I still remember the day it became clear that Keith Wright ’12 had made the leap.
It was Oct. 30, 2010, and it was at Harvard coach Tommy Amaker’s annual preseason coaching clinic—the first chance for fans to get a glimpse of the upcoming season’s squad.
Almost immediately, it was evident that Wright, then about to enter his junior year, was a different player than he had been the previous season. He had added a short jumper to his arsenal that was reliable and accurate in that first practice, and I knew then that the center was due for a breakout season.
The Crimson’s greatest flaw the prior year had been its lack of a true interior threat, forcing Jeremy Lin ’10 to try to do everything on his own despite facing constant double teams. Defensively, when it came to guarding opposing big men like Cornell’s Jeff Foote, Harvard was left with few options, and without anyone to take pressure off Lin inside, the team finished third in the Ivy League.
But when Wright raised his game his junior season, everything changed. He was a transformed player, and that transformed the team as a whole. In 2010-11, the Crimson had the ability to play inside-out, something Amaker loves to do, and behind Wright—who won Ivy League Player of the Year—Harvard was finally able to take that next step and win its first-ever league championship.
The 2012-13 Crimson, up until last Friday night, faced a similar problem as its 2009-10 predecessor.
The offense had three of the four pieces it needed: a go-to scorer (sophomore Wesley Saunders), dangerous long-distance shooters (co-captains Laurent Rivard and a revitalized Christian Webster), and a distributor to orchestrate everything (freshman Siyani Chambers).
But it was missing the final piece of the puzzle—the interior presence. Sophomore Jonah Travis provided solid production, but not the kind you can run your offense through, and his 6’6” stature greatly limited the team’s ability to slow opposing big men at the other end.
Facing the two biggest teams in the conference this weekend, Amaker thus decided to give Kenyatta Smith his first real opportunity for redemption since the turnover-prone sophomore lost his starting job after five games.
Given a second chance, something clicked for Smith this weekend, and just like Wright two years ago, it was immediately evident that he was a different player. With the emergence of an interior presence, Harvard could play inside-out once again, and everything else fell into place around him offensively.
Just like that, gone were the days of struggling against inferior Ivy opponents. Last weekend, there was no need for a dramatic comeback, as against Dartmouth, or to stave off a collapse, as against Yale, Brown, and Cornell. Nor was this the same team that a week earlier had gotten blown out by Columbia, which has only won one of seven games against the rest of the league.
No, not only did the Crimson sweep this past weekend, but it also dominated, and that was largely the result of Smith’s emergence.
The center shot a superb 13-of-14 from the field over the two nights, but his defensive numbers are even more astounding. According to calculations by the Ivy Basketball Blog, Smith would be leading the country in block rate and rebound percentage if he had played enough minutes to qualify. Over Harvard’s past 17 games, opponents are shooting under 40 percent when Smith is on the court; only Jeff Withey’s Kansas does better in that category.
Can Smith maintain those numbers when his minutes increase? Highly unlikely. But last weekend, they were a huge reason why the Crimson won both games while holding its rivals below 60 points—something it did 19 times last season but had previously not done against a Division I opponent this year.
Sure, it’s only been two games, but as they did for Wright three years ago, things appear to have clicked at both ends for Smith, who has finally tapped into the vast potential that earned him multiple offers from high-major programs.