October 21, 2010 9:48:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Shaun Smith has been chasing his basketball potential for the past three years.
That''s saying a lot for a player who was heavily recruited as a high school senior.
A consensus three-star guard out of Noxubee County High School, the Mississippi State redshirt freshman had hip, ankle, and wrist surgery before arriving in Starkville.
The 6-foot-6, 207-pound Smith sat out last season after having bone spurs removed from his hips.
In the past two years, Smith has missed a college season and eight games of his final season at Noxubee County. He estimates missing as many as 15 games in his high school career.
There were times in high school when he wouldn''t practice and would only play in games.
Smith''s hip, which later required additional surgery when he arrived at MSU, was the primary reason he didn''t blossom into a national-level recruit, Noxubee County coach T.J. Billups said.
"I think the injury held him back tremendously," Billups said. "It held him out of the LeBron James Skill Camp and the Paul Pierce Camp. I felt Shaun was as talented as guys like (current NBA player) Xavier Henry. He didn''t get a chance to showcase his talents over the summer."
If Billups'' assessment of Smith''s ability is correct, the Bulldogs could have an all-Southeastern Conference player in their backcourt.
Now Smith has to remain healthy.
Smith said he''s practicing at full speed and only feels mild soreness, which he attributes to the rigorous nature of two-a-day practices.
"I think I''ll be past that when two-a-days are over because you start to get your legs back right around that time," Smith said. "Your speed and conditioning are the toughest things to get back when you''ve been out so long. That''s what I''ve been working hard to get back since practice started."
Smith is motivated by his layoff and checkered injury history, but he won''t reach the level coaches feel he can attain if he can''t get past the psychological barrier most oft-injured players encounter.
"It played a great deal in how he played," Billups said. "It was hard on him but, at the same time, only Shaun knew when his hip gave him problems. I didn''t want to push him to the point where he''d re-injure it.
"I''m just waiting to see the player I know Shaun can be. I just hope he gets that injury out of his mind."
MSU assistant coach Phil Cunningham, who recruited Smith, said the team''s coaches were impressed by what they saw from Smith at their camps and in prep competition. But for a player who wasn''t healthy for his junior and senior seasons, Cunningham and MSU coach Rick Stansbury are curious to see Smith at full strength.
"The question was, could he ever rev that motor up and go as hard as he needed to go and play with that intensity at this level?" Cunningham said. "We had always thought he was special and incredibly versatile, but you wanted to see him in that extra gear. To show that toughness.
"Through five days of practice, he''s shown us he can bring that toughness every day."
Fitting into a suddenly crowded backcourt will be an additional challenge for Smith, who is one of seven guards vying for minutes.
Adding to the backcourt cluster are two first-year Bulldogs -- freshman Jalen Steele and junior college transfer Brian Bryant.
Starting point guard Dee Bost is academically ineligible for the fall semester and must sit nine games due to an NCAA suspension. Backup point guard Twany Beckham sat all of last season after having hip surgery.
The scenario makes for a hungry group of guards vying for one starting spot vacated by all-time 3-point shooting leader Barry Stewart, and half of the games at point guard while Bost is out.
"It''s very competitive at practice," Smith said. "I''ve been shooting the ball well, but you just got to do certain stuff to make yourself stand out. I''m trying to crash the boards and do all the little things people don''t see."
Smith has looked to senior Ravern Johnson, the backcourt''s most tenured player, for cues on how to excel at the two and three guard spots. Though both players have different shooting motions and different builds (Johnson is 6-7, 175 pounds), they are around the same height and elevate well in their jumpers. Smith has taken note of Johnson''s efforts to be a better leader and a more complete player.
"Ray is pushing me the most so far," Smith said. "He never stops moving off the ball and stuff. He''s always running off screens, so I try to do the same thing."
Displaying toughness every day is just part of the way Smith will make an impact. Cunningham said coaches want to see the defensive prowess Stansbury-coached teams have played with the past decade.
"That''s the thing that gets you the floor," Cunningham said. "He''s a tremendously gifted offensive player and has a lot of versatility. And for guys going through their first preseason camp, there''s a lot being thrown their way. How will they be defensively? That''s what we''re trying to find out with all of our new guys."
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