ANNAPOLIS — There is no way to flee the reminders of Navy’s basketball struggles during Worth Smith’s freshman season.
More than three months of wearing a foot brace required because of an injury ensured basketball wasn’t far from his mind. Once healthy, the rising sophomore had the usual military obligations to attend to at the academy.
One day last month, Smith was questioned aboard a yard patrol boat about just how the Midshipmen wound up 3-26 last winter. Even on duty on the Severn River, the subject arose.
“I don’t like having to explain what happened during the season,” Smith said. “I just want to get to the next season and change it around.”
Who can blame him? The forward earned an expanded place in coach Ed DeChellis‘ rotation as the season unfolded but still played the final third of the schedule with a stress fracture in his right foot.
In Navy’s Patriot League quarterfinal loss to Bucknell — the last of 22 straight setbacks — Smith suffered a fully broken foot to cap the miserable season.
Nonetheless, he averaged 6.8 points and 5.0 rebounds, an encouraging glimpse for the future even without the impact of the injury factored in.
“We had to try to use him in practice sparingly,” DeChellis said. “He couldn’t ever practice a whole practice, so we would just pick pieces. For a young kid, that’s hard to stay sharp on your game. He had some frustrating days because he wanted to be out there, but I think he handled that whole thing mentally pretty well. He didn’t get down.”
But his game changed a bit as he accounted for a loss of athleticism and the departure of teammate J.J. Avila, a forward who was dismissed from the team late in the season. More and more, he was asked to play inside. More and more, he found himself needing to pump-fake his way into scoring opportunities, something he was not accustomed to.
“They were trying to put it in my game even before I got hurt,” Smith said. “Usually in high school, you’re bigger and more athletic and you don’t have to do as much pump-faking. This year, I had to do a lot more pump-faking. I had to play smarter.”
He’ll need to next season as well. Smith and the rest of Navy’s large freshman class was reminded throughout last season it could ill-afford to act as if they were new to college basketball even if the Mids’ record reflected substantial gaps in developed talent. Sooner than expected, those freshmen would be needed to play like veterans.
Smith is the most experienced of the bunch; he played more minutes last season (721) than any other returning player. That’s also the fourth-most career minutes on Navy’s roster behind juniors Isaiah Roberts (1,365), James Loupos (790) and Brennan Wyatt (741).
Of greater importance is an athleticism that allowed him to lead the Mids in offensive rebounding and blocked shots at 6-foot-5.
“He’s got a great basketball body,” DeChellis said. “He looks good and can shoot the basketball and can put it on the floor and drive to the basket and can rebound. He can do some things you can’t teach. He blocked some shots and had a couple dunks when he drove baseline and dunked that you really can’t teach. He can do some things out of the normal.”
There is, though, still work to do. In the long term, DeChellis envisions Smith as a 6-foot-6, 220-pound forward strong enough to handle himself inside. At this point, he’s optimistic Smith will play at 210 pounds as a sophomore, if not a little more.
Smith, who figures to play mostly at the four and the five next season with the possibility of time at small forward, was listed at 196 pounds last season.
“As long as it’s good weight,” Smith said. “If it’s slowing me down, I don’t really want the weight.”
Nor does he want the questions about what went wrong last season. The truth is, little went right as the Mids went winless after Nov. 27, from the 10 losses by single digits (including four one-possession losses) during the losing streak to Avila’s departure.
Things figure to improve to some degree. Smith, suddenly as established as nearly anyone on Navy’s roster, certainly is not interested in a rerun of his first season.
“We’re going to make it better,” Smith said. “We’re not going to go through that again.”
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