Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, Jan. 4, 2013 | 5 p.m.
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- All UNLV men's basketball coverage
The fireworks, the fans and the performance on the court. Even when those things aren’t at full tilt, as was the case in Thursday’s victory against Chicago State at the Thomas & Mack Center, they’re pretty impressive.
California guard Kendall Smith came to Las Vegas with plans to take future visits to UConn and UCLA, his other two finalists. But after taking in the atmosphere and meeting with coaches and players on his official visit, Smith had his mind made up.
“After I saw the atmosphere here, it was ridiculous,” said Smith, a 6-foot-2 point guard. “And that’s the type of atmosphere I want to play in.”
In the spring, Smith was looking at offers from Portland, Long Beach State and San Jose State. He decided to wait, and thanks to his stellar summer and a great start to his senior year Smith found himself looking at high major offers.
“Anytime someone brings that up I just tell them how blessed I am,” Smith said.
It was a gamble that paid off. Now he’s gambling on himself to come in and make an impact on a team that’s losing its point guard, Anthony Marshall, to graduation.
“All players will say they can be a player right away,” Smith said, “but I do feel like I have the skill set, the determination and all the skills to work hard and I can say yes, I feel like I can play coming in as a freshman.”
He’ll get an opportunity to compete with current UNLV freshmen Katin Reinhardt and Daquan Cook, and 6-foot-7 guard Jelan Kendrick, a fellow member of the 2013 class who will come in as a junior after playing this year at Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa.
Smith averages about 22 points and seven assists per game for Deer Valley High in Antioch, Calif. When he plays for the Oakland Soldiers, one of California’s top AAU programs, Smith doesn’t put up nearly as many points. That’s the type of role he sees for himself at UNLV.
“For my high school, I have to score for us to win, so that’s one of the things I’ve taken to,” Smith said. “But here, I’m a team guy, so if I score six points and have 10 assists then I’m really, really happy. The points really don’t matter to me; it’s just about the wins.”
UNLV assistant Justin Hutson had been recruiting Smith throughout high school, but it wasn’t until coach Dave Rice went to see Deer Valley play at De La Salle High that things really clicked.
“Coach Rice wanted to make sure the guy that came in was the right guy,” Smith said. “Character, skill set, everything. He had to be the right guy. … When (Rice) came out he said ‘You’re the guy.’ ”
UNLV’s 2013 class now includes Smith, Kendrick, Findlay Prep’s Chris Wood and Lincoln High grad Dantley Walker, a previous signee who’s serving a two-year Mormon mission. The Rebels will likely have one more scholarship to fill — three seniors plus Mike Moser and Anthony Bennett's expected departures to the NBA — and the top target is five-star New Jersey forward Jermaine Lawrence, whose final three includes UNLV, Cincinnati and St. John’s. Lawrence took an official visit to Las Vegas during the Thanksgiving tournament that the Bearcats won.
While the Rebels turn their attention to Saturday’s game against Cal State Bakersfield and the start of conference play next week, Smith will return home with the primary goal of winning a state championship. Before he does that, though, Smith plans to help both the Rebels get a head start on the class of 2014.
UNLV is recruiting Smith’s AAU teammate Stanley Johnson, a five-star forward from Mater Dei High. While Smith and his family were having breakfast with Rice on Friday morning, Smith said he missed a call from his former and maybe future teammate.
Now that Smith’s decision is made, he wants to tell others about the atmosphere that sold him on UNLV.
“I’ve got a phone call to make to Stanley Johnson,” Smith said.