Can Stef Smith Earn His Spot Among the Catamount Greats?
The roster preview series comes to a close as we glance ahead towards the final year of star point guard, Stef Smith. The senior captain has had a tremendous career thus far in Burlington and will be looking to close out his time as a Catamount with another NCAA Tournament appearance to boot. The Ajax, Ontario native has seemingly played second fiddle his whole career behind the likes of Trae Bell-Haynes, Ernie Duncan and Anthony Lamb, but now Smith will look to lead the Cats as the de facto number one. The weather might be changing, but you better believe it’s still scoop szn in Burlington.
Like so many other Catamounts before him, Smith fits the mold of diamond in the rough. Listed as a two-star recruit with no other offers (per Verbal Commits), Vermont saw something special in Smith that no other schools did. Sitting behind the likes of TBH, Duncan and Cam Ward as a freshman, Smith still saw action in 34 games, including a 20 point outing against Marquette. Even with such limited minutes, Smith was still selected to the America East All-Rookie Team.
As a sophomore, Smith took his game to the next level with a massive jump in production. He’d go on to start 33 of the 34 games and went from averaging 3.9 points per game to 12.4. Smith capped his sophomore campaign by leading the Cats in steals, while finishing third and fourth in points and assists respectively. It became increasingly clear that not only could Smith handle a starting role, but that he was going to flourish as the Cats next great point guard.
After his breakout performance in year two, Smith elevated his game even further just a season ago. Despite averaging almost identical minutes per game (28 to 28.3), Smith upped his scoring to 14.2, while shooting a ridiculous 42% from beyond the arc. His three-point shooting percentage paced the America East and rose to an other-worldly 49% during conference play. He’d finish second on team in scoring, while also pacing the Cats in both assists and steals for the year.
Smith briefly tested the NBA Draft waters before ultimately deciding on returning to Burlington for his senior campaign. The 6’2 guard might be considered a long-shot for the NBA, but with another phenomenal year under his belt, Smith should definitely be able to peak the curiosity of numerous teams. Smith will likely hear his name mentioned quite a bit this year and frankly, it’s about time for Smith to finally receive the recognition he deserves.
How Smith can Make an Impact
The Catamounts appear set to once again capture the America East title and while the roster is as deep as it’s ever been, the overall success will ultimately hinge on Stef Smith. Thus far, Smith has primarily been a complimentary piece – a Robin to Anthony Lamb’s Batman. Yet now with Lamb out of the picture, Smith has become the alpha and will now look to lead the pack back to the NCAA Tournament.
If last year was any indication of what we can expect from Smith, then Catamount country should be feeling pretty, pretty, pretty good. With so many teams clamping down on Lamb, Smith stepped up and delivered in a big way. The then junior guard averaged an additional 1.8 points per game despite playing only 20 additional seconds from his sophomore year. As previously mentioned, Smith’s pin-point range from deep was a defining facet of his improvement from year two to year three. From 37% to 42% (49% during conference play!) Smith has quietly become an assassin from beyond the arc and has a chance to finish as one of the best long-range shooters in Vermont history.
While Smith’s three-point shooting exemplifies a defining trait of his game, make no mistake about it, Smith is far from a one trick pony. Smith dished out a team high 85 assists a season ago and is a strong rebounder, averaging just under three boards a game (2.9) for his career. However, his tenacity on the defense side of the court is just as deadly. Smith has paced the Cats in steals two years running. Even when teams rotate a bigger guard or forward to match up with Smith, he’s able to use his strength and athleticism to counteract his lack of length and negate any possible mismatch.
The 2019-20 season saw Smith earn his first selection on the America East All-Conference First Team. Smith and UMass Lowell’s Obadiah Noel are the only returning players from last season’s first team selection and will likely be strong candidates to repeat those honors once again. Smith is also the perennial favorite to take home the America East Player of the Year award. This would not only be an incredible accomplishment for Smith, but for Vermont as a whole. The Catamounts have notched the last four America East Player of the Year recipients (TBH x2) (Lamb x2) and would become the first school to ever win the award five years running. Are we about to watch history in the making?
Room for Improvement?
It’s hard to find fault in the game of an America East All-Conference First Team selection, let alone potential America East Player of the Year winner. Smith is a phenomenal two-way player, who is incredibly efficient on both ends of the floor. For the sake of argument we’ll nit-pick where possible, but essentially we’re grasping at straws here.
Smith elevated his game in year three, becoming much more efficient and dangerous on both sides of the court. Yet, there were two areas that took a slight hit – free-throw shooting and rebounding. After getting to the line 97 times as a sophomore and shooting 80%, Smith dropped slightly, attempting only 75 shots with a 75% rate from the stripe. Smith attacks the basket well and in all likelihood the drop could be due to a higher volume of outside shooting. Regardless, the hope is Smith will at least return to shooting over 80% from the charity stripe.
As for rebounding, there could also be any number of factors that led to slight dip. Vermont’s wings/forwards do an excellent job cleaning up the boards, but with the Cats leading rebounder now departing (Lamb), Smith is going to have to be more aggressive on the glass. Since the Cats have such a deep team and emphasize a “we not me” approach, there’s no reason Smith needs to average 20+ points a game or 35+ minutes. Continuing to improve and grow as a player and clean up the little things is all that’s needed.
There is one potential issue that could be an area of concern. How will the departure of Anthony Lamb affect the team moving forward? Opposing teams would often double or even triple team Lamb, forcing someone else to step up and beat them. More often than not this strategy failed, as the Cats still finished 26-7 on the year and were dubbed America East champions yet again. It might ultimately prove to be nothing, but Lamb was essentially their go-to scorer for the past four years and even with a balanced approach, it remains to be seen how the Cats offense will transition from the Lamb era.
Going into his fourth and final year at Vermont, Smith will no doubt have a variety of goals in mind to close out his career. First and foremost, returning and advancing past the first round of the NCAA Tournament will be Smith’s and the Cat’s ultimate goal on the year. If not for covid there was a chance Vermont could’ve made a run, but in the words of Kurt Vonnegut “so it goes”.
From an individual standpoint Smith will have his eyes set on capturing the America East Player of the Year award. As the odds-on favorite, Smith can’t become complacent and assume that he’ll just be handed the award. Winning the America East and proving he can handle himself in the limelight will undoubtedly help keep him motivated and push him towards accomplishing this goal.
As previously mentioned, Smith’s three-point shooting can bring him into some elite company within the Vermont record books. With 166 made three-pointers, Smith likely won’t be catching Vermont legend T.J. Sorrentine who sits at 354, but with another strong season from beyond the arc, Smith could finish in the top five. Likewise, former teammate Ernie Duncan holds the current record of highest three-point rate with 41.9% clip. Smith sits at 39.4% and would need to average 44.6% on the year to overtake Duncan for bragging rights. Lastly, Smith also has a chance to finish in top ten in scoring for the Catamounts. With 1,021 career points to his name thus far, Smith is 483 from claiming the tenth position. Smith scored 470 a year ago and could easily top that.
Last but not least, Smith knows that this final season in Burlington will play a huge role in his future endeavors. After briefly testing the NBA Draft waters, it’s clear where Smith’s ambitions lie. While Smith is a bit undersized and might not have the pure athleticism as some of his peers, he should without a doubt peak the interests of NBA teams in large part due his consistency from deep. With small-ball line-ups and three-point shooting becoming more prevalent in the NBA, Smith has a great opportunity to showcase why he deserves a shot. Division three standout Duncan Robinson has proved that if you can shoot the three-ball, teams will find you. Here’s hoping Smith gets his chance.
When Smith first arrived in Burlington he was playing behind four great guards (TBH, Duncan, Ward and Dre Wills) and yet he still managed to find minutes. Even when Robin Duncan arrived all the talk was how Robin would become the de facto point guard, yet it was Smith who stepped up and took the reigns. Playing in the shadow of Lamb and TBH, Smith hardly received the same type of attention, but has quietly become one of the better players in Vermont history.
As Smith embarks on his senior campaign, he has the chance to do something that neither TBH or Lamb could accomplish – win an NCAA Tournament game. Smith and the Cat’s will take it one step at a time, but this senior-laden team should be considered highly dangerous come March. There’s no doubt Smith has exceeded expectations, as he continues to raise the bar every year. Hopefully Smith has saved the best for last.
2020-21 Statistical Predictions
- 30.1 minutes per game
- 16.1 points per game
- 2.9 assists per game
- 3.4 rebounds per game