Here’s the thing about playing for North Carolina: there are an awful lot of jerseys in the rafters. Every practice and every home game is played beneath the numbers of the greats who have come before you, and if you’re a player suiting up for this, the 110th year of Tar Heel basketball, it’s a near certainty that the number you’re wearing was worn by a former star. That’s a lot of pressure: just ask any of the Tar Heel point guards who have worn #5.
It’s even more pressure when the Tar Heel great whose number you’re wearing happens to be your father.
That fact wasn’t lost on K.J. Smith, the newest scholarship player at UNC. Usually when a player is awarded a scholarship, it’s an introduction, a promise for the future. For K.J., this scholarship is very much about the past and, more importantly, the present . There is no introduction needed here: K.J. Smith knows UNC well and it knows him.
The redshirt junior and former walk-on (feels good to say “former” doesn’t it?) is, as you may have heard, the son of Tar Heel great Kenny Smith. A former first-team All-American, Smith is second all-time at UNC in assists and first all-time in shots fired at Mr. Charles Barkley. Smith, a mainstay in the world of television, is not merely a Tar Heel great: he’s also a two-time NBA champion and an Emmy winner. That’s a lot to live up to if you’re trying to go into the same field.
K.J. knew that all too well: as a high schooler growing up in Calabasas, CA, much of his AAU career was played in front of college coaches all keen to get a look at him because of his last name. “I knew right then that I was Kenny Smith’s son,” he remembered. After he helped lead his Mater Dei High School team to the SoCal State Championship as a senior, he chose to head for the University of the Pacific in Sacramento. He’d be a scholarship athlete and there’d be no family comparisons in the WCC.
But after one season, he knew he needed a change. His playing time hadn’t taken off (just 13 minutes per game) and he missed being around top competition (Pacific went 11-22 his freshman year). He called up his dad and said he wanted to make a change. Kenny reached out to the best person he could think of for advice on picking a team: Roy Williams.
What Kenny wanted were ideas about which teams around the country could use him, what coaches he could trust his son with. Is there anywhere you see K.J. fitting in? “Just send him here,” said Roy. K.J. enrolled three weeks later.
Reading the above, one unfamiliar with the Smiths might be thinking about how nice it would be to have a pro dad with connections. Or maybe how if you weren’t digging your first year of college, having a Hall of Fame coach’s number sure would be a solid card to play for an easy ride. That’s not K.J. Smith, and that’s not his father either. In an interview with the Daily Tar Heel last year, Kenny remarked: “I used to say, ‘If grandpa was a brain surgeon, that wouldn’t make me a brain surgeon. You gotta put the work in to be a brain surgeon.” K.J. Smith is a basketball player, and he puts the work in.
Upon arriving at UNC, K.J. took on the family legacy with pride: Not only did he don #30, he asked to be announced as “Baby Jet” (a name coined by Brandon Robinson) at his first Late Night with Roy. Heck, even rocked a flattop for a while in reference to his old man’s 80s style. Due to transfer rules, he sat out the 2017-18 season, but found the court as a Blue Steel sub the following year. For what it’s worth, he tallied a total of 40 minutes for the season, notching 21 points, seven assists, and just three turnovers on 7-15 shooting (4-7 from 3 pt range). Not a bad per-40 average (yes, I am aware that’s not how that works).
And on Monday, Roy welcomed the team with some news:
As Kenny said: “It was earned, it wasn’t given.” No arguing that.