As soon as he sat on a stool on the court of the Mizzou Arena practice gym Friday, Missouri guard Dru Smith was surrounded by a group of reporters.
Smith was calm and collected as he spoke about his excitement for the upcoming season, his second in Columbia.
He isn’t nervous about getting on the floor with the Tigers. In fact, his confidence in front of the cameras proves just how much he’s relishing his first opportunity to put on that Missouri uniform and take the court.
Coach Cuonzo Martin’s 2019-20 group features a host of newcomers, which includes freshmen Mario McKinney Jr., Tray Jackson and Kobe Brown and junior college transfer Axel Okongo. Smith isn’t exactly a newcomer having been on the team all last season, but he has yet to play a second of game time for Martin.
It’s actually been well over a year since Smith played in a college basketball game. After transferring from Evansville prior to the 2018-19 season, Smith couldn’t get his transfer waiver approved by the NCAA and had to sit out the year.
Smith said once he got over the NCAA’s decision, he felt even more determined to not let his year go to waste.
“It’s tough at first, just kind of hard to get used to because of course this is what you’ve done your whole life,” Smith said. “Just knowing that there’s nothing physically that’s holding you back on the sideline, I think that’s tough.
“But I enjoyed being able to get in here and work, and there’s no real pressure on you so you can just come in here, put hours in and just do your best to get better.”
Smith’s transfer didn’t make national headlines. He put up solid numbers with the Purple Aces, averaging 13.7 points, 4.6 assists and 2.0 steals per game, but he still was more of an under-the-radar name on the transfer market.
What he’s been lauded for since his time at Evansville, though, is his efficiency (58% from the field, 48% from 3 and 86% at the free throw line in 2017-18) and basketball IQ. While Missouri fans didn’t get to witness Smith’s game last season, his teammates have watched him work behind-the-scenes and are excited to finally get him on the floor in a game.
“I’m not going to say he’s a perfect player, but he’s probably the closest that I’ve seen to it,” Missouri wing Torrence Watson said. “He’s one of the hardest guys to guard and he’s also a great defender as well. And then he’s a great leader. He really leads by example. You see him go hard every day, you see him getting up shots every day. It doesn’t go unnoticed that Coach never has to say anything to him.”
“He’s vocal and his passing ability is very good. I don’t know a time when Dru is ever just super quiet and not making sure everybody is good,” Missouri guard Xavier Pinson added. “That’s what I like most about him. He can do it all, and he still feeds into his teammates.”
As the unofficial starting point guard at this point in the summer, Smith is taking on the role left behind by Jordan Geist. While Geist wasn’t the definition of a conventional point guard, he was well-respected in the locker room and his teammates still praise him for his willingness to do whatever the Tigers needed.
To his teammates, Smith is the same way. They said he’s constantly doing what’s best for the team, whether that’s taking the ball in his hands and making the right play or playing off the ball and letting others go to work. And when looking back at some of the struggles Missouri experienced last season, the team can see where Smith would’ve helped.
Knowing he’s plugged into the lineup now, forward Mitchell Smith said, leaves no doubt that Dru will help fix whatever was broken.
“You’ll see the things that we messed up on last year, and we know that, just with Dru’s skillset, that he could’ve helped us in that position,” Mitchell Smith said. “But we can’t worry about that. This year, I know what Dru can do and I know how he’ll help us.”
If there’s one thing the team knows it needs to get a handle on, it’s turnovers. The Tigers’ turnover total reached 25 in two different games — against Iowa State on Nov. 9 and Ole Miss on Feb. 16 — and they averaged 14 per game.
Smith might be the key to bringing that number down.
Geist, while perfect as a leader on a team that sorely needed one, was not the perfect playmaker. He could dazzle with his ability to get to the bucket or hit his teammates with impressive passes, but often his attempts to force those plays ended up with the ball in the other team’s hands. Smith may be better served to be the point guard in Martin’s system, which is predicated on controlled spacing and playmaking, because of his penchant to not force the issue.
With Smith, Missouri has the guy that can solve those problems and take the program, which has already looked promising through Martin’s first two years at the helm, to the next level.