It hasn’t been a big year in the county for big men. After Chris Burgess of Woodbridge, Eric Chenowith of Villa Park and Mike Vukovich of Mater Dei, the list of top-flight basketball centers shrinks rapidly.
Robert Smith is trying to crash the party.
The 6-foot-5 senior is Valencia’s offensive hub and defensive plug. Take Smith out of the Tiger lineup and it’s a safe bet Valencia would not have a 17-8 record or be second to Brea Olinda in Orange League play.
“I’d say our record would be in reverse,” Valencia Coach Dean Yoshimura said. “We have Robert and a bunch of 5-10 guys. We don’t shoot that well from the outside, and we don’t have another real good inside threat. So we depend on Robert a lot.”
Smith, a three-year varsity player, couldn’t be happier. Although he made the all-league first team last season, he felt he could improve on his averages of 10.6 points and 6.6 rebounds. So far this season, he has done that.
“I basically wanted to go out my senior year with a bang, to try and raise my team higher,” Smith said. “If we want to beat teams like Brea, we have to be consistent.”
But not predictable. To improve, Smith realized he had to do more than shoot layups and dunks, so he spent his summer working on jump shots.
This season, he has expanded his scoring range from two feet to 17 feet. Moreover, Smith is often quicker than the big men who guard him; by taking them outside, he takes less of a beating inside.
“I’ve been playing pretty much just the low post the past two years, and I felt I had to become versatile,” Smith said. “If you’re just doing low-post moves and they stop you there, you have nothing else. I figured if you have an outside shot, you have options.”
He now has enough options that other Orange League coaches had to rethink their defenses against him.
“He is the difference for Valencia,” Magnolia Coach Al Walin said. “He’s the best big kid in the league.
“We held him to eight points only because we went to a diamond-and-one defense with one man in front and one man behind. It was the only way to compete with him. He has blossomed tremendously, is strong and mature physically, and his composure is much better.”
Brea Olinda Coach Gene Lloyd said Smith is probably more athlete than basketball player.
“But he plays very hard, and hurts you if you let him get loose,” Lloyd said. “We have to keep him away from the basket. If he can beat us from the outside, so be it. But his threat is from the inside. You have your work cut out for you to beat him.”
Yoshimura said there are other reasons Smith, 17, has become a solid player.
“He definitely has matured,” Yoshimura said. “Last year, if people played him physical, they could take him out of the game mentally; he’d lose his cool and just be out of it several trips down the floor. Now he won’t let people bother him.”
Yoshimura said that in Smith’s first two seasons, he tried to intimidate everyone--including teammates--with a glare and his presence.
“Now he’s become more helpful, a more vocal leader,” Yoshimura said. “He knows this is his team and tries to act accordingly.
Smith agreed there are other ways to guide teammates through the rigors of high school basketball besides fear and tension.
“Not all of the team is experienced on this level,” Smith said. “They come in thinking just because they won on other levels they will win here. But it’s a whole new world on varsity. The game is more intense, more fast. So you have to get your head right so you’re ready for everything.
“I did try a lot of [intimidation] last year. It worked to a certain point; this other way--talking, encouraging--is working too.”