Throughout Missouri’s practices this past season, Cuonzo Martin posed a challenge to his young basketball team that it constantly failed to achieve: stop Dru Smith.
Smith, an Evansville transfer, spent the year running Martin’s scout team as he sat out under NCAA transfer rules and made a big impression on the Tigers’ staff and players. But he couldn’t take the court as MU finished the season 15-17 after losing Jontay Porter to injury.
“It’s been tough,” Smith told The Star. “It was tough to sit and watch at the same time it’s been good for me. It’s given me time to work on my game. Time to watch and soak everything in.”
As a sophomore at Evansville, the 6-foot-3 guard averaged 13.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists and two steals per game and was chosen to the Missouri Valley Conference all-improved team. He elected to transfer after his coach, Marty Simmons, was fired and has two years of eligibility remaining.
Smith chose Missouri partly because of his relationship with assistant coach Chris Hollender, who played for Simmons at Evansville and bonded with him over their coach’s firing.
Simmons used Smith at both guard spots and occasionally on the wing, where he shot 48.2 percent from three, which led the conference.
Martin said he plans to use a lot of four-guard lineups next year when Smith gets eligible, partly because of the personnel he brings back and because of Smith’s diverse game. He said Smith’s defense in practice has impressed him throughout the season.
Asked in February if he sees Smith as more of a point guard or a wing, Martin declined to label him.
“He’s a ball player,” he said.
Despite his reserved personality, Smith’s name found its way into every Missouri fan’s mouth when he was denied an NCAA waiver to play immediately in the fall. Mark Smith, an Illinois transfer who has no relation to Dru Smith, was approved to play immediately, which raised questions about the Evansville transfer’s situation.
Evansville released a statement saying Missouri asked the department to comply with the transfer and say Smith was pushed off the team. Evansville said Smith left off his own volition.
Smith said he was surprised at the publicity his waiver denial got because he never expected it to go through when it was filed.
“I was just happy (Mark Smith’s) passed through,” Dru Smith said. “Honestly, I didn’t expect mine to go through when we filed for it but we just kind of figured to try it. I was just glad that one of us to get out there.”
Sophomore center Jeremiah Tilmon praised Smith for his impact in practice and added that he’s done a great job of teaching Missouri’s freshmen about the nuances of college basketball, such as how to anticipate plays.
“He’s the best facilitator I’ve ever played with,” Tilmon said. “He can shoot the ball, he’s got handles and he’s smart. I like his IQ. I haven’t seen anything he can’t do. He brings a lot to the table.”
Smith will join a loaded backcourt next year that returns Mark Smith, Torrence Watson, Xavier Pinson, and Javon Pickett, while adding signee Mario McKinney.
Expectations will be high for Dru Smith given the praise, and right now he sees himself helping as a veteran presence in what will still be a young backcourt.
“I’m hoping to bring a little bit of leadership,” he said. “And get us over the hump in those close games.”
Until next season, he’ll have to live with being Missouri’s toughest assignment in practice.