Athletics & Recreation / Magazine Feature

On the basketball court, she’s the queen of assists

At 5 feet 4 inches, DU’s Emi Smith may be the shortest point guard in Sun Belt Conference women’s basketball.

So, how come she’s second in assists? How come she ranks fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio, the statistical measure of a good ball-handler? And how in the heck is it that only two other players in the conference log more minutes per game than Emi?

The fact is if you smoosh together all those Sun Belt numbers, you get a picture of the perfect point guard that looks a lot like Smith: tough, smart, quick, skilled. A ball-handler head coach Erik Johnson trusts to dribble up the court safely and dish off to DU’s scorers a lot more times than she turns the ball over to the other team. Then wade into the league’s tall trees at the other end and play stubborn defense. Like a determined weed in a row of corn. Hey, Emi, how’s the weather down there?

“There’s nothing I can do,” she laughs. “I’m not going to grow a foot. I have to work with what I have.”

Which means taking advantage of a stubborn basketball fact: dribbling keeps the ball waist high or below. Down in the weeds where Smith hides, snatching balls from opposing players is like being a pickpocket at a wallet store.

“If the ball is down low, there’s a better chance of me getting it than their 6-4 player,” Smith points out. “I love to get strips or loose balls or tips from passing. My favorite is when a girl’s coming down for a breakaway layup and I strip the ball from her.”

The 18-year-old Southern California sun lover smiles broadly and cackles. “I have quick hands. And good reactions. My strength is outsmarting people.”

It could have gone another way for Smith. Growing up near the beach in a sun-drenched, laid-back Los Angeles world of surfing and boogie-boarding can be seductive. Yet Smith ended up a three-sport athlete and a four-year all-league starter for Windward School in L.A.

Lots of things helped turn Smith’s tide toward basketball, like having older brothers who were athletes. Then there was after-school care as a kid, where Smith learned which way the ball bounces by competing with boys while she waited for her dad, Tom Smith, to pick her up after work.

Toss in high expectations from her mother, Sachiko Mori, a registered nurse, and the discipline of a Japanese-style household and there’s clearly a solid foundation. It gave Smith a good chance of being noticed. And it produced the kind of poise DU recruiters were looking for: no-nonsense, get-after-it style of controlled aggression on the court and miles of smiles everywhere else.

Smith’s given name, Emiko, means “happy” in Japanese and is a perfect description of her off-court persona: perpetual smile and as happy as happy gets.

“I’m all about ‘Don’t worry, be happy.’ Going to dinner. Snowball fights. Cracking jokes. Stuff like that,” she says. “I’m really into everybody having a good time.”

Which means she distributes sunshine as readily as she distributes basketballs — no matter how intense the pressure to make the offense hum.

“I try to create and execute for the team. To get us organized. Communicate between the coaches and players on the floor. Keep us in our game and get the best percentage shot.”

That effort adds up to what coach Johnson calls “an unbelievable lift for our team.”

“She has handled the pressures of being a freshman point guard at the highest levels of Division I basketball with grace and poise,” Johnson says, and has distinguished herself as a leader on and off the floor.

High praise, but Smith strives for even more.

“I want to be No. 1,” she admits with quiet confidence. “I want to be the best point guard in the Sun Belt. And assists is definitely something I want to lead.”

She’s nearly there, battling 5-foot-7-inch Shanika Butler of Arkansas-Little Rock for the Sun Belt Conference lead in assists. The two squared off in Little Rock on Jan. 27. Butler logged six assists; Smith five. The lead changed 11 times; UALR won by six. On Feb. 17, the Trojans came to Magness Arena for a rematch, prevailing 58–50 and clinching the Sun Belt West Division title. Butler edged Smith in assists 6 to 4. With two regular season games remaining for each player, Butler leads by three.

Stay tuned.

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