COMEBACK KID: Smith re-emerging in NBA

LSU men's basketball fans probably haven't heard much about ex-Tiger center Jabari Smith in the last few years.

The 6-11 center last played in the NBA in 2005 with the New Jersey Nets. But since then, Smith, who was at LSU in 1999 and 2000, has played overseas, spending the bulk of his time in Turkey, where one of his teammates was none other than fellow former Tiger Randy Livingston. Smith landed back in the States this summer, securing a spot on the Lakers squad in the Las Vegas Summer League. His goal remains simple-to, even at age 30, play his way back into the Association.


Jabari was kind enough to give Tiger Rag a phone interview from Sin City between summer league games.


Here's that conversation.


Even though it has been seven years since he played at LSU, Smith admits that his time as a Tiger is never very far from his psyche. "I couldn't have wanted it to turn out any better and have no regrets," he said. "The only bad taste was losing to Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament. To go to a program that hadn't won (in the NCAA Tournament) since Shaquille O'Neal had left, to leave it with guys like Stromile (Swift), see the program turn around and not miss a step since I left is great."


A native of Atlanta, the big fella spent two seasons at Atlanta Metro Junior College before transferring to Baton Rouge for the 1998-99 season.


"(Assistant) Coach (Butch) Pierre was who recruited me and had been since my high school days in Atlanta. He called me during my last year at (Atlanta) Metro Junior College. LSU was short on big men back then. So, it wasn't a hard decision for me to go there. I think their tallest player was 6-8, so I felt like I had a better chance there than I did at somewhere like Alabama or Kentucky."


As a senior, Smith was one of just two Tigers to start all 34 games for LSU that season. The captain averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds and 2.2 assists, earning himself a spot on the Second-Team All-SEC squad. That came after a junior season where Jabari averaged 12.7 points, 9.7 rebounds (second-best in the SEC) and 1.9 blocks per game.


But it was in the 2000 NCAA Tournament that Smith delivered some of his most solid performances as a Tiger for the fourth-seeded Tigers. In an opening round 64-61 win over Southeast Missouri State, he had a team-high 17 points as LSU won their first tournament game in eight years. Then, in a big second-round 72-67 win over Texas, Smith had 11. But in the Sweet Sixteen, the Tigers ran into eventual Final Four team Wisconsin and fell to the Badgers as Smith chipped in 12 points in what was his final game as a collegian.


"I just felt that we could have gone further," Smith said of that 2000 team. "That was my last game at LSU and is the game that will stick with me the most."


Getting the chance to play for current head coach John Brady was one of the highlights of Smith's time at LSU.


"Coach Brady was a no-nonsense kind of guy," he said. "He has established himself well. He put in his offense and let us know what he wanted and what he didn't. He told us what style we were going to play. He and his staff did a good job of getting us to buy into what he was trying to do. He's a great coach and believes in his players. He gives us freedom to be ourselves. You couldn't ask for a more understanding coach as a player."


In 2000, with a solid college career in the books, Smith, like many other college seniors, shifted his focus toward the NBA and the upcoming draft. On draft night, he went in the second round to Sacramento, a bit of a disappointing development for the now ex-Tiger, but after delving into his situation a bit more deeply, he realized that going to the Kings was a good move.


"It was surprising to go in the second round," he admitted. "I thought I would go in the first round, but it didn't work out that way. I ended up with a team that fit my game the best and that was Sacramento. I just didn't get the opportunity that I wanted there."


Smith played in just nine games for the Kings during the 1999-2000 campaign. But from almost the first time he hit the NBA hardwood, he noticed several huge differences between life in the Association and in the NCAA.


"The longer season was a big adjustment," he said. "You definitely had to be more intense. The whole 82-game season and the size of the players made it totally different than college basketball."


He spent the following season in Philadelphia, playing in 23 games for the Sixers. Jabari returned to the Kings for the 2003-04 campaign, playing in 31 games. His last NBA action to date came as a Net in 2004-05, when he hit the hardwood for 45 games before a knee injury put him on the shelf.


It was that injury that led to him playing abroad.


"Well, I had a knee injury at the end of the 2005 season that got me off to a slow start in 2006," he recalled. "It continued on where I couldn't get into (an NBA) training camp. So, I had no choice but to go overseas. I played in Turkey and in Puerto Rico for a second but it didn't last long."


Even though Smith got to spend part of his time in Turkey playing alongside Livingston, his time there didn't rank as a positive experience.


"I hated it," he admitted. "For one, I didn't get paid and that was the worst thing. You don't worry about the country when you go overseas because you know it's not going to be like home. You always want to get paid and when you don't, that's a great big wrinkle in everything. A lot of teams over there sign guys to big contracts, say this and that but it's not like here, when you go to get paid and get your money on time. They pay you when they want to over there."


Besides having problems with getting paid on time while abroad, Smith also noticed a pretty major difference between hoops over there and how the game is played stateside.


"The style of play is definitely different," he said. "It's a lot more physical overseas but the talent is better in the NBA. It's all about the money. I don't know where that came from. It's OK for us to go over there and get paid when they want to pay us. But if they come over here, they can be the worst player in the NBA and still leave with money. It's not like that over there."


That is what led Smith to the NBA Summer League. He is one of a number of ex-Tigers, along with Brandon Bass, Glen "Big Baby" Davis, Livingston and Tyrus Thomas, playing on the circuit, a welcome sight to the big guy.


"It's just family," Smith said. "I see LSU guys out there a lot. I have known Randy (Livingston) for a while now. We were in Turkey together. It's always going to feel good to see fellow LSU alumni still playing basketball."


Smith's goals with the Lakers' summer league team were fairly simple. "I just want to get my feet wet again," he said. "I haven't played in a couple of years and just want to get my rhythm back and get the timing of the game back."


"Speed is the thing that gets you the most when you have been out," he said. "Me being 30, I know that Randy (Livingston) is having a tough time with it too because everybody in the Summer League is young. With us being the oldest, it's going to be a little tougher on us anyway because everybody is at the beginning of their careers and fighting their way up. That's the only difference is keeping up with the speed of the younger players."


While he is remaining mum about his possibilities about which NBA training camp roster he could land on, Smith admits that a spot in either Atlanta, his hometown, or in New Orleans, close to LSU, would be fine with him.


"I would be honored to play there (in Atlanta), he said. "I never really got a chance to play in my hometown with a really decent shot (in the NBA). Playing in either of those places would be great and I would love to do that."


It might have been a few years since LSU fans have heard from former center Jabari Smith, but the big guy has definitely been keeping busy. He has been playing in Turkey and also spent a brief spell in Puerto Rico, but the member of LSU's 2000 NCAA Sweet Sixteen team recently returned stateside to play for the Los Angeles Lakers' Summer League team. Sure at 30, he, along with fellow ex-Tiger Randy Livingston, are two of the older players on the circuit, but Smith is intent on returning to the NBA, a league he hasn't played in since the 2004-05 season, when he was in 45 games for the New Jersey Nets.


With Tyrus Thomas emerging as a star in Chicago, Glen "Big Baby" Davis beginning what looks to be a promising pro career in Boston, Livingston still scratching and clawing his way back into the Association, what a great story it would be for Smith to add his name to the group of former LSU stars currently in the Association. The ending on this story won't be written until later this year, but no matter how it finishes, it should be a great storyline to follow.

Tiger Blitz Top Stories