By Cesare Milanti / email@example.com
BOLOGNA, Italy – In a summer full of transformations all around Europe, there has been an under-the-radar revolution regarding the point guard spot in Berlin. Not only did Maodo Lo join Johannes Voigtmann in Milano, but Jaleen Smith also flew to Italy to sign with Virtus Bologna.
Prior to his first trophy won with the black-and-white team, capturing the LBA Italian Supercup 2023 in Brescia against the hosts, the 28-year-old guard spoke to Eurohoops during the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Media Day to first touch on his first Italian days.
“It’s been really good, I’ve been around the city. It’s really nice to have teammates that are basically in the same situation I’ve been in, and who have families. They’re all very good professionals, we all come in to take care of our business on the court. Off the court, we joke around, and it’s a different experience than what I’ve been with”, the former ALBA Berlin player opened.
“I’ve been on young teams, even last year my teammates didn’t really have kids. Maodo Lo had his little boy so we really connected on that. It’s been really good just to have teammates who are in the same situation as you, it’s really good”, he then added.
Talking about the 30-year-old German playmaker, they shared the same locker room for two years. Having played with such a versatile guard already, it won’t be problematic to adjust to a squad with Daniel Hackett, Iffe Lundberg, and Alessandro Pajola for Jaleen Smith.
The former Heidelberg and Ludwigsburg player said there’s one particular aspect of the game in which he can be a solid addition. “I’ve improved my shooting ability from the perimeter, which can really help the guards. My versatility playing on and off the ball, adds more dynamic ability for the coaches to use me. Even my defensive ability, I think I put myself a lot on that. It’s just gonna enrich what the coach can use. It’s not gonna be a tough choice, because all four of us can be very versatile in any way we can”, he commented.
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Learning from the best (and most experienced) ones
Jumping straight from the NCAA – where he played from 2013 to 2017 with the UNH Wildcats – to Germany may have been difficult for Jaleen Smith, who still found a way to establish himself as a valid EuroLeague guard all the way from the second division in Germany.
A similar path saw Bryant Dunston become one of the best defensive players in the history of the competition by finding his way up to the EuroLeague through uncertainties and difficult seasons.
Sharing the locker room with the 37-year-old veteran will be a constant source of teaching for the former ALBA Berlin player. “I’ve already asked him some questions about how his journey was, and it’s no different than mine. He started by not playing so much, and when he moved to Varese he gave it all and ended up getting a job in the EuroLeague. And he’s been there ever since”, he first commented on the former Anadolu Efes – where he won back-to-back EuroLeague titles – center.
At the end of the day, overseas players who manage to reach the élite competition in Europe all share similar trajectories. “Hearing stories like that is really crazy, because you come from small teams in Europe, wherever you at, and the big teams know the guys who are going be hard workers, and professionals because of what they’ve been through. I’ve been to the second league in Germany with Heidelberg and went to the first league with Ludwigsburg without playing in an International competition before I moved to the EuroLeague. It’s been really good”, Jaleen Smith added.
While he will learn from Bryant Dunston, he already had a veteran teammate in the past. “In Ludwigsburg, I played with a veteran there like Tremmell Darden, he has been playing with Madrid, Zalgiris, and Bryant [Dunston] for one year in Olympiacos. Seeing him playing with Bayern it’s crazy! It’s gonna be 42, and he’s still balling. That shows the love for the game. I learned that he takes care of his body every day before and after practice. I tried to copy that to my resume as well. It’s always good to have veterans like that to build your experience up, and learn from them every single day. It’s been really beneficial in my growth”, the newest Virtus Bologna guard commented on Tremmell Darden.
I can’t say how great God is for the opportunity to compete at this Euroleague level! The grace of God is truly amazing!
— tremmell darden (@tremenduz) September 17, 2023
Both will be coached by Luca Banchi, who replaced Sergio Scariolo in Bologna and said to Eurohoops that he expects growth from Jaleen Smith in terms of basketball personality. “Being coached by him will bring freedom, and the ability to make reads. Even in one of our first practices together, it was more of just read: whatever the defense gives us, he’s gonna let us play off that. It’s not gonna be like tic tac toe. We still gonna look at some things on offense, but it’s not gonna be like “This guy is gonna get the ball”, or “You are gonna do this or that”, the 28-year-old player touched on his head coach.
“It’s more reads. You can see him with Jordan right now, talking about what he can do on different reads”, he said during the interview, when Luca Banchi was teaching Jordan Mickey certain adjustments on the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Media Day. “Even with our bigs, who can pop and roll: it’s gonna bring more versatility for them, and consequently for us playing off that. It’s gonna be playing whatever the defense gives us, being free on the court”, Jaleen Smith added on Latvia’s national team head coach.
From Sikma to Toko and the experience with Croatia
Maodo Lo wasn’t the only player with whom Jaleen Smith shared the court in Berlin who left ALBA to try another experience in the EuroLeague, as Luke Sikma moved to Olympiacos to try filling the gap following Sasha Vezenkov’s departure to the NBA.
Having said playing with the American power forward helped his playmaking abilities a lot, Jaleen Smith will find another power forward who likes to distribute the ball: Tornike Shengelia, who won the award for the Best Assistman – and MVP – of the 2023 Italian Supercup, where Jaleen Smith averaged 10.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.5 assists in his first two official games with Virtus Bologna.
“They always have their head up”, he said about both Luke Sikma and Toko Shengelia. “One time in practice I told him I’d go backdoor, playing it off like I was doing a handoff, and go backdoor. And it’s Luke’s set: if he’s not there, he keeps it. He’s a really good scorer to know that the defense he’s not helping, he’s gonna attack; if they are, instead, he knows that we are gonna be there. All you have to do is to make eye contact with him, he knows what to do with the ball. And that’s where the similarity with Toko comes in: they always have their eyes open, not just looking for themselves but for other guys as well”, Jaleen Smith added about his former and new teammates.
Unlike Toko Shengelia, the 28-year-old guard couldn’t participate in the 2023 FIBA World Cup, where the former CSKA Moscow power forward was leading Georgia. However, Jaleen Smith still found a way to be effective with the national team, helping Croatia book a ticket to next year’s FIBA Olympic Pre-Qualifying Tournament.
Entering the debate over naturalized players, he said he “completely agrees with” Mike Tobey’s point of view on the matter. “Teams are just one key piece away from being competitive. For Slovenia, they needed a big man who could stretch the floor, or even pop down, and Mike was a perfect complement player for their whole national team”, he first said about the current Crvena Zvezda player, who commented on this topic before facing Canada in the 2023 FIBA World Cup.
Then, Jaleen Smith talked about his own situation. “With Croatia, they were just missing that glue guy. I’m not the most selfish guy, I’m not gonna try to go get 20 points every night. I know we have NBA guys, so I think my role there is to do a little bit of everything while still being a threat on the court. I fit perfectly well with that Croatian team: they treated me like their own Croatian teammate, and after everything that happened nothing negative came out”, he said.
“I’ve been enjoying my time with the national team. It’s gonna be more of a thing. It happened more often last year than it has probably happened before in the past. For teams, it’s gonna be putting in the time and finding the right guy they need. It’s gonna be a big step. It sucks for the countries that try to develop those guys, but every team wants to compete. And one way to do it, at the end of the day, could be bringing at least one naturalized player on board”, the newest Virtus Bologna guard finally stated.
𝙅𝙖𝙡𝙚𝙚𝙣 on 🔥🔥
24+5+3 with Croatian 🇭🇷@JaleenSmith0
— Virtus Segafredo Bologna (@VirtusSegafredo) August 15, 2023
PHOTO CREDIT: Virtus Segafredo Bologna