Michigan Wolverines Basketball’s Mike Smith: ‘I’m Playing With NBA Players’
Columbia transfer and Michigan fifth-year point guard Mike Smith was looking for the right place to go for his last year of college basketball, and a sign to lead him there.
Juwan Howard gave him exactly what he was looking for.
"I know how the game works, " Smith said Tuesday with a laugh, noting other schools sent assistant coaches to recruit him while Howard went straight to Smith. “He told me he was only recruiting me and [Harvard transfer] Bryce Aiken [now at Seton Hall]. He was straightforward, treated like a man from day one and said, ‘I need someone to come in and help us.'
“It was quick like that … right off the rip. He cared for me, who I am, and not just about basketball. That’s a big thing in the world now — how you’re doing as a person, not just on the court.”
The love Michigan fans showed on social media also helped sway him, he said, and ultimately, he found his perfect fit.
It’s only been reinforced since. Smith has made fast friends of all his teammates, for which he credits the Michigan culture created by John Beilein and cultivated since by Howard. All of his teammates embraced him with open arms, and they continue to grow as friends.
“I think that’s a Michigan culture thing here. Once you’re in, you’re all in,” Smith said. “Everybody treats you the same; nobody is treated better than somebody else.
"Coach has always preached that. He lived by it, and you can see all the players care for you for who you are. We all hang out with each other, and I do different things with different players.”
With sophomore Franz Wagner, his summer roommate, he’d watch NBA games. He’d play cornhole with senior point guard Eli Brooks and even went to a fish fry with fifth-year senior center Austin Davis.
Together or alone, Michigan fans always seem to notice them.
“The fans here are tremendous,” he said. “I can go to the store and somebody knows who I am, and I haven’t even put the jersey on yet. It’s amazing. I’m blessed to have this opportunity.”
And to be given the chance to lead the team on the court. He’s playing mainly on the ball as the team’s point guard alongside Brooks in the early going, though anyone but the center has the green light to push the ball in transition.
While Columbia struggled and needed him to do much of the scoring, U-M has more options. Davis noted Smith can score with the best of them but said he’s also a more than willing passer.
“It’s more sharing the ball,” Smith said. “At Columbia, I was the dominant ball handler. Here I can play off the ball. I’m a really good catch and shoot player. I didn’t get to show that at Columbia. I’m able to give ball to Isaiah [Livers] or Eli or Franz or [frosh guard] Zeb [Jackson] or [fifth-year senior wing] Chaundee [Brown] and let them create for me. I don’t always have to create for somebody.”
Howard has asked him to be a leader, he continued, a special opportunity given the talent around him.
“I also notice I’m playing with NBA players, for sure,” he said. “Players that will play at the next level and make a lot of money playing this game. It’s amazing to see so many young people that can actually play the game of basketball. The talents they have are tremendous.
“I think we can do something special this year.”
Not everyone is seeing that way, with many predicting U-M middle of the pack or worse in Big Ten play. Smith has seen it and he understands it, though he doesn’t agree with it. He played on a team with little talent last year and it killed him to lose, something he doesn’t plan to repeat.
“If you have confidence in anything you do in life, you’ll be successful,” he said. “A lot of people struggle with that, but obviously it takes time to develop confidence. I think over my years, I fell in love with the process of working and getting better.
“I’m a confident player. It’s hard to shake my confidence. I f you do see that, it’s really rare in anything I do. It comes from my competitive nature. I always want to be the best, always want to win. It doesn’t matter how small or big the thing is, I think I’m going to win.”
He’ll have a much better chance this year than last given what he’s seen from the guys around him and the bond they’ve forged.
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