Nothing fires up the Galen Center crowd more than a barrage of three-pointers by senior guard Donte Smith. Loud cheering quickly turns into a deafening roar after Smith uses his hands to create his trademark “three-point glasses.”
It was in a much quieter setting, however, that Smith regained the confidence and swagger he was missing during his first two years at USC.
With his son, Donte Smith Jr., now one year old, sitting silently just off the Galen Center court, Smith went through intense offseason workouts in preparation for his final collegiate season.
“He worked exceptionally hard on his conditioning and his shooting, and it paid off for him,” said USC coach Kevin O’Neill.
Through 23 games this season, Smith has provided instant offense off the bench for the Trojans. He averages 10.3 points per game, which is third on the team, despite only playing 26.2 minutes per game. His .815 free-throw percentage leads the team, as does his .394 three-point shooting percentage among players with more than 10 three-point attempts in the season.
“He is one of the better shooters in the [Pac-10 Conference], and one of our main scoring options,” O’Neill said.
Smith has come a long way during his time at USC.
After transferring from Mt. San Antonio College, Smith struggled with his shooting while playing limited minutes as a sophomore. After making .580 of his three-point shots in high school, Smith shot .240 from beyond the arc, and an abysmal .257 from the field.
Last season, Smith was given the opportunity to start at point guard, but struggled as the team’s primary ball handler. He had just as many, or more, turnovers than assists in five of his first six games, as the Trojans began the season 2-4. When Mike Gerrity became eligible, Smith’s minutes decreased significantly.
Determined to make an impact on the team this season, Smith spent countless hours over the summer perfecting his three-point shot and improving his conditioning, which gave him a newfound confidence.
“I just stayed in the gym, that’s all it was,” Smith said. “I worked real hard.”
This season, O’Neill found a role that has suited Smith well. Rather than having Smith play point guard, where he looked uncomfortable last season, O’Neill used Smith as a shooting guard, which has allowed him to do what he does best — shoot.
“[Smith] playing off the ball has brought the best out of him,” said junior guard Jio Fontan. “He is a shoot-first type of player. He can stay in the corner and hit three-pointers instead of being a point guard.”
The Trojans have struggled all season playing against zone defenses. When opponents implement a zone, the Trojans have had trouble passing the ball to post players junior forward Nikola Vucevic and senior forward Alex Stepheson. Smith’s three-point shooting ability has kept zone defenses honest, forcing opposing teams to guard the three-point arc rather than sagging down to defend the post.
Smith has stepped up when the Trojans need him most.
With Cal playing tough zone defense, and Vucevic sidelined by foul trouble for much of the game, Smith made 8-of-12 three-pointers for a career-high 24 points in 29 minutes, scoring 12 consecutive points for the Trojans at one point.
While in hostile Allen Fieldhouse, competing against third-ranked Kansas, Smith provided veteran leadership, pacing USC with 20 points.
Smith made five three-pointers against Northern Arizona, and accounted for more than one-third of USC’s offense.
“He is a lot more confident,” Vucevic said. “He is not afraid to shoot.”
Smith is one of three seniors on the Trojans’ roster, and only senior guard Marcus Simmons has been at USC longer. Before the season, O’Neill announced that Smith would be a captain. Smith has proven to be a leader, accepting a role off the bench while freshman guard Maurice Jones and transfer Fontan started over him.
The Trojans have eight games remaining in the regular season, beginning on Thursday at the Galen Center against Oregon State, as well as the Pac-10 conference tournament. USC has lost five of its last seven games, and needs to finish the season strong to have an opportunity to continue the season into late March.
Despite the recent losing skid, Smith still has unwavering faith in his role on the team, and that the Trojans will play better.
“I’m going to do the same thing, bring energy and make big plays for us,” Smith said.