body quite effectively, putting up 27 points and 20 rebounds in a win over Century in December. Since then, he's continued to put up big numbers for the Lions, despite often encountering double and triple teams, particularly while teammate Eric Housman, a 6-3 forward averaging about 19 points, sat out for three weeks with a sprained ankle.

"He's probably one of the hardest-working kids that I've ever had," Johnson said. "He loves the game, and he just constantly works at it. He's basically the backbone of our team. Everybody knows that he's our go-to guy."

Still, he's largely been overlooked by colleges, many of which see him as an undersized post player. One notable exception has been McDaniel College, where Smith expects to play next season.

"I keep telling everybody, whatever program he plays for next year, they've got themselves a gem," Johnson said. "I think that he's just going to be very overpowering at the next level."

When he's not on the court, you'll often find Smith banging a bass drum for Liberty's concert band. Last night, he was scheduled to perform in a pops concert honoring war veterans.

Smith, who has played the drums since fourth grade, said that only the beat of the music can compare with the rush of basketball.

He's tried other sports, playing JV football as a freshman and competing in spring track - mainly as a sprinter and thrower - to this day, but none elicits the same feeling.

"It's just the adrenaline. There are so many things you can do in the game of basketball," he said. "Growing up, watching people get their shots blocked and people dunking just got to me. I always wanted to do that."

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