Paul Smith got a sneak preview at what turned out to be the winningest team in East Tennessee State basketball history.
He really liked what he saw.
Smith, a member of coach Steve Forbes’ latest ETSU recruiting class, was visiting campus in early October as the team went through a public workout.
“You could tell,” Smith said when he was asked if he had any indications that the team would go on to win 30 games. “They compete. They all were hungry. You could tell they wanted to win. You could tell it was going to be a good team.”
When Smith, a 6-foot-9, 210-pound power forward out of DeMatha Catholic, signed on Nov. 15, the Bucs were 3-0. He was one of three high school players to commit to ETSU early, but the only one to sign.
“It felt like home,” said Smith, a Chattanooga native who moved to Maryland as a kid. “I knew I was in good hands with Coach Forbes. I knew that I’d be taken care of on and off the court. It felt like it all made sense for me and my family. I’m not too far from my mom. The people there in Johnson City are some of the nicest people I’ve met.”
The Bucs went on to go 30-4 to set the school record for victories in a season and Smith’s interest in his future team continued well past the day he saw them work out. He paid close attention all season and rattled off just about every player’s name when talking about the team. You could tell he had done his homework.
“Every night I didn’t have a game, I was watching,” he said. “Every opportunity, especially toward the end of the season. I love the style of play. Coach Forbes allows his front court guys to do what they’re comfortable doing. That’s one thing I love to see.”
After signing early, Smith admits he wondered about his new coach’s future. It’s no secret that Forbes is one of the hottest coaching commodities in the country and might have been hired away by a bigger school if the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t all but stopped any coaching changes.
“To be honest, I didn’t know if Coach Forbes was going to stay or not,” Smith said. “You can’t get any better than Coach Forbes and he’s one of the best coaches in the country. That was the only thing.”
Smith already has a friend on the ETSU team. He played against Bucs forward Charlie Weber in high school. Weber, who will be a sophomore next year, went to Bishop O’Connell in the same conference — the Washington Catholic Athletic Association — as DeMatha.
“I know Charlie real well,” Smith said. “I met his dad at a friend’s high school game. I got some time to meet up with him. We talked a lot about ETSU. He said nothing but great things, which made me even happier, made me enjoy the decision I made. He was talking about they’re getting Charlie right.
“Charlie can shoot the cover off the ball. He’s extremely athletic. We were talking about how we’re going to play together hopefully and how much fun we can have.”
Smith’s personal scouting report on himself sounds like just the type of player Forbes loves.
“I like to play both sides of the floor,” he said. “Can shoot the ball really well. Energy guy. I talk on defense. You’ll never hear me quiet on defense. Play hard and have a great motor. I just like to play basketball the right way.
“I like playing with teammates. I love passing the ball, sharing the ball, which is another reason I like ETSU. It’s not just a one-man show.”
How about winning? His DeMatha Catholic team went 30-3 and finished ranked fifth nationally by MaxPreps. Smith played with two high school All-Americans this year — 7-foot-2 Michigan signee Hunter Dickinson and 6-foot-6 Miami signee Earl Timberlake Jr.
Smith was key contributor to that team and also had some shining moments while playing for a couple of elite AAU teams during his summers.
“My main focus when I get to ETSU is to just put in a lot of work because I’m a freshman and nothing’s going to be given to me easily,” he said. “I have to work for everything I get, which is how I did when I got to DeMatha. I just have to work, work, work and continue to improve, and hopefully I just find my way into the rotation. And if not, I have to keep working.”
Either way, Smith is excited to get started while jumping from one winning program to another.
“I feel like I want to help as much as I can my freshman year, soak up as much as I can and just enjoy it,” he said. “Because, as you can see, time is short. I just want to enjoy it as much as I can.”