First-year LSU men’s basketball coach Will Wade won’t coach his inaugural game in Baton Rouge for another three months.
But even before the opening tip, he’s already won his first big battle as the coach of the Tigers.
Recruiting tremors were felt in Baton Rouge on June 30 when Blue Chip prospect Ja’Vonte Smart committed to LSU basketball.
He chose the Tigers over offers from literally everyone in the country, including finalists like Kentucky, Kansas, Florida State and Oklahoma.
Smart, a 6-foot, 4-inch combo guard from Scotlandville High School, is ranked a consensus five-star prospect by recruiting services—the top in-state recruit the team has gotten in many moons.
At the time of his commitment, Smart said he picked LSU because of its proximity to home. He also said he believes in Wade and thinks the new coach’s vision for the future matches his own.
“It just fit what is best for me and my family,” Smart said. “LSU felt the most like home. I’ve been to campus several times and I’ve spoken to Coach Wade and after putting a lot of thought and a lot of prayer into this, it’s just the place that I wanted to be for my collegiate career.”
That’s one hell of a get for LSU hoops.
Smart is one of the top Louisiana players to come around in a long time—a matchup nightmare because of his ability to be either a large-bodied point guard or a shifty, quick two-guard.
At Scotlandville, Smart does a little bit of everything for a program that is arguably the best in the state.
As a junior, the future Tiger averaged 25.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game—enough to win Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year—an honor he also won as a sophomore.
On the court, Scotlandville thrived, as well. Smart helped lead the team to the Division I State Championship.
“He can do anything out there. He’s an incredibly gifted player,” Scotlandville coach Carlos Sample said during the Louisiana State Playoff Tournament in Lake Charles. “And what’s probably the best thing about him is what some of you guys don’t get the opportunity to see, which is that Ja’Vonte is a really, really good kid. He does the right things. He acts the right ways and he’s really just a good example for our younger players to follow.”
Smart’s been widely chased in recruiting circles for a while, though early-on in his recruitment, almost no one gave the Tigers a chance to earn his services—in part because of the struggles the program had under former coach Johnny Jones.
But Smart said he always knew in the back of his mind that LSU would be tough to beat in his recruitment—just because of how convenient it is for he and his family.
Smart said before making his decision in late-June, he observed LSU offseason workouts to try and get a sense for what Wade is like as a coach.
After a few meetings, Smart said he didn’t need any more convincing because he knew where he wanted to go.
“My family is going to be able to watch me play in person with no real problems,” Smart said. “That’s big for me. They’ve been with me all this time – through every, single level I’ve played at. I wasn’t afraid to play out of state or for another program, but being close to home helps. I trust Coach Wade. I believe in what he’s doing. I think he’s going to make me as good of a player as I can be. And I think we can make the LSU basketball program get to where we need it to be.”
If plans continue to come together, Smart won’t be coming to LSU alone, either. During his commitment news conference, Smart confirmed to pool reporters that he was actively recruiting other top-tier players to LSU in hopes of forming a “super-class”, which would be eligible to be Tigers in the 2018-19 season—Wade’s second year with the team.
One of the targets is five-star power forward Nazreon Reid, of New Jersey—the No. 11 player in the country. According to recruiting analysts, after meeting with Wade and some of the LSU coaches, the Tigers are now the team to beat for Reid’s services.
If true, that would give LSU one of the top recruiting classes in the country. But for all the excitement about the future, Smart said he also has unfinished business at the high school level, too.
He said he wants his senior season to be his best one yet at Scotlandville—a program where anything short of the state championship is considered an empty year.
Smart said while waiting to get to college, he plans to work on all aspects of his game so that he can be “as ready as possible” when the school bell rings on the first day of his freshman year of college.
“It’s exciting for me,” Smart said. “LSU is a great school. Now, I just can’t wait to get started.”
Illustration by Gavin Michelli.