Eric Smith looks older, and it's not just because he recently had his braces removed.
Although only a few months have passed since Smith was last seen on the basketball court, Smith is bigger, stronger and his eyes have a different quality.
There was no doubt that South Carolina basketball was shaken up by the half-season departure of leading scorer Bruce Ellington so that he could play football. All of the returning players will feel his absence throughout the early 2011-12 season, and all feel the need to take an extra step to fill that void.
Smith will miss Ellington on the court as well, although since the two are roommates, he'll still be able to see him. Even though he won't see his pal beside him on the bench for at least the first part of the season, and although he will miss Ellington's talents just as all the Gamecocks will, Smith still couldn't help but feel a little excited when Ellington made his decision.
Because it was Smith who stood to gain the most. Comfortable as Ellington's backup at point guard, Smith was immediately elevated into the starting role. Yes, having his friend on the court with him would be nice for a full season - but Smith is not going to idly stand by and fill space while Ellington is running and passing instead of dribbling and shooting.
Ever since Ellington announced that he would play football, Smith has taken the same two-word approach every time he laces up his basketball sneakers - my turn.
"I just knew right then that I would be counted on a lot more this year," Smith said at the Gamecocks' media day. "It would be a little bit more on my shoulders, coach (Darrin) Horn would be looking at me a lot. I would have to be more responsible on the court.
"I wanted to make the best of my opportunity. Anything I could do to help the team, I'm ready to do."
Regarded as a smart ball-handler but not the flashy scorer that Ellington is, Smith averaged 13.3 minutes per game last year but only 2.4 points. His role began to increase as Ellington fought to play through a painful calf bruise that hindered his shooting in the last half of the season; Smith was the guard that could come in and get the rest of the team involved, since defenses could often double-down on Ellington, knowing that he would be the primary threat to score.
Like all of the team, Smith was frustrated with the Gamecocks' 14-16 final record, but knew that with Ellington being depended on so much, the game plan would change this season to get him more involved and for Ellington to get more rest. Smith had no idea that it would change this much until his roomie came home one day and told him that he missed football far too much.
"Me and Eric talked about it a little bit, and I just told him it was his turn to step up," Ellington said. "He was excited for me to be playing football, and I was excited for him."
Smith, knowing that he would be the one directing the Gamecocks' offense, sat down and planned out what he wanted to work on until November and the new season rolled around. At the top of the list was shooting.
To borrow the phrase, Smith locked himself in the gym. Every day, ball met nylon. Smith's arms may have been tired but his ears were never worn out from hearing the "thwipp" associated with a perfectly placed jumper.
"It's improved a lot," he said. "That's one thing I really, really focused on. A lot of people don't think I can shoot. I definitely can shoot, but I think it's just a matter of me doing the little things. Bending down, being ready to shoot. I tried to focus on that in the offseason."
The rest of his game improved as well, Smith spending some extra time in the weight room to add more muscle to his already chiseled frame. With a pair of arms that look like they belong on an action figure, Smith is deceptively quick with the ball and has been working on driving the lane, just as Ellington did so fearlessly last season.
Ellington has always been around, but doesn't offer a lot of advice unless Smith asks for it. The two joke around with each other, Smith pointing out what Ellington should have done during the last football game and Ellington jibing Smith about never playing football, but Ellington wants his roommate to be his own player, not a carbon copy of what he's replacing.
"We're two different players," Ellington said. "He can't be me and I can't be him. He can do a lot of things I can't do."
Smith was born to play the point, tagging along with his dad, Steven Smith, when he would go to basketball practice at Latta High School. The elder Smith built a dynasty with the Vikings, helped by an explosive scorer and wonderfully gifted point guard named Raymond Felton.
Smith would watch Felton practice and work every day, and tried to mimic him. Nice enough to let the chirping youngster get on the floor and play with him, Felton imparted the wisdom of a powerful work ethic to Smith.
"He used to be in the gym a lot," Smith said. "Every Saturday, he would call my dad to come open the gym. I learned how to be a hard worker. He taught me, 'No matter how good you are, just keep trying to be the best.'"
The first verbal commitment to Horn when he arrived at USC, Smith played at The Christ School (N.C.) for his senior year to play against better competition than he would face at Mullins High. It helped him, although he was often playing a backup role there instead of being the focal point and main playmaker that he was with the Auctioneers, and he helped continue a pipeline from The Christ School to USC that began with Lakeem Jackson and before him, in a roundabout way, Malik Cooke.
Ellington was the better talent, able to play the point and score, and Smith knew that Ellington would be the starter from Day 1. Horn wanted to build his program around the talent from Moncks Corner, but Smith knew that he would be called on as well.
He played as hard as he could and his minutes began to rise, the two making each other better in practice. When Ellington was hurt, Smith eagerly took over, but knew he was just keeping the seat warm.
Then it became a case of Ellington vacating the seat entirely. And while Smith knows that his friend and teammate will be back, he views this season as his chance to truly prove himself.
"My strengths are pushing the basketball, being really unselfish, finding the open man and getting the guys the ball," Smith said. "(Bruce is) telling me to keep getting better, hold it down while he's gone, and when he comes back, he's going to try whatever he can to make us be better.
"But I know that it's my role to start, and I'm going to do what I can. It's all about the team. Whatever coach thinks is best for the team, that's what I'm all for. I'm just taking it one day at a time, not trying to look too far ahead, and we'll see what happens."
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