Justin Smith, the new Indiana commit, sits at a point where his considerable basketball potential is just starting to show.
Six-foot-7, athletic and skilled, the forward from Lincolnshire (IL) Stevenson is a national Scout.com top-100 recruit in the 2017 class.
Those close to him, those who have been a part of his development and see him up close on a daily basis, don’t see small steps in his future.
They see leaps and bounds.
“He’s probably the best NBA prospect out there in our state,” said Mike Irvin, coach of the Chicago-based Mac Irvin Fire AAU program.
“He’s 6-7, athletic, strong body. He can shoot a jump shot. The sky’s the limit. I think he can be really special at the next level.”
Mike and Nick Irvin have coached countless outstanding players over the years with the Mac Irvin Fire AAU program.
They’ve had plenty of pros, including players such as Jahlil Okafor in recent years. They see Smith as a player who will flourish under IU coach Tom Crean.
“He’s got a chance to make the NBA,” Nick Irvin said. “He’s 6-7, athletic, incredible IQ for the game. He has a lot he’s bringing to the table. He’s committed to working, and that’s half the battle.
“I like his athleticism, his rebounding, his shooting and he’s an underrated defender as well. He’s got a lot of stuff he can bring to the table.
“He can guard multiple positions. He can guard two through four. And he’s only going to grow learning from a guy like coach Crean.”
Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose agrees.
“I think he’s an all-Big Ten player. He’s really gifted athletically. He’s very smart. There’s a reason Stanford was after him. He has that intelligence,” Ambrose said.
“The sky’s the limit for him if he really puts on some solid weight and muscle. He’s strong but not college strong, like most kids.
“He has to improve his ball-handling at the college level, but I think his ceiling is All Big Ten and possibly the next level after that.”
Smith was a complementary player as a sophomore at Stevenson on a state title team and a role player with Mac Irvin Fire’s top team the summer of 2015.
In July of 2016, Smith began to take off.
“His second start of the summer in July, the more I watched him, the more I locked into him, just enjoying watching him play, I saw him turning the corner,” Nick Irvin said.
“I was telling my brother Mike, ‘He’s got a chance to be a pro.’ He started talking more, being more aggressive. He just came into his own. I thought he had a chance to play on the highest level and that’s the NBA.”
The Irvins have seen plenty of players take off, but Smith stood out, especially the way he played in Las Vegas in July.
“The way he ended July in Vegas validated what I said at the beginning of July. He had a phenomenal July,” Mike Irvin said.
“I’ve never seen a player go from spring to summer and make that huge of a jump. In the spring he was good, but in the summer, he came into his own and put it together, posting up, shooting jump shots, running the floor. He put it all together.
“I said in July, ‘He’s got a chance to make a lot of money playing basketball.’”
Indiana, led by assistant coach Rob Judson who has strong Illinois ties, made a big impression in recruiting.
“Rob was very important. I can’t overstate that,” Ambrose, Smith’s high school coach, said. “He stayed after it, stayed true, stayed focused, was real honest with Justin.
“He came up here a lot. He’s hit this area. He knows people here. Justin feels very comfortable with Rob. When Justin went down there (to IU), he felt very comfortable with Tom because of Rob. Justin really trusts him and we know he has a guy that will support Justin.”
Smith, whose parents are Illinois graduates, had quite a few scholarship offers, including defending national champion Villanova, Wisconsin, Illinois, Xavier, Stanford, Wake Forest, Purdue, N.C. State, Florida State and others.
“For Indiana to come in and get the best player out of the state of Illinois when we’ve got good players in that class, I think highly of them,” Mike Irvin said.
“Coach Judson has been on him from day one. Tom Crean came in. They’ve been recruiting him. “They worked hard and did a great job with Justin. Anytime you’re fighting against the national champions — and he played with the starting point guard — and to beat them out, Indiana did a great job.”
Smith was a Mac Irvin Fire and Stevenson teammate of Jalen Brunson, the starting point guard on Villanova’s 2016 NCAA title team.
Smith’s development will be key to what happens with his future.
“He picked the right school,” Nick Irvin said. “Coach Crean, he’s getting his guys better, especially at the position he’s going to play.
“He’s going to excel. I sent him a text and said ‘Great choice.’ I thought it was a great fit for him.”