Gophers transfer Malik Smith embraces new role as leader, defender

MINNEAPOLIS — Malik Smith was wide open, and everyone in

Williams Arena expected him to shoot.

In Tuesday’s game against Florida State, Smith gave his

defender a pump fake to create space and found himself wide open in the corner.

But Smith, who has shown a penchant for the deep shot, didn’t take the

3-pointer. He instead drove aggressively to the basket and exhibited great body

control to score a layup. Later in the first half, the 6-foot-2 guard again

took the ball strong to the basket for another score.

That first half in the win against the Seminoles was a sign

of how Smith has grown as a player during his brief time in a Gophers uniform.

The aggressiveness was not necessarily something that first-year Minnesota

coach Richard Pitino saw from Smith when the two were together at Florida

International last year, but Pitino certainly likes what he’s getting from the

senior guard so far this season.

Smith had a bit of a breakout during the Gophers’ time in

the Maui Invitational last week. He had a 16-point effort in the tournament’s

opening game against Syracuse and backed up that performance with 15 points

against Arkansas and 16 in a win against Chaminade in the seventh-place game.

“Over the last three or four games, I’ve pretty much

adjusted well to my teammates and embracing my role and pretty much knowing

when to attack and when not to,” Smith said. “The first couple games

for me were pretty rough. I was pretty hard on myself, got in the gym as much

as possible after practice, before practice, getting up shots. I just came into

Maui with the mindset that I’m going to be aggressive no matter what. That’s

just what I tried to do.”

Yet for what Smith brings on the offensive side of the ball

— he’s averaging 9.4 points leading up to Saturday’s game against New Orleans

— Pitino has been particularly pleased with what Smith has brought on defense.

That facet of Smith’s game was not always there during his junior year at

Florida International. Playing in the Big Ten has forced Smith to pay more

attention to his defense.

“At FIU, he was not a great defender,” Pitino

said. “Honestly, a lot of that had to do with he knew he wasn’t coming

out, so I could yell and scream at him as much as possible but I couldn’t take

him out, so he had me. But now he knows if he doesn’t do those things, that

leash is a little bit shorter.”

Smith has taken that message to heart.

“Me and Coach talk a lot. When we do talk, he tells me

a lot, ‘If you want to play at this level, then defense is going to be

something you have to take seriously,'” he said. “I’ve pretty much

embraced that and tried to work on that day in and day out.”

Minnesota marks Smith’s fourth school in four years; he

began at South Plains as a freshman, transferred to Jacksonville College for

his sophomore year and spent a year at FIU before following Pitino to

Minnesota. The NCAA granted Smith a waiver to play immediately at Minnesota as

a result of FIU’s postseason eligibility issues (which had nothing to do with

Smith).

Now that he’s found his groove with the Gophers, the new and

improved Smith has also brought a sense of leadership with him to Minnesota.

That, like his aggressiveness to the basket, is a skill Smith has honed in the

Gophers’ early schedule.

“Really, he wasn’t a great leader at FIU,” Pitino

said. “You’re hearing him a lot more in timeouts, so I’m proud of him. I

think he understands he needs to bring those things or else he’s going to

sit.”

Pitino and the Gophers knew they were going to get a player

in Smith who loves to shoot the 3-pointer. Already during his brief career at

Minnesota, Smith has shown a fearlessness for taking shots from well beyond the

3-point arc. Not all of them are makes, of course, but he’s connected on 18 of

the 50 shots he’s taken from downtown, tied with Andre Hollins for the most

3-pointers made on the team.

At FIU, Smith was one of the most trigger-happy 3-point

shooters in all of college basketball. He attempted 265 shots from downtown

last year; only seven players in Division I attempted more. Yet he still hit

those shots at a respectable 36.2-percent clip, which was better than three of

the seven players ahead of him on that list. However, Smith made just 39

2-point field goals, a trend he’s already looking to change with Minnesota.

That doesn’t mean he’s going to stop shooting the three,

though. Smith has made it clear that his long-range game remains his specialty.

“If I’m open, Coach tells me to shoot it, and that’s

what I’m going to continue to do,” Smith said. “He doesn’t hold anybody

back when it comes to shooting, as long as you’re open.”

Smith relished his role as a starter at FIU, but has fared

well off the bench for Minnesota this year. With guards Andre Hollins and

Austin Hollins starting for the Gophers, as well as point guard DeAndre

Mathieu, it might be tough for Smith to crack the starting lineup much this

year.

That role has been just one more adjustment Smith has had to

make at Minnesota, and he’s become an excellent scoring option off the bench.

After a rough start to his Gophers career — he broke double-digits in scoring

just once in his first five games — Smith has found his scoring touch, and

added defense and leadership to boot.

“I don’t think he handled it well at the beginning of

the year,” Pitino said. “I think he was really, really frustrated. I

think he’s showed if he does those other things, he’s going to play plenty of

minutes. I want him to be on the court because I know what he can bring to the

team.”

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