Dru Smith was a junior at Evansville (Indiana) Reitz High School when he took part in the greatest comeback of his basketball career.
New Albany — a perennial powerhouse in Indiana — was anchored by Romeo Langford, an eventual Boston Celtics draft pick. With four minutes left in the Class 4A State Regional Championship, Reitz trailed Langford and New Albany by seven.
But with Smith at the top of the Panthers’ defense, a miracle happened.
Reitz suffocated New Albany, snagging steal after steal en route to a 12-0 run. The pressure was Smith’s dirty work. He manned his signature role at the top of Reitz coach Michael Adams’ infamous 1-2-2 trap defense, latching onto Langford.
The Panthers stole a 64-59 win to advance.
Reitz was one of several stops in Smith’s career where he was entrusted with the tallest defensive task. He’s pesky. He’s resourceful. And it’s his love for the often less-appreciated side of the ball that has taken him from a high school glue guy to a leader on a Missouri team likely to hear its name called as an NCAA Tournament squad on Selection Sunday.
Basketball is religion in southern Indiana. Each high school is a church, a vessel in which disciples celebrate the game with cult following.
Smith grew up faithful.
“That’s just kind of what you did,” Smith said. “You played basketball, whether it was organized or just with your friends hanging around.”
Smith spent his childhood summers at Adams’ basketball camp, long before he suited up for him. Adams’ earliest recollection of Smith was a grade schooler playing in the camp; a year-to-year regular.
“We all knew right away that Dru Smith was not your typical kid,” Adams said. “You could just tell he was a talented kid and he had a chance to be pretty good. Obviously, we weren’t stupid.”
When grouped against older players, Adams said, Smith played beyond his years, with a gift for defense in particular.
That was something Smith deemed necessary early, he said, taking to that side of the ball from a young age.
“It was really more because I was pretty bad offensively,” Smith said. “So if I wasn’t going to play defense, then there was really no reason for me to be out there.”
Smith’s desire to see the floor turned into a love like he never knew: an overwhelming preference for the other end that ultimately carried him into a starting spot at Reitz.
He wasn’t always an SEC lead guard who was called upon to score. He hardly represented the notion of a lead guard at all, having a niche as a disruptor. He played his role perfectly and bought into Adams’ system.
Smith was like a loose rottweiler, one for which no “Beware of Dog” sign could’ve properly prepared any opponent.
He raided passing lanes. He pressured ballhandlers. He made them pick up their dribble constantly, winning mental battles and showing them that putting the ball anywhere near him was a bad idea.
Adams remembers an incident when Reitz was playing Terre Haute South one year. An opposing player tried to see how far he could get with the mild-mannered Smith. He dove on the floor for a loose ball, and as they both rose, the player shoved Smith’s face into the ground.
There were no ensuing words. No fists were ever thrown. There was no reaction at all from Smith. Instead, he got up and walked away before making four consecutive plays to seal the game.
He was a silent killer, as composed as anyone. It made him all the more dangerous.
Reitz almost never played man-to-man defense. If it did, Smith was undoubtedly commissioned to guard the opposing team’s best player. Whether it was for 94 feet or in Adams’ half-court trap, Smith was going to plant himself in front of the ball. His belligerent defense allowed Reitz to run.
And run it did. The Panthers ran until they scored a state-high 93.5 points per game in Smith’s junior season.
Smith was Adams’ mercenary, willing to do whatever it took to win. He was unselfish, a word Adams used often to describe him . Smith could’ve scored more but spent years taking a backseat as a scorer because it just wasn’t his turn.
Those older players Smith contended with came first in the pecking order. Smith never showed disdain toward his teammates because of it, and they never took his forte for granted.
“He just wants to win games,” said Smith’s former teammate and NBA G-League player Alex Stein. “He could care less about his own stats. He just does whatever his team needs him to do to win a game.”
His junior season numbers didn’t scream All-State honors, as he played a role on what might’ve been the best team in Reitz history. But when six seniors left, he was handed the keys.
The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 20.3 points, 7.3 assists, 7.4 rebounds and 4.1 steals during his senior season and led Reitz to a 22-5 record as its unrivaled star.
Even as his role drastically expanded, he never lost his love for defense — the part of his game that had gotten him so far. Nothing got past him.
He averaged 13 deflections that year — a video game number. Despite this, and as he left Reitz as a pillar in its history, college coaches barely batted an eye.
Smith had five Division I offers by his senior year. Not one was from a high-major school.
The niche player Smith was — or appeared to be — didn’t have coaches drooling. His hard-working, lay-it-all-out style of play was difficult to evaluate.
But then, Evansville coach Marty Simmons didn’t need to evaluate much.
He fell in love with Smith’s game the first time he saw him. Smith valued relationships, and choosing to stay close to home was a no-brainer.
But when Smith left high school to suit up for Evansville, he was faced with an unfamiliar reality.
Simmons coached a pack-line defense, a form of man-to-man that allowed a single player to pressure the ball-handler at the top, while the remaining four defenders helped each other secure the paint.
It was a form of team defense that Smith didn’t recognize. Things went from being all about him to being all about everyone around him.
“He liked to gamble,” Simmons said. “We kind of had to meet him halfway because we didn’t wanna take his No. 1 asset as far as his ability to anticipate and create offense from his defense.
“But we challenged him to be just a little bit more disciplined.”
So, Smith grew meticulous. He lived in the film room. He turned studying his opponents into a science.
“The game-plan part of it, the preparation part of it; I thought he was outstanding,” Simmons said. “Knowing personnel, knowing their strengths and their weaknesses and using that to his advantage.”
Smith’s presence was groundbreaking, allowing Evansville to try things on defense that it had never imagined. Evansville implemented a 1-3-1 zone for the first time in Simmons’ tenure, putting Smith at the top of the defense to claw at the ball.
By the time Simmons was fired in March 2018, Smith felt that he had nothing left to prove with the program he’d grown up watching.
The combination of Adams’ and Simmons’ systems led to a laboratory-like birth of a defender, and he felt ready for the big stage.
As much as Smith was known to take his chances in the passing lane, his decision to transfer to Missouri that summer was his biggest gamble to date. And it has paid off.
He wreaked havoc defensively on the SEC in the 2019-20 season. Few, if any, were more effective guarding the ball.
His name sat atop the league leaderboard in a string of defensive statistics, ranking first in steals per game, steals and steal percentage. He ranked second in defensive win shares and third in defensive plus-minus. By the end of the season, he ranked sixth in defensive rating in the SEC.
He’s continued if not bettered those efforts this season. Smith was the SEC’s steal leader for the second consecutive year, closing the regular season with a six-steal outing at Florida. His performance has earned him All-SEC first-team honors, and an inevitable selection to the league’s All-Defense team.
And having to guard NBA prospects every week isn’t a bad way to stay in shape defensively. Ayo Dosunmu, Cameron Thomas, Sharife Cooper, Moses Moody and Keon Johnson are just some of the names Smith has defended this season.
Along with players like Alabama’s Herb Jones, Smith has shown the ways one man can anchor a defense without being a towering 7-foot shot blocker.
Now Missouri will rely on Smith to fill a role he didn’t get to a year ago, as a postseason stopper. His story is set to come full circle, as he’ll reach the pinnacle of college basketball in his home state.
It’s where everything began for him. Where he fell in love with the game that wouldn’t embrace him when he first laced up. Where he carved his own path and made intangibles cool.
Smith’s immeasurable impact, the same one Adams preached about, has taken him to the highest level of Division I basketball. In what might be Smith’s final college games, that impact will be on display just hours from where it was born.
“Dru has that ability to lift,” Adams said. “I think that’s what great players do, They truly make people around them better. I think a lot of times, we talk about that on the offensive side of the ball.
“Well, Dru did it on the defensive side. I think he just brought people along because that’s just how freaki hard he played. It was contagious.”