Smith Rounding Back Into Late-Season Shape

He's still smiling. About watching that ball pop through the net, specifically. "It felt good," Shaun Smith agreed. "That was my first time to even shoot the ball this year, and my first one went in. So it felt pretty good."

Pretty good indeed because the three-point bucket was a benchmark in Smith's mostly-frustrating career. Not to mention matching Mississippi State's margin of 91-88 victory over Auburn, though the trey had come during the first half. Never mind that, swishing the shot affirmed Smith's increasing worth to the Bulldog rotation.

Not just to himself, either. "Shaun is getting back to that 100% and showing Stansbury he can play," said fellow backup Jalen Steele. Consider the head coach convinced after Smith provided valuable relief duty in each half of the win.

"He gave us some productive minutes," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "And much-needed as we are just trying to give some guys some rest. He gave us seven good minutes and they were productive minutes. We need him to build on that now."

In his first serious playing time of SEC season, Smith provided five points by making that one trey—his only shot from the field—with a couple of free throws. He even ran down a rebound, and given that the Bulldogs were edged on their own boards this mattered as well. But nothing compared to watching that long shot swish.

"I was just mulling making that shot before I did it. All the shots I took before practice came in handy."

Not to mention all he takes after a practice, which is when Smith gets some real individual work done. "Every day I stay after, getting shots up," he said. Which early in his court career was a snap, before the series of leg and joint problems began at the end of high school. It has carried over through three challenging seasons with State, one as a redshirt, while various fixes were tried.

Now? "Rehab has been going good," Smith said. "I'm very close."

Stansbury is as relieved as the forward to hear it. Smith's improving presence has offered the coach some scattered chances lately to rest starting small forward Rodney Hood, something the true freshman badly needs here three months into the first college season. Smith got a quick minute at Vanderbilt, then two more against LSU, meaning Hood got a quick breather. The pace of the Florida game didn't allow such opportunities, but last Saturday proved a better setting.

The result were those seven court-minutes against Auburn…and the promise of more to come, perhaps? "I would hope so," Stansbury said. "It will defend on different teams and different personnel but there's no reason he can't do that against everybody."

Smith feels the same way. He'd certainly rather be running the court than running the treadmill on which Smith has piled up virtual miles in the rehab process. For that matter extra treatment remains a daily duty, more so after he gets in some real game minutes.

"That's the main issue, it's sore at times and it can get stiff. But I have to stay warm, and keep stretching it out." Still Smith is much more optimistic about the long-term prospects. "It's something I can get over eventually. That's just been the story since I got here, injuries and stuff. So I'm kind of used to it now."

Don't mistake him being used to aches and pains with accepting a place at the end of Mississippi State's bench, though. Why work so hard to get healthy and not put it into play, hey? Smith admits he still looks for chances to remind the coach of his presence.

"I kind of do that, even when we're practicing, by going hard and trying to show him that I'm still here and I want to play." Fortunately for Smith the boss has been watching. Waiting, even. "He came to me and told me I had to step up. And whenever I get in the game just make something happen."

Understandably, Stansbury isn't looking to take Hood off the court too often or too long. At the same time carefully-selected breaks are a must for a freshman now, and having a healthier and readier Smith available gives the coach more options. The key now, Stansbury said, is for Smith to get in real ‘basketball shape' so his minutes are always productive.

"It's not easy in February to find that for him, he's sat over there a long time. We're not going to go as long and hard in practice at this time of year and his lack of playing up to this point affects that some." But with every relief stint Smith looks more comfortable.

"Right now mostly I'm working on shooting," Smith said. "That's all I do after practice, get up shots. The more repetition I get the easier it gets. And it helps my confidence, too. I'm trying to build up. Getting in shape was a big problem, I think I'm there."

Mississippi State welcomes all the bench help it can find here in February, and especially this weekend as the Bulldogs host Ole Miss at 6:00 Thursday before turning around quickly for a 12:30 Saturday set with Georgia.

Related to depth, Stansbury said that freshman guard Deville Smith has returned to campus for classes, and was to resume practicing Monday after two weeks away for a still-unspecified health issue. "He's back in school and will be back in practice today. When he plays, I haven't made any decision, we'll leave it at that."

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