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2022-23 Player Review: Malachi Smith

Amazing improvement through hard-work, tenacity and confidence

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament West Regional- Gonzaga vs UCLA Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

I know this is supposed to be a “year in review” article about Malachi Smith, but I found his backstory so compelling I felt the need to write about a small part of it. I’ll link to the articles I’ve referenced.

Let’s start with his maternal grandfather Larry Knight. Larry was a “rebounding machine” for Loyola-Chicago in 1979, averaging 21.5 points per game and 14.3 rebounds as a senior. When Loyola played Chicago rival DePaul, who featured future #1 draft pick Mark Aguirre, Larry dropped 37 points and grabbed 23 boards in the win. DePaul would go on to the Final Four that year where they lost to Larry Bird’s Indiana State. Larry Knight would be the first-round draft pick of the New Orleans Jazz.

Larry would never play a minute in the NBA. Waived by the Jazz then the Bulls, Larry ended up with the Anchorage Northern Knights of the Continental Basketball Association (CBA). Anchorage’s season played out like this; a lengthy homestand, a 31-day/16-game 5,000 mile bus trip around the United States followed by another homestand. Anchorage won the CBA Championship that season, so Larry got to enjoy more travel while making the All-CBA second team. Next season, he’d play for the Billings (MT) Volcanos.

Malachi’s mother Connie was born the year Larry was drafted so she grew up as a basketball gypsy. After Billings, Larry would play overseas in France, Italy and Amsterdam, Netherlands and Connie’s early elementary school years were in Europe. At 18, Connie joined the Air Force. While stationed at Eglin AFB, FL she met Malachi’s father Courtney who was also in the Air Force. Malachi was born when his parents were stationed at Grissom Air Reserve Base, Indiana.

Shortly after his first birthday, Malachi’s parents were stationed at Rota, Spain, a U.S. Navy base near Spain’s Cadiz Bay. Malachi’s first exposure to basketball was watching his father play for the base team. He also had to deal with his mother’s long deployments to Afghanistan and the Middle East communicating with her via Skype. He’s made up for the lost time by talking to his mother on the phone every day.

Malachi’s parents divorced when he was six and he’d be raised by his mother. She left the Air Force after 12.5 years, ending up in Bellevue, Illinois, just outside of Scott, AFB and about 20 miles east of St. Louis. As a high school senior, Malachi would win the Illinois 4A State Championship with Bellevue-West high school. When it came time to pick a college, Malachi went unranked on a national level by Rivals and 24/7 sports, with no stars, no ranking and no recruiting score. His scholarship offers included Lindenwood, Montana State, Denver and Wright State. He chose Wright State playing immediately and making the Horizon League All-Freshman Team.

Reopening his recruiting” after a year in Ohio, he lands at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. During his transfer redshirt season, he meets Chattanooga Alum and NFL Hall-of-Famer Terrell Owens telling him, “Hey, you don’t know me yet, I’m not playing this year, but when I play, you’re going to know me.” The 19-year-old was right, he spent that off-year working on his game and his body.

If I’m not mistaken, that’s Marcy and Colt Few behind T.O.

Over the next two seasons he started every game except one, leading the team in every major offensive category and in rebounding. He’d twice make All Southern Conference (SoCon) first team, win SoCon’s Player of the Year as a junior then win the Lou Henson National Player of the Year as the top mid-major player. The previously lightly regarded and lightly recruited young man entered the transfer portal after his junior year as the sixth best available player.

Beginning last season, Malachi’s transition from being Chattanooga’s offensive focal point playing over 35 minutes per game to coming off Gonzaga’s bench was inconsistent at best. Two points against Kentucky was followed the next game 23 against Portland St. with five for five from deep. Zero against Xavier followed the next game with 16 against Baylor. He wasn’t taking bad shots, he just wasn’t sure of his place in the offense and when to participate.

After the first 10 games, it appeared he was finally settling into his role. He’d score double digits over the next five games averaging almost 23 minutes per contest. Then, the bottom fell out in four of the next five games. In the early conference season’s first road trip featuring incredibly tight games against USF, Santa Clara and BYU, he scored seven points total going two for nine from the field. Returning home, he played 24 minutes against Portland and dropped 27, the next game was the loss to LMU. He played 22 minutes, scoring four points.

Just as the LMU loss seemed to be the turning point on the Gonzaga season, it also felt like the turning point for Malachi. He shot 49% from the field in the first 10 games, 53% for the next 10 then finished the season shooting 61% over the last 17 games.

When Nolan Hickman and Rasir Bolton struggled to the NCAA tournament he (and Hunter Sallis) took up the slack. He scored 11 against TCU and 14 against UCLA, including a three with 2:37 to play giving the Zags a 10-point lead (which sadly they blew). UCLA didn’t have an answer for his ability to get into the lane and score.

Like the long line of successful transfers before him including Byron Wesley, Jordan Mathews, Nigel Williams-Goss and Aaron Cook, Malachi finally was able to be successfully integrated into the offense. He accomplished exactly what he was brought in to do. Give the team a boost off the bench with instant offense and provide veteran leadership. His string of post season honors continued by winning the WCC Sixth Man of the Year award.

Even with early season struggles, his cumulative offensive numbers for the season were otherworldly, 45 of 90 from deep for 50%! His KenPom offensive rating for the year was 130.4 indicating he was the nation’s 13th most efficient offensive player. He’s an excellent defender, good passer and a strong rebounder.

If Malachi does exercise his COVID year and returns for a sixth year of college, he’ll almost certainly be a starter and a featured piece of the offense. I’d love to see him team up with Anton Watson to form the core of next year’s team.