Some freshmen move in baby steps or need training wheels. Others get a redshirt year. But Kendall Smith was not interested in kidding around.
He arrived at UNLV in July with no backup plans, and by the third game of the season, Smith assumed the role he expected to win from the beginning. He became the Rebels’ starting point guard on Nov. 15.
“I came in working hard and hoping to get a starting spot,” he said. “I’ll take it and run with it.”
Smith will make the fourth start of his young college career when UNLV (2-3) hosts Tennessee-Martin (2-7) at 4 p.m. today at the Thomas &Mack Center.
The Rebels won Smith’s first start against Omaha before squandering second-half leads in losses to Arizona State and Illinois, setbacks that could continue to haunt the team when the NCAA Tournament field is unveiled in March.
But at age 18, Smith is more about resilience than regret.
“We’ve just got to learn how to close out games,” he said. “It’s a learning process. It’s early, and I would rather be dropping games early than late in the season. I feel like we’ll be fine.”
The Skyhawks of the Ohio Valley Conference should present UNLV with a chance to feel better about itself. Tennessee-Martin has been trounced in losses at Wyoming (78-60), Colorado (91-65) and Florida State (89-61).
Rebels coach Dave Rice entered the season with a blueprint that included full-court pressure defense and a faster paced offensive attack. Those plans have not come together.
UNLV is scoring 68.8 points per game, ranking 273rd among 351 Division I teams.
Rice also planned on Deville Smith, a junior college transfer, handling the starting point guard duties. That changed after the second game, a 21-point home loss to UC Santa Barbara.
“That was an honor to me that Coach wants me to run the team,” Kendall Smith said. “It’s a great program. I was blessed with the opportunity.”
As a senior at Deer Valley High School in Antioch, Calif., the 6-foot-2-inch Smith averaged 27.5 points and shot 46 percent from the field. He scored a high of 52 points in a game.
Through five games for the Rebels, Smith is shooting 50 percent (17-for-34) and averaging 8.4 points. He’s slipping through creases in the defense and setting up teammates, operating the offense like a veteran with the exception of a critical turnover with two minutes left in the Illinois game.
“He’s trying to be a point guard, so we’re encouraging him to shoot more,” Rice said. “He’s almost unselfish to a fault. I told him he needs to score a little bit more. He’s making great strides.”
Rice said Smith is “always asking questions about playing the position” and spending extra time in the film room.
“I’m watching a lot of point guards, not just in the NBA but also in college, to see how they run their team,” said Smith, who has 15 assists and 12 turnovers.
“My main thing is getting accustomed to playing defense at a high college level.”
He’s growing up in a hurry, and his next plan is to speed up the pace of UNLV’s offense.
“I’ve got some great players and great scorers as teammates, and that makes my job easier,” he said. “When I push the ball, I’ve got a lot of options.
“I was prepared for the job. I was very comfortable and very confident.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.
TENNESSEE-MARTIN vs. UNLV
■ WHEN: 4 p.m. today
■ WHERE: Thomas & Mack Center
■ TV/RADIO: Cox (96), KWWN (1100 AM, 98.9 FM)
■ LINE: UNLV -19½; no total