Steadfast Smith on mission to aid Rebels

About half of his summer was spent with family, and the rest of his time was spent in a gym with a basketball. Kendall Smith said he used no time searching for an escape route after a rocky freshman season at UNLV.

While teammates were coming and going, Smith’s plan was to stay and stick it out.

“There were a lot of people saying I was leaving,” he said. “Running from situations, that’s not me.”

Five freshmen and three transfers will hit the Thomas & Mack Center floor at 7 p.m. today for the Scarlet & Gray Showcase, a free fan event including a skills challenge, alumni game, scrimmage and autograph session.

“It’s a great chance for fans to see our new players,” coach Dave Rice said.

Only five scholarship players return from last season, and of that small group, Smith started the most games. The 6-foot-3-inch point guard started 13 times and appeared in 31 games for a team that finished 20-13 and missed the NCAA Tournament. But his playing time decreased and his confidence dwindled in the second half of the season.

By March, it was a team of unhappy campers. Three players transferred and two departed early for the NBA as Rice worked on a roster makeover. Smith was part of the rebuilding plan.

“I’m very appreciative for the scholarship I did get,” Smith said. “I’m very loyal to this program and Coach Rice, and I feel I can do great things here. It was hard going from starting to not really playing a lot. I lost a little confidence, but now I’m back and I’m ready to have a great season.”

In the Rebels’ new backcourt, Smith is likely to be a backup. Cody Doolin, a graduate transfer from the University of San Francisco, is the assumed starting point guard. Rashad Vaughn, a McDonald’s All-American from Findlay Prep, takes over as the top shooting guard.

Doolin, who has started all 103 games of his career, is a mentor to Smith and an admirer of his skills.

“Kendall is just phenomenally athletic. He’s over 200 pounds and he can jump out of the gym,” Doolin said. “He can finish around the rim, and he can guard his man. He’s going to be a big contributor for us.”

Doolin arrived in the summer and said he has witnessed Smith make large strides the past few months. After September workouts, Rice touted the sophomore’s improved strength and conditioning.

“Kendall has made tremendous progress,” Rice said. “He’s definitely playing on attack on the offensive end, and he’s taking pride in becoming a good defensive player. He has used the experience of last year as a positive, and he’s practicing hard and helping some of our young guys make the transition.

“I believe there will be some times you will see Cody, Rashad and Kendall on the floor at the same time. There will be a lot of opportunities for Kendall.”

A year ago, Smith was one of the new faces, and now he talks with a different perspective.

“With this team, I can’t be young, so to speak,” Smith said. “I’ve got to be a veteran and a leader for the young guys now because they need somebody to look up to. I try to be a leader on the court.

“We don’t want to have a season like last year. We had a lot of older guys that felt like they should play a lot. Now we’ve got a lot of young guys that aren’t really entitled to anything.

“When the season starts, we’ll probably go through a little adversity. The greatest thing that happened to me last year was going from starting to not playing. I’ve been in both positions, and I’m really excited to help the younger guys. It really helped me grow this summer, looking back on what I had to go through.”

Smith, who averaged 3.8 points and shot 35 percent (7-for-20) from 3-point range as a freshman, claims to have regained confidence in all areas of his game, especially his shooting. He averaged 27.5 points and scored 52 in a game as a senior at Deer Valley High in Antioch, Calif.

He expects to play behind Doolin and occasionally alongside him.

“I’ve been playing the point all my life, but I feel like I can score the ball a little bit,” Smith said. “Cody is a veteran, and he’s a great player. He definitely can teach me things that can help my game a lot.

“A lot of times last year, I didn’t shoot the ball well from 3. It’s all about staying consistent and keeping my confidence at a high. Everybody’s confidence is sky high right now. I think we’re going to be a very exciting team.”

■ NOTES — Smith missed practice Wednesday with an upper respiratory infection and is questionable to play in today’s scrimmage. Fourteen of the 15 players on the Rebels’ roster are participating in practices. Junior point guard Daquan Cook is redshirting because of a knee injury. … Former UNLV players committed to the Legends Game include Freddie Banks, J.R. Rider, Moses Scurry, Robert Smith and Curtis Terry.

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.

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