High school coach breaks down Justin Smith’s game

Pat Ambrose won’t forget the jump, the dunk and the sophomore year that changed it all for Justin Smith.

During a 2015 postseason game, Jalen Brunson — now a starting guard at Villanova — drove to the basket, drew a foul and tossed the ball at the rim. Smith flew in from the foul line, grabbed the ball and twisted in the air, throwing down a reverse, two-handed dunk just for fun — just because he could.

“Everyone turns and looks at each other like, ‘Did we just see that?'” said Ambrose, coach of Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill.

Smith’s highlight reel was only beginning.

The 6-foot-7 wing will now have a chance to add to that reel at Indiana, committing to the Hoosiers’ 2017 recruiting class on Monday night. Smith gives IU coach Tom Crean another long, athletic forward to run end-to-end, a player who can attack the rim and defend it on the other side of the floor.

“He can really get up,” Ambrose said. “He’s not like Vince Carter unbelievable, but for a high school kid, he really has good hops. He’s blessed with incredible athletic hops. His quickness, I’d say, is definitely above average. I’d say his jumping ability is way above average. His athletic ability, his size will serve him well.”

Smith was a priority target across the Big Ten. Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana were among the schools Smith considered closely.

Within the last month, he whittled that list down to two options — Indiana and Villanova, which is Brunson’s new home and, of course, the home of the defending national champions.

Indiana won.

He picked up his IU offer after his sophomore season and made an unofficial visit to Bloomington last August. When he recently took his official trip during the weekend of Sept. 10, Ambrose said Smith came away impressed with the approach of IU coach Tom Crean and his assistants.

“He really liked the coaching staff,” Ambrose said. “He really liked Coach Crean, Coach Judson, Coach Buckley. They really did a good job with him. They really showed him how he can get better. He came back and said, ‘Coach, you’re not gonna believe this,’ — and I did — he said, ‘Coach, they showed me videotape of how I can get better.’

“He liked that. He thought that was different. They didn’t scream at him and they didn’t tell him he was bad. They said, ‘Look, you can do this better and you can do this better, and we can help you.’ He took it to heart.”

Outside of the paint, Ambrose said Smith is more of a catch-and-shoot player. Mostly, Ambrose has told Smith to make the most of his opportunities within 10 feet.

“Even if he throws up kind of a bad shot or a quick shot, his ability to go back and get it (is impressive),” Ambrose said. “I saw that on the freshman level and I was like, ‘My goodness. You can’t teach that.'”

Entering his senior year of high school, the 185-pound recruit has to continue getting bigger and playing tougher. He has to continue developing his shooting ability.

But Ambrose likes where Smith is as a prospect — and where he’s headed.

“He’s very excited,” Ambrose said. “He’s very excited to play in the Big Ten. I think he’ll look good in the candy stripes. He has long legs.”