Craig Smith Proved Doubters Wrong on Journey to the NBA
“There were so many people who told me I couldn’t play.”
Craig Smith was nearly 3,000 miles from home, standing in a room full of unfamiliar people. It was 2001 and Smith had just arrived at the Worcester Academy campus in central Massachusetts, where he was preparing to play a post-graduate high school season for the men’s basketball team. Almost everything about the situation was new for Smith.
Everything except for that look of doubt on his new teammates’ faces.
He didn’t know what it was exactly they doubted about him, but he didn’t care. Later that day, as Smith shook off his defenders and exploded up off of the gym floor, shaking the old Worcester rim with a vicious slam dunk, he let out a roar that instantly quelled any doubt his teammates had. It was an exciting moment, but for Smith, who had been proving doubters wrong his whole life, it was nothing out of the ordinary.
“There were so many people who told me I couldn’t play,” said Smith. “[The doubt] just adds more fuel to the fire.”
Smith has been playing basketball for as long as he can remember. Even still, he plays professionally in Ice Cube’s Big 3. But, growing up in Inglewood, California, Smith thinks his life could’ve gone in an entirely different direction, and his childhood friend Anthony Davis agrees.
“It’s easy to be sidetracked where we’re from,” said Davis. “[In Inglewood] you either sell drugs or you have to make a jump shot.”
Both Davis—who used to play professionally overseas and is currently the Crossroads varsity basketball coach—and Smith chose the latter, sticking to basketball through their high school years in Inglewood.
Smith dominated to the tune of 23.4 points and 11.0 rebounds in his senior year at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, eventually drawing interest from Division 1 NCAA programs. Boston College was one of a number of suitors who approached him during his time at Fairfax, but after a standardized test got in the way of a scholarship, he opted to spend a year at Worcester Academy before making the transition to college. Smith says his time at Worcester was key to his development, as he established himself as an integral recruit for Boston College.
Even after a strong freshman season in which he averaged 19.9 points and 7.9 rebounds per game en route to an All-Rookie nod, Smith wasn’t satisfied. He describes himself as a “student of the game,” and attributes his continued success to his work ethic.
Smith’s sister, Ty, is seven years younger than him, but even as a kid, she could tell that her brother didn’t get to where he was on talent alone.
“He was always at a gym somewhere practising,” she recalled. “His work ethic is unmatched.”
That willingness to put in the work—Smith says he actually relishes in the process—is incredibly important for an undersized big man. Smith stands 6’7” tall, which is head-and-shoulders above most, but small in the basketball world. And yet, he kept adding to his game, kept evolving to break the double-teams, the zones, and whatever else was thrown at him by opposing defences until the NBA had no choice but to take notice—but, of course, they still weren’t giving the All-American senior the credit he believes he deserved.
“I knew I was a first-rounder,” said Smith. “But, I remember being told I couldn’t go any later than 39th (mid-second round).”
He was eventually selected 36th overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves, marking the official end of his collegiate career. Smith stepped away from Boston College as a program legend, leading his team to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen and plastering his name all over the Boston College record boards, where he holds the most rebounds (1,114) and second-most points (2,349) in school history.
“You put him on that stage and he delivers. That’s just who he is.”
Smith came into the NBA and made an immediate impact. At times he definitely felt starstruck playing alongside guys like Kevin Garnett, but he never felt out of place. He was right where he belonged, and making an NBA All-Rookie team only proved that even further.
Despite a strong three-year run with the Timberwolves, Smith was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2009. The L.A. native and his family saw the move as a blessing in disguise.
“It was an amazing experience to see him be able to do what he loves,” said Ty. “Being gone since he was 17 years old, it was great to have him home.”
After stints with the Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers, Smith continued his basketball journey overseas. He played in Israel and Hong Kong from 2012-2015, where he enjoyed learning about different cultures and building genuine relationships with people outside of basketball.
“It’s so much bigger than basketball,” said Smith. “I actually learned some things about myself off the court.”
In 2019, after a short break from professional basketball, Smith joined the Big 3 as a member of the Enemies alongside Gilbert Arenas and Lamar Odom. Smith feels as though he has a lot left in the tank, but in the Big 3 he was yet again looked at as an underdog.
“They didn’t know what he was going to do,” said Davis. “But you put him on that stage and he delivers. That’s just who he is.”
That narrative has been there throughout Smith’s entire life. From Inglewood to Minnesota and all the way to Tel Aviv, he’s had to prove people wrong. Some guys are built for the NBA, with size, athleticism, and natural skill all gifted to them at birth. Most people see Smith with his height and bulky frame and expect him to be a football player.
“At first look, I’m always going to get judgement,” he said. “I just have to let them see who I am.”
Well, unless his doubters were up before dawn, they wouldn’t get that chance.
Smith used to wake up at 5 a.m. to walk his mom to work. He’d make it to school by 6:30 and immediately start to practice. At any break he had throughout the day, he’d be practising. After school? You guessed it—he’s practising some more.
Craig Smith may not have been built for the NBA, but after years of hard work, single-minded determination, and tuning out the doubters, he molded himself into a six-year veteran of the league.
Craig Smith is one of the most well-spoken and humble people I’ve had the pleasure of talking to. Learn more about Craig and his journey here and be sure to check out his children’s book and Twitch page, coming soon.
Also, Anthony Davis wants everyone to be clear that he taught Craig everything he knows. Learn more about Anthony here.