- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Pat Clatchey didn’t know how good the tall, skinny elementary schooler with goggles would grow up to be when they first met at a summer basketball camp a decade ago. He couldn’t know — not at that age.

Still, the coach from Baltimore’s Mount St. Joseph High School could see, whenever he visited the recreation center to speak to the campers, that the kid had promise. He could catch and run well, and his timing and touch were impressive for one so young. Those characteristics are essentials, no matter if a player is in elementary school, high school, or on the verge of being drafted into the NBA.

“But to sit here and say at 10 years old I thought he’d be a pro, I’d be lying to you,” Clatchey said.

Still, that’s where Jalen Smith is, all these years later.

The grown-up version of that scrawny youngster will hear his name called Wednesday night in the 2020 NBA Draft, and there’s no doubt in his former coach’s mind that Smith belongs at the highest level of the game.

“He’s been a winner at whatever level he’s played at,” Clatchey said. “High school, college, AAU — championships just seem to be part of who he is.”

Clatchey often says he knew for certain that Smith was the real deal after a play the then-incoming Mount St. Joseph freshman made during a 3-on-3 competition on a side hoop.

He drove the lane and barreled straight for a defender. He rose up and threw down a monstrous left-handed dunk — the kind of jam that announced Smith as a must-watch player. And it convinced Clatchey and assistant coach Doug Nicolas that Smith’s basketball career would extend far beyond the Baltimore high school.

“Coach,” Nicolas said to Clatchey, “that might be our first McDonald’s All-American.”

By the time Smith arrived at Maryland — with all the hype attached to a five-star prospect — his 19-point, 13-rebound performance in his debut against Delaware immediately helped to back up his reputation. Still, there were down points in his freshman campaign, inconsistencies that showed he wasn’t ready to make the jump to the NBA quite yet, even after impressing in the 2018 NCAA tournament.

He left the floor that year with tears in his eyes after Maryland’s two-point loss to LSU in the second round. 

Determined to get redemption, he spent the offseason bulking up and diversifying his game — and returned the next year with fire in those same eyes.

Coach Mark Turgeon and Smith’s teammates jokingly called him “Logs” instead of “Stix” after he added 35 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-10 frame. He improved his long-distance shooting, hitting 3-pointers at a .368 clip as opposed to .268 as a rookie. He averaged a double-double — 15.5 points and 10.5 rebounds — in a season cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The one thing that I’ve always found interesting about Jalen is when he improves, he does it in big jumps,” Clatchey said. “It seemed like each season in high school, even in college, he got a lot better. Like, big jumps in improvement. And that wouldn’t surprise me once he gets his feet wet in the NBA as well.”

Most NBA mock drafts have Smith going somewhere in the mid-to-late first round. He’s an athletic big who can space out a defense with his shooting, though he likely faces a learning curve when it comes to guarding some of the NBA’s smaller, quicker fours.

As the NBA shifts toward smaller lineups, Smith has put an emphasis on adjusting with it, hoping to prove he’s a player who can defend away from the basket.

“Pretty much my level of quickness — that’s been a main focus this whole offseason,” Smith said Thursday on a conference call. “Working on my lower body, everything is more fluid with my footwork, and being able to guard a lot of guards that came to the gym during the summer just has helped a lot.”

There’s little else Smith can do now but to wait and listen for his name to be called Wednesday night.

Last week, Clatchey got a chance to speak with Smith, and his former player admitted there was a nervous energy underneath his excitement. Clatchey assured Smith he’d only feel like this on two other occasions — when he gets married and when he has a child.

But those nerves lead to beautiful things.

“This is a good nervous, man,” Clatchey told Smith. “You worked hard. There’s a lot of people who dream about this, and you’re gonna live it.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide