There are a lot of eyes on junior Mount St. Joseph basketball player Jalen Smith and with good reason.
A 6-foot-10 forward, Smith is considered, by many, to be one of the top collegiate basketball recruits in the country for the class of 2018. He's currently ranked No. 27 on ESPN.com and No. 22 on Rivals.com's national list of basketball prospects.
"He's basically a coach's dream -- a very talented player, terrific student and never a discipline problem or anything like that. His parents have done an exceptional job raising him," Mount St. Joe head basketball coach Pat Clatchey said. "Right now, Jalen can score inside and out. He rebounds the ball; he blocks shots. Jalen can affect and impact the game on both ends of the floor."
For as talented as Smith is, it's hard to believe he hasn't been playing organized basketball his entire life. Even though he would casually shoot hoops with his dad throughout his childhood, Smith didn't play for an organized team until eighth grade.
Back then, Smith was a gangly kid who wasn't sure how to correctly use his body. He admits to being uncoordinated and spending a lot of his early days falling down. But that didn't stop him from entering high school with high expectations and a lofty goal.
"I thought getting recruited by colleges was something that could happen to me because my main goal was to get a scholarship so that my parents wouldn't have to pay for college," Smith said.
His dreams were aided by being inserted into the Gaels' starting lineup as a freshman. Mount St. Joe was incredibly young that season but still managed a 19-13 record, with Smith averaging eight points and four rebounds a game.
"Competing against older players put a fire in my heart to be more physical and not just a weak freshman, which is what opponents saw me as," Smith said. "I just tried to learn from the older guys on the team as best I could and to get better overall."
Competing as a freshman in the difficult Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association, combined with playing both Amateur Athletic Union and on the Nike Circuit the following summer, led to Smith getting noticed by big-time college basketball programs.
Smith then made major news locally when he received an offer from the University of Maryland in October 2015, just a few weeks before his sophomore season began. It was a dream come true for Smith, who grew up a big Terps fan.
"It was a surprise to get offered this early. I was hoping Maryland would offer some time down the road, probably this year," Smith said. "Once they did though, I was ecstatic."
To his high school coach, it's not surprising his star forward was getting interest early in his high school career. Clatchey, who is in his 25th season at Mount St. Joe, is no stranger to having high-profile collegiate programs take interest in his players, with Phil Booth (Villanova), Kam Williams (Ohio State), Eric Atkins (Notre Dame) and Dino Gregory (Maryland) being among the more famous alums of his program.
When discussing Smith and his former players, Clatchey compares him to Henry Sims, who played at Georgetown (2008-2012) and in the NBA for four seasons, predominately with the Philadelphia 76ers. As talented as Sims was in high school, Clatchey thinks Smith has more versatility and a little more skill than Sims did at this point in his career.
"He has a chance to be a really good player," Clatchey said. "Jalen is still growing into his body, but he shows tons of versatility. He has size; he has length; he has time and touch. Down the road, he could be a big-time impact player at the collegiate level."
At the moment, Smith is starting to get more involved with his recruiting process. Despite all the excitement that came with receiving an early offer from the Terps, much of Smith's recruiting process has been handled by his parents, Anthony and Lisa.
Clatchey is quick to praise the family for the decision, because it's allowed Smith to focus on his schoolwork and basketball. It's also shielded their son from having to deal with a lot of the hysteria and stress that comes with high-level college basketball recruiting.
"It's difficult because I don't like to let people down, and that definitely comes into play with coaches. I hate telling them no because I'm just not that type of person," Smith said. "It's going to be a tough decision. It will come down to my relationship with the coach, how the school treats its players and what the school's academics are like."
As Smith's value has steadily risen in various prospect rankings, more exciting opportunities have come his way. The most thrilling of which came when he was invited to train with the Team USA U17 team in Colorado Spring, Col., this past summer.
"Every day was basically like a college practice," Smith said. "Everyone there was physically and mentally prepared to compete every day, which meant you constantly got pushed to your limits."
For now, Smith has plenty to focus on with the expectations this year's Gaels basketball team faces. The team has gotten off to a fast start, already beating top Baltimore-area powerhouses, like Poly, Glenelg Country School and Boys' Latin.
Smith's breakout game of the season came during a tournament contest Dec. 3 against St. Benedict's, a basketball juggernaut from Newark, N.J. In that contest, Smith was matched up against Bourama Sidibe, a highly regarded, 6-foot-11 senior center who has committed to play at Syracuse. Smith had a monstrous effort, scoring 24 points and hauling in 16 rebounds as the Gaels won, 65-59.
While that game sticks out for his coach as Smith's marquee performance of the young season, his reliability has been even more impressive to Clatchey.
"He's gone from being a role player the last two years to being an impact guy," Clatchey said. "We expect him to be close to a double-double every game, and he has pretty much done that. He's been incredibly consistent."
As is to be expected with being a big-time college basketball prospect, Smith has many more distractions than the average high schooler. Despite the buzz that's been generated from his ability on the basketball court, Smith remains a normal kid. He likes to play video games, hang out with friends and plans to major in business management and analytics once he gets to college.
It's when he discusses his future prospects that his unique situation becomes more evident. While his 3.6 GPA proves Smith prioritizes academics, he also wants to see how far he can take playing the sport he loves -- something many people dream about but few have a legitimate chance to pursue.
"I just love the team aspect of basketball. I like winning and competing with other players," Smith said. "I'd like to make the NBA. It would be incredible to get to experience it and to further my career in basketball to the highest level."
Issue 229: January 2017