Call it “The night the legend was born.”
OK, that might be a little too dramatic. Let’s just call it the night that Ryan Smith officially arrived.
It was Dec.18, 2017; the second game of the season for the Robbinsville High freshman boys’ basketball team.
The 9th-graders had opened the season with an impressive win over Trenton. But when Conor Hayes and his varsity assistants walked into the court at halftime of the season’s second game, Shore was up big. The score is open to discussion. Hayes said it was 26-4, Smith claims it was 27-6.
Either way, Robbinsville was down big.
“We were like, ‘This is not the team that played Trenton,’” Hayes said. “And then Ryan came out and scored about 35 points in the second half, and we ended up winning by 15.”
Smith did not mention how many he scored—which is typical, since that’s an individual stat— but he remembered the night well.
“That’s one of my favorite games of all time,” he said. “My best friend Cameron (Coyle), who plays lacrosse now, he came up to me and said, ‘This is your game man, you gotta take control.’ I remember the whole team just coming out with such energy and such fire and we were on a roll, everyone was playing good defense. We came out, and won that game.”
For the most part, Smith’s freshman team career was over and his JV career never began.
“He might have played one more freshman game after that but it did not last long,” Hayes said. “He was practicing with us from that day on. He showed every day in practice that he deserved the varsity level and just kept earning more and more varsity time his freshman year and was a starter all last year.”
And it all came from down the shore.
“That (Shore game) kind of carried over into my varsity experience as a freshman,” Smith said. “You always come out with 100 percent intensity and enthusiasm and put yourself in the best position to win.”
The Ravens finished 7-18 that year and Smith averaged just under 4 points in 18 games. As a sophomore, Smith’s average rose to 8.5 ppg but the team sunk to 4-17.
This year, it has all come together for both team and individual. Robbinsville carried a 9-4 record into its Jan. 21 game with Hamilton West, and Smith was averaging 15-plus points and 5.5 rebounds. The nine victories were the Ravens most since finishing 11-13 in 2016-17.
“It really is cool,” Smith said of the winning record. “We were doing all right with our scrimmages but (Hayes) sat us down after a pretty bad practice and told us everyone’s not on the same page. It’s happened the years I’ve been here, and eventually you’ve gotta buy in.”
So, they bought in. Seniors Brian Tierney, Darren Henderson, Jack Billings and Keith Motusesky have provided the leadership and scoring punch along with sophomore Brian Herbert. Smith has been to the go-to guy in the post but assigns credit to his supporting cast.
“A lot of my (stats) are off the work my teammates create for me, and I think the coach makes up a great plan every night,” Smith said. “He has me and all my teammates in the right position to score.”
Smith has been a handful underneath, which one would expect of a 6-foot-4 player. But being tall doesn’t mean automatic success, as the junior has honed his game inside.
“He’s always shown the ability to make good moves around the basket, to be aggressive and to believe in himself,” Hayes said. “This year the biggest thing is he’s finishing at a much higher percentage. Last year he really dominated in the paint but we weren’t capitalizing on those moves, we weren’t making the final move, which is finishing the basket.
“It’s always been a focus—make sure we finish around the rim, make sure we’re doing our hook drills, make sure we’re doing our up and under drills. And he really put a lot of time and effort into the spring, summer and fall to make sure when he has the opportunities he’s gonna capitalize on them. He’s been excellent all season finishing around the basket.”
Not to mention a nifty little short-range jumper that can help draw taller, slower opponents away from the basket if they’re guarding him.
“He can take them outside and either drive by them, or when they give him some space he can knock down the three,” Hayes said. “When they’re the same size or smaller than him, he can take it to the post and take advantage of his size and athleticism.”
Smith has always been tall but did not decide to play organized basketball until sixth grade. He spent his youth playing soccer and baseball before starting travel hoops in sixth grade but promptly got cut from the Pond Road team in seventh grade.
“All my friends made the team, it was completely infuriating,” he said. “I just worked super hard the next few years and did a lot of work and that really helped developing my character.”
It has been a steady rise ever since. Smith began playing AAU in Bordentown as a freshman and has spent the past two seasons with the Jersey Force team. Hayes constantly urges his prize prospect to play the best AAU competition possible in order to hone him for his senior season and beyond.
“You need to get at the highest level and then you’re playing the best competition in practice,” Hayes said. “You have 6-7, 6-8 guys on your team, you’re playing more of a three than a four or five and that just helps different types of things. He can handle the ball but with us it’s something he doesn’t need to do. But he’ll do more of that in AAU.”
Smith is undoubtedly a high school inside player, and he has grown more assured on offense. Hayes noted that his confidence would take a slight hit last year after missing a few shots.
“This year, he’s bigger and stronger, which helps him finish,” the coach said. “Also, he’s more like ‘Yeah, I missed one or two, but I’m gonna make the next one.’ That’s his mindset, and that’s what we needed from him.”
When teams began to double team him as the season wore on, Smith just went with the flow.
“He makes the right reads, makes the right plays,” Hayes said. “He holds himself to a higher standard of helping the team win and he also knows helping his team win is not just scoring. It’s getting that ball to the open guy who has a better opportunity.”
Smith is equally adept in his off-court endeavors. His grade point average is over 4.0, he is the junior class vice-president and also the vice-president of a new political club along with fellow VP Coyle and president Daniel Weiss.
“We’re trying to get a political voice in the student body,” Smith said. “It’s working out really well. We’re working on a recycling initiative right now, and we’re trying to change the legislation in Robbinsville. A lot of people aren’t educated on the whole recycling business.”
It’s safe to say, Smith is building an impressive resume’ to not only get into college, but play basketball at the next level.
“That’s 100percent the goal, and it’s been the goal ever since I started to put my mind to it in eighth grade,” he said. “I really want to keep playing for as long as I can.”