'Nothing like being wanted': Mike Smith adapting to fill needed role at Michigan
Mike Smith was starting to feel like he was in high school again.
Before his senior year at Columbia, Smith made it known he was entering the transfer portal and would finish his career elsewhere as a graduate transfer. As soon as the 2019-20 campaign ended, he heard from some assistant coaches but wasn’t directly contacted by any head coaches — which was the same case when he was being recruited out of Fenwick High in Illinois.
That all changed when Michigan coach Juwan Howard, a swell of fan support and a Big Ten opportunity entered the picture.
“Coach Howard reached out to me personally himself…and was like, 'It's between you and (Harvard grad transfer) Bryce Aiken. That's the only two people I'm recruiting,'” Smith recalled during a Tuesday video conference. “He was straightforward and treated me like a man from Day 1. He said, 'Hey, we need somebody to come here right away and help us.'
“If you were to go back to my old posts on Instagram, you could see so many people saying 'Go Blue.' I just knew the fans were all in and wanted me to be there. There's nothing like being wanted somewhere.”
Now, Howard and the Wolverines hope Smith can be everything they need. The fifth-year point guard is one of the top options to fill the void left behind by Zavier Simpson, who was the engine of the offense and a top-notch distributor.
Smith averaged 18 points, 4.3 assists and 2.9 rebounds during his four years at Columbia, where he started in 91 of 92 career games, was a two-time All-Ivy League second-team selection and shot 33.1% from 3-point range.
As the numbers indicate, his most notable trait is his ability to shoot the ball. He finished his career ranked fourth on Columbia’s all-time scoring list with 1,653 points, he reached double figures in 78 games and he had 43 outings with at least 20 points, all marks that could’ve been better if not for a knee injury that sidelined him for most of the 2018-19 season.
Last season, Smith was among the nation’s top bucket-getters. He ranked sixth in scoring at 22.8 points per game — the highest scoring average by an Ivy League player since 1988-89, when Dartmouth’s Jim Barton averaged 23.5 points — ranked third in total field-goal attempts (580) and had five outings with at least 30 points.
In Ann Arbor, Smith won’t be required to shoulder the scoring load nor asked to do everything for the team to be competitive, like he did at Columbia. He’ll be able to pick and choose his spots because, as Smith pointed out, he’s teaming up with “players that will play at the next level.”
Since preseason practices started last week, he has spent most of his time on the ball and fifth-year senior center Austin Davis said Smith has shown to be a “great passer” who is always looking to get others involved.
"I think it's more shared, like share the ball specifically,” Smith said of Michigan’s offense. “At Columbia, I was more like the dominant ball-handler. The ball would always be in my hands. Here it's more like I can play off the ball and I'm a really good catch-and-shoot player. I really didn't get to show that at Columbia, but I think that would be a really good thing for me here to be able to give the ball to Isaiah (Livers) or Eli (Brooks) or Franz (Wagner) or Zeb (Jackson), Chaundee (Brown) and let them create for me.
“I don't always have to create for somebody, and at Columbia I always had to create for somebody, which is cool. If that's what we need, that's what we need. But I don't think here that's going to be an issue."
What could be an issue — as it is for most players who transfer up to a more competitive conference — is how his defense translates. Defending in the Ivy League isn’t the same as defending in the Big Ten, something senior forward Isaiah Livers mentioned last week.
“Obviously, you've got to learn the difference,” Livers said. “First year in Big Ten, defense is not easy. That's a very hard thing to do, but (Smith) is doing a great job of transforming into a Big Ten guard.”
Smith, who is listed at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, said he has adjusted well as he gets acclimated to Michigan’s defensive schemes, and noted it helps being surrounded by bigger bodies who can cover ground and get in the gaps.
He added there’s been a similar adjustment dealing with the difference in length on the offensive end, whether that means getting his shot off quicker and getting used to finishing over a 7-footer around the rim.
Even though most of his production last year came against lesser competition, Smith has proven he can be effective against Power Five foes. He had a 23-point, seven-assist night at Wake Forest, he tallied 16 points at Virginia and he racked up 20 points, nine rebounds and six assists at St. John’s.
Smith said while he continues to play his game and adapt in practice, making the transition to the Big Ten all boils down to confidence.
“I think if you have confidence in anything you do in life, you'll be successful,” Smith said. “A lot of people struggle with that, but obviously it takes time to develop confidence. I think over my years I just fell in love with the process of working and getting better. I'm a confident player. It's hard to shake my confidence.”
Since arriving on campus, Smith said he has been welcomed with open arms and has clicked with all his new teammates. He has been building “real good” chemistry with senior guard Eli Brooks in the backcourt and, according to Davis, he has helped bring the team together.
A self-described “social guy,” Smith has spent time watching NBA games with sophomore wing Franz Wagner and playing video games with freshman center Hunter Dickinson. He has also listened to music with freshman guard Zeb Jackson, played cornhole with Brooks and attended a fish fry hosted by Davis.
“It's all about the little things,” Smith said, “and I think building a bond outside of basketball is what builds trust when you start playing basketball.”
And when that time comes, Smith believes he’ll be ready to make an impact — and show why he was wanted.
“The fans here are tremendous. I can go to the store and somebody knows who I am, and I haven't even put the jersey on yet,” Smith said. “It's amazing. I'm blessed to have this opportunity."