Smith’s basketball talent was evident early; Ohara said his most striking trait was his graceful movement and athleticism, unique for a rapidly growing freshman. However, Smith needed to catch up physically.
During his freshman year, Ohara watched Smith get pushed around inside, struggling to leverage his height properly, and scoring mostly on putbacks and broken plays.
A diligent worker, Smith quickly put it together. A four-year varsity starter, he became a man among boys. Ohara commented that Smith’s current playing weight—at 6’8”, and listed at 250 pounds—is slimmer than in high school, when he would get any shot he wanted in the post. His trademark feathery hook shot was just one in a full arsenal of post moves.
People took notice. In his senior year, Smith averaged nearly 20 points, 15 rebounds, and five blocks a game. ESPN ranked him as the 29th best center in the nation; scout.com had him in the top 15. He was named as one of seven John R. Wooden High School Players of the Year, joining the ranks of former winners like Baron Davis and Tyson Chandler.
“Carve a circle five feet around the basket, and he’s going to do his best to own it,” commented Scout’s David Telep at the time. “Once he gets his feet under him and he gets his conditioning down, he should be an excellent post player for Harvard for four years.”
In his final year of high school, Smith led Flintridge to its first-ever division championship. In a low-scoring game, Smith controlled the paint and rebounded well.
“He could get the ball and take a shot every time but he was cognizant of his teammates,” Ohara said. “He drew double teams, didn’t force shots. The chemistry on that team was exemplary.”
His coach’s final memory was of the eye-to-eye smile Smith showed after the win. Already on his way to Cambridge, the senior didn’t have to prove anything to everyone. Instead, Ohara said, he celebrated having won for a school and community that had never done it before.
“The lasting image was the joy I saw on his face,” Ohara said. “[He was] celebrating not just for the team, but what he did for the school and the entire community that was supporting the team.”
Smith committed to Harvard early, the first coup of a recruiting class that eventually yielded fellow three-star recruit Wesley Saunders as well as big men Jonah Travis and Steve Moundou-Missi. Originally deciding between Vanderbilt, Harvard, and archrival Penn, Smith did not visit another school after his visit to Cambridge.
The decision was unsurprising. For the second time, the big man chose the academic program without a history of success, confident that he could take it to the top.
“[Harvard hasn’t] had a lot of history of winning, but that’s what I want to be a part of,” he said at the time. “I want to be there when that first happens…. It’s coming soon, and I want to be a part of it.”
Smith’s comments proved prescient. During his freshman campaign, Harvard cracked the AP Top 25, winning the Ivy League outright a year after grabbing a share of the title.
The team won 26 games and the Battle for Atlantis title, losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against a Commodore team with three first-round NBA draft picks, 80-71.