“Mr. Basketball” from the state of Illinois in 2017 is getting close to making a decision where he wants to play college basketball next year. “Mr. Basketball” just happens to be a four-star recruit from the Class of 2017, and also happens to be the number two shooting guard in the state of Illinois and the number four shooting guard in the entire Midwest. “Mr. Basketball” is a 6’4”, 200-pound SG “hybrid” (I’ll explain this later) from Edwardsville IL, and has offers from 12 different schools, including one from Michigan State, a school he’s had a close eye on for a long time. “Mr. Basketball” is Mark Smith.
“I’ve been watching Michigan State for a long time – it’s always been one of my favorite schools,” Smith told Spartan Nation in an exclusive one-on-one interview done from his family’s home in Edwardsville, IL. “Just watching Coach [Tom] Izzo coach, and coach so many great players like Denzel Valentine and Gary Harris, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling – just so many great players come through there, especially one right now in Miles Bridges.”
Mark actually got to spend time with Miles and the entire team last weekend when he took an official visit to Michigan State. The visit made a lasting impact on both Mark and his parents, Yvonne and Anthony.
“It was good! ‘Tum Tum’ [Nairn Jr.], Miles and Josh [Langford] – I’d say we really clicked and that’s who I hung out with the most. I really felt like they treated me like I was already on the team - like family - so that was big for me. They were always there for me and encouraged me in whatever I did. They treated me like a brother and took care of me,” Mark explained.
“We had a great time – I mean, who doesn’t want to go visit Michigan State and Coach Izzo,” Mark’s dad, Anthony Smith, asked? “I’ve always watched the games on TV and watched them at the Final Four, so I’ve always been a hidden Michigan State fan. It just always seems like they do it the right way – the kids play hard, they play as a team, they have that family atmosphere. So it was really good for us to actually go and physically see it.”
“The one thing I really liked about it was that when he [Coach Izzo] was taking us around campus, HE physically was the one taking us around,” Anthony continued. “For us, it means a lot when the leader leads, so when you see those things come into play, it’s always a good thing.”
“I really enjoyed the players,” Yvonne Smith, Mark’s mom, elaborated. “I thought they were very respectful. It was a family atmosphere and I thought they got along very well with Mark – they treated him with respect, they didn’t ever make him feel like he’s just a high schooler or that they were better than him. They welcomed him with open arms and I thought that was really important.”
That love from the players was huge for Mark. “That means a lot to me because, wherever I go to school, it’s big on my list that I’m around good guys. Those guys really treated me like family and didn’t make me feel like an outsider.”
Part of the reason for the connection between Mark and the players is because of Smith’s skills on the court. The best way to describe him is as a “playmaker.” He’s a hybrid – what would be characterized as the “2 position” on the court for Michigan State - playing as a kind of combination of a point guard and a shooting guard. What do I mean by that?...let’s think of it this way – he can shoot the ball extremely well, much like Gary Harris did, but he can also pass the ball with ease (sometimes even too often), much like Denzel Valentine did.
That’s the role that Valentine played often, playing PG about 60% of the time, but he really had the ability to pass or shoot on any trip down the court. That’s the kind of player that Mark Smith is – he does really well on his own but he also makes his teammates better. And even though MSU didn’t really have a “number two” this year, the Spartans are known for developing those kinds of guys – the ones who can run point and get other guys involved, but also shoot.
“I see myself playing in an offense similar, or in the Michigan State offense, and it’s appealing to see that they have guys that play my position that they develop and get them to the NBA and that’s always been my dream – it’s everyone’s dream that plays college basketball. But it’s very appealing and attractive to see that they have a history of doing that.”
Yvonne takes a different approach to her son’s skills on the court.
“I would probably say that Mark has a knack for the basketball and more for the game – he has a very high IQ for basketball,” she stated. “I think Mark plays two passes ahead of the game – his court vision and awareness is very, very good and that’s something you can’t teach. He knows how to make his teammates better, I definitely think he’s a great competitor.”
And all of those skills helped Mark be named “Mr. Basketball” in the state of Illinois for 2017, an honor he doesn’t take lightly.
“Just seeing all of my hard work that I put in in the fall and the summer and throughout the season, it’s always been my dream since I was a little kid to win ‘Mr. Basketball,” he explained. It’s a great experience to have everyone in the state that voted for me, and the coaches and media that thought I deserved it…it’s humbling to win ‘Mr. Basketball.”
But that doesn’t mean Mark is a finished product. As a matter of fact, he NEVER wants to allow that to happen.
“I like my game, but I just feel like I want to attack my weaknesses. I want to become the best player I can be. Sometimes I shoot some crazy shots and some long 3’s, or I have some turnovers trying to be flashy. But I just try to play to win - I don’t really care about all the other stuff…I just want to win.”
No matter what happens on the court, every attribute Mark Smith has is courtesy of the parents who raised him the right way.
“I thought it was very important to instill great morals and values in Mark at an early age,” Yvonne said. “Being respectful and knowing how to speak to his elders was really important because, being a teacher, I always see kids being able to relate to kids their own age, but not adults. It was always important to my husband and I whenever we went out that we made our kids speak. But Mark needed to know three things – to be faithful, to be grateful and to be humble – and if you can do those three things, it’ll develop a great foundation for a great character.”
“One of the things basketball teaches you is that with hard work comes success – the only time success comes before hard work is in the dictionary,” Anthony explained. “Mark’s a young man that’s persevered in school, he’s overcome injuries. But when you talk about him as a person of character, he always wants to be humble. He also has a younger sister and a younger brother, so when all is said and done, he’s a role model for them, as well. He shows them that you can be great, but you can also be humble.”
And those characteristics shine brightly when you listen to Mark speak. He’s humble about his own game and successes, smart enough to realize he’s not yet, and may never be, a “finished product,” and he’s driven enough to achieve greatness.
Yes, basketball may be a future for Mark Smith. Wherever he decides to attend college, he will hopefully flourish athletically. But as the son of a teacher (Yvonne) and a school administrator (Anthony), academics are also of the utmost importance to Mark and his family.
“Whether Mark has basketball in his future 5-10 years from now, I have no control over that, but the ball’s going to deflate sometime in his life and he needs to fall back on something,” Yvonne admitted. “It’s not going to be full of air forever and when that day comes, he needs to have something he can take care of his family with. He needs a degree – if he wants to be successful and continue to do great things, he’s going to need that diploma.”
And that brings us back to Mark and Michigan State. No one knows if MSU will be the final landing spot for one of the top recruits from the Class of 2017, but what we do know is that his walk around campus, and specifically inside the athletic facility, left him awestruck.
“The arena and how big the stadium is and all the banners up in there, it’s special,” Mark said. “To walk through the tunnel and see all the players’ pictures and all the history, it’s pretty cool. It was just special…Tom Izzo is standing next to you and you’re just looking at all the banners and seeing all the history, and you know that if you go there, you could be a part of something special.”
Mark Smith is something special all on his own. This talented athlete, who was actually recruited to play college baseball and says he threw a 92mph fastball, is now solely focused on basketball. Players like Mark don’t come around all that often, and certainly don’t always show such interest in your program. But the chance is there now for this special player and this special basketball program to come together. So where will “Mr. Basketball” end up making his “mark” in college?...we’ll just have to wait to find out!