Justin Smith could get trapped in the intimidating challenge of matching, well, Justin Smith.
He’s happy to glance back at a spectacular high school basketball career at Lewis-Palmer, but he refuses to get lost in yesterday. He’s too busy preparing for his senior season at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
“You know, I want to leave it all out on the court and have no sense that I didn’t give it my all and make the most of my last year of collegiate basketball,” Smith says.
High school was a long, happy sprint. As a junior and senior (2012-2013), Smith played alongside Josh and Jordan Scott while the massively talented Rangers marched to consecutive 4A titles.
Smith was versatile and overpowering. He dunked often. He delivered two clutch blocks in the final minutes of the 2012 title victory over Sierra. Seconds after the second block, he drained a game-clinching 3-pointer. He was winning nearly every night while swimming in an ocean of fun.
“Amazing,” he says of his years at L-P.
Playing in college has not been so amazing. He earned a scholarship at Division I Idaho State but struggled for playing time.
He’s a high-flying, quick power forward but stands a touch under 6-foot-5. That might make him the tallest person in your neighborhood, but he’s not very big for a college big man.
His right foot slowed his progress, dating back to a stress fracture his sophomore year at L-P. The foot betrayed him again when he suffered a fracture at Idaho State. He competes with two screws in the foot.
Smith won’t divulge specific goals for the season, but UCCS coach Jeff Culver is eager to share his hopes for Smith.
The coach wants a bolder, better version of Smith.
Culver saw flashes of Smith at his finest last season, but more often saw a player with shaky confidence hovering below his potential, an understandable reaction to sitting the Idaho State bench for two seasons.
Don’t get the wrong impression. Smith was solid for Division II UCCS last season, averaging 11.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and shooting 52.4 percent.
But . . .
With Smith’s resume and talent, a coach demands even bigger numbers.
“We expected more, to be honest with you,” Culver says. “He lost some confidence going to Idaho State. He lost confidence in his shot. We’re still trying to get him to shoot it like he did in high school.”
Russ McKinstry coached Smith at L-P. He understands why Culver is pushing Smith toward more of everything.
"He’s an extremely gifted athlete,” McKinstry says. “He has unbelievable vertical jump, and he’s built like a tight end or middle linebacker or whatever. People always assume the game was easy for Justin.”
McKinstry knows the truth. He labored for hours with Smith in the L-P gym. Smith was blessed with the physical talent to excel, but struggles with the mental side.
Smith looks like a natural. McKinstry knows that, in this case, looks are deceptive.
“He worked extremely hard,” McKinstry says. “He was extremely persistent, extremely tenacious.”
Smith is a strong student who already is working on a graduate degree in business administration. He’s a diligent and careful type who tries to eliminate surprises from his life, but surprises often await him, and torment him, on the court.
“I’m a big planner,” he says. “I have to work at not predetermining things, at just letting the game come to you, just going with the flow. That’s always something I’ve struggled with and have to work on. It’s a tough thing to do, to go out and play the game and not think too much.”
This power forward who sometimes thinks too much will fail to top his exit from high school basketball, when he twice ruled the state.
Still, an encouraging finale beckons.
His foot feels strong. He’s found a comrade in Culver, who is similar to most college coaches. Culver is a restless, pushy soul who expects Smith’s best every minute of every game.
As he heads toward his basketball farewell, Smith is at peace with his soaring high school days.
Those immense past triumphs, he says, never burden his present.
They are blessings.