The quiet big man: GJ’s Smith lets his play do the talking for him
Jesse Smith isn’t going to spend much time beating his chest when something goes well on the basketball court.
The Grand Junction High School basketball player also isn’t going to spend much time complaining over a call or arguing with teammates. In fact, despite always being one of the biggest players on the court, the 6-foot-6 Tigers senior doesn’t mind flying under the radar.
“Jesse’s always been a real quiet kid,” Grand Junction coach Dutch Johnson said. “Real introverted, you can’t tell if he just scored 10 points or missed 10 straight layups. It doesn’t matter, you’re going to get the same Jesse no matter what.”
Although Smith might be soft-spoken off the court, his play this season has made a lot of noise on the court. He’s established himself as a premier post player in the Southwestern League, and in his first season as a varsity starter, the Grand Junction big man is averaging 10 points per game for the 12-5 Tigers.
“I’ve known for the last couple seasons that this would be my year,” Smith said. “I’ve worked hard to make sure I’d be ready.”
One reason for Smith’s late call to significant varsity playing time was that he was playing behind current Kansas City Royals prospect Geoff Baldwin for three seasons.
Johnson admitted that the Tigers’ system doesn’t allow for a lot of playing time down low. But both Smith and Johnson said being able to practice against Baldwin every day helped turn Smith into the player he is today.
“With our system, it was frustrating for him because he was backing up a three-time all-conference kid in Geoff, and our offense has always been a four-out and one-in,” Johnson said. “But going against Baldwin for three years made him a heck of a lot better, especially defensively.”
Playing against tough competition, in addition to a lot of offseason work, set Smith up for this season. Johnson said something that sets Smith apart is his preparation and work ethic.
“He’s been in this gym quite a bit during the offseason working on footwork,” Johnson said. “He’s improved to be everything we need as a post player.”
Smith battled every practice with Baldwin for three years, and now that honor is bestowed upon junior James Wilkinson. The heir apparent to Smith in the post, Wilkinson knows what makes him so tough to defend.
“He’s pretty aggressive, so he can clear you out, then has good moves to the basket,” Wilkinson said. “He’s not selfish, does his job without any trouble, and plays within the system.”
Smith has fit perfectly into the Tigers’ system this season. With Tyler Winder, Tommy Powers and Casey Burns, Grand Junction has the ability to knock down shots from the perimeter, but Winder, the Tigers’ point guard, said Grand Junction is at its best when Smith is heavily involved in the offense.
“We’ve had some tough times scoring these last couple weeks, and the big thing is we haven’t gotten the ball enough down low to Jesse,” Winder said. “When he’s clicking down low, it opens up everything for us.”
The Tigers have six games left in the regular season, beginning Friday against Montrose. Smith doesn’t plan to pursue basketball in college, so when the Tigers’ season is over, Smith’s basketball career will be over as well.
“I want to go to Arizona State, and I got accepted,” Smith said. “I’ll probably do intramurals and that’s it, so it’s really weird that it’ll be done soon.”