There's a certain old-school element to Orono senior guard Jordan Smith, who has been dressing for the varsity team since seventh grade and starting since ninth.
This is not surprising, given his influences. His father, Gregg, played for Flip Saunders at Golden Valley Lutheran College. As an eighth-grader, the younger Smith was the sixth man on a squad that featured current Wisconsin forward Jon Leuer and Utah State forward Brad Brown.
"It's really cool," Smith said of his early experience, "because from a leadership standpoint, I can understand where [my younger teammates] are coming from. I've been the last guy on the bench in seventh grade ... I can say, 'I know what you're going through. I know it's tough when you're not getting minutes and stuff, but just wait. Your time will come.'"
Smith is quick to praise his teammates, coaches and predecessors, and he has a knack for measured responses like this one, despite having every excuse to be conceited.
He is Orono's all-time leading scorer. As a junior last year, he led the team to its first section championship and a berth in the state tournament. He once hit 11 of 13 three-pointers in a 49-point performance against Annandale.
Oh, and by the way, Smith scored a 30 on the ACT, and although schools such as Wisconsin and Northwestern have expressed interest in his on-court abilities, he said he is leaning toward an Ivy League school, such as Harvard or Penn, to pursue a career in business.
"That just tells you how well-rounded he is," Spartans coach Barry Wohler said at practice Friday. "I always tell him, I don't know if he'll play in the NBA, but maybe he'll own an NBA team."
When Smith was in ninth grade, Wohler – a longtime friend of Smith's father and the former men's basketball coach at Hamline – became Smith's third coach in as many years, meaning the unusually young Smith had to prove himself worthy to a new coach for a third year in a row.
Since then, both said the continuity and closeness between Wohler and his players have led to unprecedented success for the program, with Smith as its face.
Despite his résumé, precociousness and unabashedly lofty aspirations, in talking to those who know Smith best, the consistent narrative is one of a high school senior who is wise and mature beyond his years – one whose humility has perhaps been the secret to his success.
"I think that's the biggest thing [Smith] brings, just not being cocky," fellow senior guard Chase Myhran said. The two have been friends and teammates since elementary school.
"I was jealous for about five minutes," Myhran said, recalling the year in which Smith made varsity as a seventh-grader, "and then it's like whatever. He deserves it. He works harder than anyone I know."
After all, being in seventh grade and having a pal on the high school basketball team has its advantages.
"I thought it was pretty cool," Myhran said. "I'm walking around here with Jordan in the middle school and [I'm] like, 'Yeah, this dude's my best friend. He's playing on varsity.'"
Myhran now gets his own share of the spotlight, and after being bounced by Winona in the first round of the Class 3A state tournament last year, the veteran Spartans appear poised and hungry to make another run behind Smith's leadership.
Thursday, Smith dropped 40 points in a 113-107 overtime victory over Hutchinson, calling it "by far the most fun I've had playing basketball."
As for the team's prospects of matching or exceeding last year's success?
"We've got eight guys with playing experience back," Wohler said, "so we feel that we should be [at least] one of the contenders for the section, and if we stay healthy, I like our chances."
Andrew Baker is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.
Photo courtesy of Dave Hill, Breakdown Sports