New Mexico junior Kendall Williams saw nothing but daylight. A hesitation dribble shook Christian Webster ’13, and Williams bolted to the basket. With four and a half minutes to go, Williams’ third-seeded Lobos were down six to the upstart 14th-seeded Harvard Crimson.
The Mountain West Player of the Year had had a nightmare evening to that point, with nearly as many turnovers—two—as points and assists combined—four. If he could get going, the comeback was not only within reach, but likely.
Williams never got that far. In two steps, then-sophomore center Kenyatta Smith was in the air, swatting the shot away. Less than a minute later, Smith was icing the game from the charity stripe, a 67 percent free throw shooter knocking down both to put Harvard up six.
“This was his time,” said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker at the time. “This was why I recruited him, to be this kind of player.”
That was then.
This past Sunday, Smith logged his first minutes of the season. Hampered by a foot injury, the junior had sat out the first three months of the season, watching his teammates struggle against intimidating front lines.
First, it was Colorado’s 6’10” Josh Scott and 6’7” Xavier Johnson leading the Buffaloes to a 70-62 win—a game in which the Crimson was outrebounded by 17. Then it was University of Connecticut’s hulking frontcourt of 6’9” DeAndre Daniels, 6’10” Tyler Olander, and 7’0” Amida Brimah holding Harvard to 32 percent shooting from inside the arc during a 61-56 Husky win.
Medically cleared to play Sunday against Dartmouth for the first time all year, Smith came on the floor with the Crimson up 32. In his two minutes of play, just one thing showed up in the box score—a miss on his trademark hook shot that was let loose too late and missed the rim entirely.
This is now.
As Smith comes back from injury, both he and the coaching staff have indicated that he will take it as it comes. Extreme caution is the norm in the wake of the NBA’s re-injury bug, which has taken out stars like Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook who came back too early.
However, heading down the stretch, this year’s Crimson team needs what Smith can offer. This weekend alone, the squad will face the Quakers’ 6’11” Darien Nelson-Henry and 6’8” Henry Brooks, and Princeton’s 6’10” Will Barrett. Senior Kyle Casey is an excellent defender in his own right, but he is not Smith, a prototypical back-to-the-basket post player and rim protector. In the past, Smith has shown the ability to carry programs to unforeseen heights, and the team will hope for history to repeat itself this season.
THE TALL BOY COMING IN
When Smith first enrolled in Flintridge Preperatory School in La Cañada Flintridge, CA. as a seventh grader, it was without a hint of reclaim. Flintridge coach Garrett Ohara remembers hearing “there was a tall boy coming in.”
At that point, Flintridge had yet to win a division championship or produce a Division I basketball player. It excelled at academics, not athletics. Before he was Smith’s coach, Ohara was his pre-algebra teacher.
“There were other, better schools he could have gone to in the area…higher level basketball schools,” Ohara said. “For him and his mother to decide to come to Flintridge demonstrated that he was very serious about his academics.”
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.
But Smith was nowhere to be found. After being named the best incoming freshman in the Ancient Eight by ESPN’s Paul Biancardi, he saw the floor for a total of 17 minutes as a rookie.
Classmates Saunders, Moundou-Missi, and Corbin Miller all averaged at least 10 minutes a game as Smith struggled. He attempted just one field goal all season In Ivy League play, he saw three minutes in 14 games.
“I think the physicality and the pace of the game frustrated him,” Ohara said. “Being away from home…there are a lot of [new] factors into being at Harvard.”
However, heading into his sophomore year, Smith became the starting center with the departures of Keith Wright ’13 and Casey. He headed an all-sophomore frontcourt, playing as the lone center in a four-guard lineup.
The initial returns were mixed. He had eight points, eight rebounds, five blocks, and three assists in just 21 minutes against MIT. He and Moundou-Missi combined for six blocks in the next game, holding the University of Massachusetts to just 38 percent shooting in a 67-64 loss.
After his second consecutive 20-minute outing against the Minutemen, however, he got that much time just once in the next 18 outings—a zero-point, three-turnover effort in a seven-point loss to Vermont.
But things turned around for the big man, and against Penn and Princeton, Smith finally got his big break. With the Crimson reeling from its first league loss—a 15-point blowout at Columbia—Amaker put Smith in the starting lineup for the contest against the Quakers.
The then-sophomore seized the moment and ran with it, putting forth 20 points, nine rebounds, and a program-record 10 blocks in a 19-point win over the school he had spurned.
The next night, he proved Penn wasn’t a fluke, posting 14 points, seven rebounds, and another six blocks, going perfect from the field and the free-throw line. The Crimson beat Princeton by 12.
Afterwards, Smith was brutally honest about how playing not to lose, instead of playing to win, had hampered him in prior situations.
“My goal before was to not mess up,” Smith said. “Now it’s just to let the game flow and do what I do best: rebound, block shots. Luckily, the rest has come with it.”
For the rest of the campaign, Smith started. If he was doing what he did best, he did it better than nearly anyone in the nation.
His season averages of 4.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks don’t look impressive on paper; account for the minutes played and Smith blocked 5.8 shots per 40 minutes—better than first-round pick Nerlens Noel, second-round pick Jeff Withey, and third in the nation.
“The Penn-Princeton weekend was when it exploded for him,” Amaker said. “He changed our team.”
DON’T CALL IT A COMEBACK
Half a year later, Smith entered the season as the squad’s starting center. His defensive presence formed the fulcrum of the team’s defense the year before; with a strong rim protector behind them, perimeter guards played in the face of their marks, confident in the help coming behind them.
He defended big men well, taking on consecutive seven-footers—New Mexico’s Alex Kirk and Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski—in the tournament.
But then the injury bug struck. A stress reaction became a hairline fracture with overuse.
Five days before the season opener against Holy Cross, Smith learned that he’d have to sit out indefinitely. Taking a redshirt season wasn’t a possibility for the junior.
“I don’t know if I was so eager to take the rest of the year off, honestly,” Smith said. “These guys have done some incredible things on the court and with team chemistry, and that is something I want to be a part of.”
His teammates are eagerly awaiting his return. When he entered the Dartmouth game, the entire bench gave the junior a standing ovation. On Monday, Saunders called Smith a “game changer.”
For a team that hasn’t had its full lineup since summer scrimmages—co-captain Brandyn Curry and Saunders have both missed time—Smith’s return to the court is symbolic, coming at the beginning of the Ivy stretch run that will see the team try to realize its immense potential.
For the third time, the center will try to lift a program whose history in the classroom dwarfs its prowess on the court. As Smith comes back from injury, his minutes are uncertain, but if history holds, his presence will continue to be felt.
—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twtter at @CrimsonDPFreed.
This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections:
CORRECTION: Feb. 3, 2013
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the outcome of the Nov. 13, 2012 men's basketball game against the University of Massachusetts. In fact, Harvard lost the game 67-64. The article also incorrectly stated the round in which Jeff Withey was drafted into the NBA. In fact, he was a second-round pick.