The rumor broke just before lunchtime on March 31.
“Hearing not-so-great things about D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera being back at Georgetown next season,” Casual Hoya, a popular SB Nation site, tweeted. “Hopefully wrong.”
The first user to respond gave voice to the feelings of more than a few Georgetown fans.
“Is this an April Fool’s joke?” @GyrationMaster asked on Twitter. “I genuinely hope so.”
It was not a joke, and a few hours later it was official.
“Junior D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera to Submit for NBA Draft,” read the press release released by the Georgetown University Athletics Department.
Just like that, the team’s leading scorer in each of the last two seasons was gone.
A player leaving early for the NBA is not a new phenomenon at Georgetown. Just two years prior to Smith-Rivera’s declaration, Otto Porter Jr. made the jump after a breakout sophomore campaign earned him the Big East Player of the Year award. His decision was not a surprise. Although the Hoyas were disappointed in the NCAA tournament, Porter’s stock was as high as it was ever likely to get. The Washington Wizards validated it on draft night when they made him the third overall pick and signed him to a four-year, $19 million contract.
Smith-Rivera’s case was different. There were no sure riches awaiting him at the professional level. At the time of the announcement, ESPN NBA draft expert Chad Ford did not list the junior on his “Big Board” of the top 100 players in the draft.
“Fringe prospect,” DraftExpress.com’s Jonathan Givony tweeted.
No one disputed that Smith-Rivera is a great basketball player. He had averaged more than 16 points per game and shot better than 38 percent from behind the arc in each of the previous two seasons. In addition, his announced departure came less than two weeks after he led his team to the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament. But talent evaluators had doubts about how the 6-foot-3-inch guard’s skills would translate to the next level.
An October 2014 scouting report from DraftExpress.com noted that Smith-Rivera had the skill set of a shooting guard but the size of a point guard. The report also questioned whether the Indianapolis native could defend the speed and quickness of guards in the NBA.
The analytics did not bode well for Smith-Rivera either. Kenpom.com, the leading advanced stats website in college basketball, features a tool that matches players with their most statistically similar peers. Smith-Rivera’s junior season most closely aligned with four players; only one of these players, former Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier, was drafted and played in the NBA. The other three, Gonzaga’s Matt Bouldin, Wisconsin’s Trévon Hughes and North Carolina State’s Trevor Lacey, currently play in South Korea, France and Italy, respectively. All, like Smith-Rivera, boasted impressive college resumes, yet none could translate his game to the NBA level.
A week after his original announcement, however, Smith-Rivera rendered the debate about his professional prospects pointless, at least for another 12 months.
“1 More Go Around!” Smith-Rivera posted to his Instagram account April 7, along with a photo of himself in a gray Georgetown uniform. The athletics department did not release a statement, but the story was soon confirmed: Smith-Rivera would return for his senior season in 2015-16.
In Smith-Rivera’s eyes, the decision about his future was not necessarily a basketball decision.
“Over time I had thought about some things, like finishing school,” Smith-Rivera said. “I’ve come this far — to not finish would be disappointing to my family more than anything. I’m a first generation for my family to go to college and I’ll be the first to graduate, so that was a major factor.”
Opponents in the Big East can testify to the competitiveness and confidence of Smith-Rivera, so it should come as little surprise that the guard said doubts about his ability factored little into his decision.
“I got some feedback, but I wasn’t declared long enough to even really get opinions on where I would pan out,” Smith-Rivera said. “Offensively, I think I’m more than ready. I can score the ball in different ways, can make plays for my teammates, can defend the ball. There’s a lot of things that I think can translate.”
Head Coach John Thompson III has a slightly different recollection.
“A lot of the pro guys are telling him, ‘It might be in your best interests to put that on hold for another year,’” Thompson said. “I’m not going to sit here and say it was an easy decision, but it wasn’t necessarily a hard decision either.”
THE UNQUESTIONED LEADER
Regardless of the reason for his return, Smith-Rivera’s decision had an immediate impact on the expectations for this year’s Georgetown team. The day after Duke claimed the national championship, CBS Sports released an early ranking of the top 26 teams for the 2015-16 season that did not include Georgetown. One week later, after it became clear Smith-Rivera would be back, Georgetown appeared at No. 17 in a revised version of the rankings.
The Hoyas without Smith-Rivera would have had exciting potential with a lack of clear leadership. Sophomore forwards Isaac Copeland and Paul White and sophomore guards L.J. Peak and Tre Campbell each played a major role in at least a few wins last season, and this year’s freshmen also appear capable of making an immediate impact. Yet neither senior center and co-captain Bradley Hayes nor junior forward Reggie Cameron — the only two other upperclassmen on scholarship — averaged more than two points per game last season.
Now that Smith-Rivera is back, he will take a leadership role on the team. The senior, who will serve as a co-captain of the team for the second consecutive season, has shown he can make big plays on both ends of the court. Last year, he hit a go-ahead jump shot in the waning seconds of an overtime victory over No. 18 Florida and came up with a crafty steal in the final moments of a road win over No. 21 Butler.
The universal respect that Smith-Rivera receives from his younger teammates testifies to his importance to the team.
“He’s like a coach on the court and off the court,” Peak said.
“He brings the experience, the leadership, just the poise, you know, him handling the ball,” White said. “He’s been in big games and big situations. He knows what to do. So that leadership is going to trickle down to the rest of the team.”
WORK TO BE DONE
Senior guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera has scored 1,386 points in three seasons.
Although only a quarter of Smith-Rivera’s college career remains, some of his legacy has yet to be written. The senior scored a total of 1,386 points in his first three seasons on the Hilltop, good for 19th on the school’s all-time scoring list. That number places Smith-Rivera one spot ahead of Chris Wright, the predecessor to Smith-Rivera’s predecessor, Markel Starks, at point guard.
Once the season starts, Smith-Rivera will likely surpass several of the names ahead of him on the list. He will pass Roy Hibbert (COL ’08), who ranks 16th on the list, and Allen Iverson, who ranks 14th, by Christmas if he scores at a pace similar to his pace from the last two years.
The milestone of 2,000 points is a golden number in college basketball, and it is one that carries some extra weight at Georgetown, where only Alonzo Mourning (COL ’92), Reggie Williams (CAS ’87), Patrick Ewing (CAS ’85) and Eric “Sleepy” Floyd (CAS ’82) have surpassed the mark. With a strong performance this season, Smith-Rivera could add his name to that rarified bunch.
The Hoyas are scheduled to play 30 regular-season games this year; if the team can put together a run to the Big East tournament final and a trip to the Sweet 16, Smith-Rivera would have to average just over 17 points per game to reach 2,000. He scored 17.6 points per game his sophomore year and 16.3 points per game last season. Yet individual records go only so far. If Smith-Rivera wants to go down as one of the all-time Georgetown greats, he will have to do more than score points. Austin Freeman (COL ’11) ranks seventh on the school’s all-time scoring list, but many would prefer the career of Jonathan Wallace (COL ’08), who ranks 23rd but played a critical role in the Hoyas’ run to the Final Four in 2007.
Smith-Rivera knows more about postseason disappointment than anyone else on the roster, and the fact that he has never played on the second weekend of the NCAA tournament is partially responsible for his presence on campus this year.
“It definitely factored into my decision to return,” Smith-Rivera said. “My freshman year, we were top five in the country, expected to do great things.”
That season ended, of course, in a shocking Round of 64 upset at the hands of Florida Gulf Coast.
After receiving a bid to the National Invitation Tournament in Smith-Rivera’s sophomore year, the Hoyas got back to the NCAA tournament last season, where they bowed out with an unceremonious loss to No. 5 seed Utah in the Round of 32.
“We did alright,” Smith-Rivera said of last year’s campaign. “Ended in the top 25, but we had a handful of games that we lost by five or fewer points, so hopefully we can be better.”
With its combination of talent and leadership from Smith-Rivera, Georgetown could position itself to make that hope a reality.
“It’s his senior year and I know he wants to go out with a bang,” Campbell said. “So why not? Let’s do it.”
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