BATON ROUGE, La. — The list of coaches to beat John Calipari and his Kentucky machine on the recruiting trail is a short one. But LSU’s Will Wade can add his name to that ledger after 5-star Scotlandville High point guard Ja’Vonte Smart signed with the Tigers on Wednesday afternoon.
Ultimately, LSU had something that Coach Cal, his buddy Drake and the Big Blue Nation could not offer: a sense of home. Ja’Vonte Smart is a part of Baton Rouge, and Baton Rouge is a part of him. Until his name is called one day at the NBA draft, he has no interest in being anywhere else.
“Baton Rouge means everything to me,” Smart said minutes after making it official. “That’s my life. That’s what I live for.”
Smart does not lack the curiosity to see life beyond his hometown. Having traveled to Argentina with Team USA’s Under-17 basketball team, he’s more worldly than your average teenager. Home just means that much to him, and Smart’s mother is most pleased with his choice to attend LSU.
“It’s easier for me to keep an eye on him and pop up at school when I want to,” Melinda Smart said. “I’m happy.”
Despite knowing how much Baton Rouge means to her son, Melinda was stunned this June when Ja’Vonte decided to commit to a first-year coach at a last-place program over a legend who has led three programs to six Final Fours.
“I was shocked. I know Kentucky was his favorite school to watch in college basketball,” she said. “So I said ‘Are you sure? Have you prayed about it?’ Once he said that he had, I knew he was set and ready.”
A bond formed in tragedy
Smart’s father, Jerry Matthews, died in 2006. That sense of loss has never left Ja’Vonte. A framed picture of Matthews stood on the table where Smart and his mother signed his Letter of Intent.
“His dad means everything to him. He talks about him a lot,” Melinda Smart said. “I thought he was going to cry because there was a picture of his father on the table.”
That loss brought Smart closer with his mother, and thus part of the appeal in staying home.
“He’s a mama’s boy,” Melinda Smart said. “He’s a sweetheart.”
Even with that bond firmly established, Ja’Vonte Smart wasn’t going to attend LSU just for the sake of staying home. Wade still had to sell his program as a viable option against national powerhouses. Kansas, UCLA, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Florida State were among the many schools who expressed strong interest in Smart.
“It’s not just home, but it’s a good fit for him,” said Scotlandville basketball coach Carlos Sample. “He’s going to take advantage of it. He just happens to be at home.”
Smart said he doesn’t expect to be coddled when he plays for Wade. Nor does he want to be.
“If I go to watch practice, you can see all the red in his face,” Smart said. “He’s so mad. He wants it for others. And that’s what I want for me.”
Melinda Smart also believes that a coach with high expectations is going to be what helps her son lift his game to the next level.
“I like Coach Wade. He’s young, but he’s cool,” Melinda Smart said. “He’s a strict coach. Whenever they don’t do something right, he says ‘Get down and do planks!’ Including the assistant coaches. I was like ‘Oh!’ So I like him a lot.”
Ja’Vonte Smart: Turning around LSU hoops
Smart is already a two-time Louisiana Mr. Basketball with two state championships. He has played for the national team program. He averaged 25.1 points, 8.7 rebounds and 6.4 assists as a junior last season.
With that résumé, there will be high expectations. Even a player of his caliber might not be able to meet them. After all, current NBA rookie standout Ben Simmons couldn’t get LSU to the NCAA Tournament.
But unlike Simmons, Smart will be coming along with some help.
“He’s not the savior at LSU,” Sample said. “But he’s a very, very big piece of the puzzle that Coach Wade has put together.”
That puzzle includes forward Darius Days, an IMG Academy product who also signed with the Tigers on Wednesday. It will also soon include 5-star power forward Naz Reid, a New Jersey native expected to sign by the end of the week.
Smart’s star power is such that he’s making his beloved hometown theirs, too.
“I’m the point guard. It’s my duty to make the team better,” Smart said of his own efforts as a recruiter. “And I’ve got to go get guys to make them better.”
Sample isn’t looking forward to a future where he doesn’t have Smart leading his team. But he’s ecstatic over the possibilities that await the young star.
“He wants to bring LSU to another level,” Sample said. “He’s going to take advantage of the opportunity to represent Baton Rouge and put it even more on the map.”