A high ceiling above, Georgia Tech’s Deivon Smith strains to reach it

Georgia Tech guard Deivon Smith knows a little bit about style and appearance. He estimates that he owns around 50 pairs of sneakers, including 20 to 30 pairs of Air Jordans. (His favorites are the Jordan 11′s, with the patent-leather uppers.) On Wednesday, he matched an orange hoodie with a pair of orange Nikes that have become a hot commodity among sneaker aficionados.

“I have a lot of stores in Atlanta – Full Circle, Good Times – that look out for me with the shoes and let me know when stuff’s coming out so I can grab it first,” Smith said.

The soft-spoken junior is not merely a consumer of fashion, but also a merchant. He has a line of pullovers, sweatpants and T-shirts that he has had manufactured in Pakistan and sells online through his own brand, Better Living Garments. On the front of a black hoodie, “Better Living” is printed across the chest above a basketball rim and net. On the back, a skeleton with mouth agape dunks a ball in the form of a globe through a flaming hoop. Smith said that his first two shipments of about 50 and 75 pieces sold out, and he’s on his third. The pullover can be yours for $70.

“It’s good clothes,” Smith said. “Everybody’s buying it.”

With a ball in his hands, Smith has a similar flair for drawing attention. Explosive dunks, no-look passes, stop-on-a-dime ballhandling and darting steals – all with his dreadlocks flying – are part of the experience.

“He grabs one of those rebounds, and he takes off, and he turns the corner,” Tech associate head coach Anthony Wilkins said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “You can almost hear the crowd – just that momentum building. You’ve been there plenty of times where you kind of felt that thing, and you’re on the edge of your seat, and you’re wanting to see what he’s going to do.”

As the Yellow Jackets have struggled through the season – they play at Wake Forest on Saturday trying to build off their home win Wednesday night over Notre Dame – Smith has been putting together a season perhaps unlike any other throughout Division I. The foundation of it, perhaps ironically, has not been the eye-catching parts of his game, but more mundane components such as consistency of effort and avoidance of mistakes.

“I just feel like I learned how to play hard at all times and really assert myself, and it’s kind of paying off, win or loss,” Smith told the AJC. “Of course, it’s been pretty ugly with the losses, but individually, it’s paying off.”

As the Jackets seek to finish the regular season well – they’re 9-15 (2-12 in the ACC) with seven games remaining before the ACC Tournament – with coach Josh Pastner’s future employment in question, Smith stands as perhaps the biggest individual success of the season for the Jackets and another example of Pastner’s capacity for player development. Going into Saturday’s games, Smith ranks second in the ACC in assist/turnover ratio (2.8), 12th in assists (3.7 per game) and 17th in rebounding (5.7 per game). Given that Smith is 6-feet-1 and 176 pounds, the fact that he leads his team in rebounding and ranks in the top 20 in the ACC is mind-boggling.

Going to the glass has been a habit since his younger days.

“I’ve always been a small guard, but I was always athletic,” Smith said. “They’ll forget to box me out, so I literally will just sneak in there and grab a couple rebounds. I’ll look up, and I might have eight rebounds. In high school, I think I had 22 rebounds one time.”

Having uncommon springs for legs helps. Smith has a standing vertical jump of 34 inches and a max vertical (using a running start) of 44.5 inches. At the NBA scouting combine last year, only one of the 51 players tested had a higher vertical, and the best max vertical was 41.5 inches.

But physical gifts – as rare as Smith’s are – are only part of it. Challenging for – and winning – rebounds against players much taller and heavier is not an act for the delicate.

“You can’t make a guy embrace that kind of energy, that role, the toughness you’ve got to have to battle among the trees,” Wilkins said. “He embraces it, and it’s a great thing to see, and we play a lot better when he’s doing that at a high level.”

Smith responded to Pastner’s challenge to be a high-level rebounding guard and has succeeded. According to the analytics site KenPom, before Saturday’s games, Smith ranked 12th in the ACC in defensive rebounding percentage (defensive rebounds recorded compared with all rebounds available when a player is on defense) at 20.2%. Of the top 35 players in the conference as of Friday, 29 were 6-7 or taller. The shortest players after Smith were 6-4.

Entering Friday’s games, there were 239 players throughout Division I with a defensive rebounding percentage of 20% or higher. Of those, all but 20 were 6-6 or taller. Of the 20, only five were 6-3 or shorter, and Smith was the shortest at 6-1, and he was the only one at a power-conference school.

“He is probably literally one of the best guard rebounders in the country,” Wilkins said. “I really can appreciate that adherence to accepting the role and helping us. He’s fast. The more he rebounds, the more we’re in transition.”

Developing the will to play hard all the time has been a process for Smith, who said that Pastner has coached him “really, really, really hard” to give more effort.

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets guard Deivon Smith (5) attempts a shot against Northern Illinois Huskies forward Harvin Ibarguen (23) during the first half in a NCAA men’s basketball game at McCamish Pavilion, Thursday, November 17, 2022, in Atlanta. Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

icon to expand image

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

“Like to the point we might even bump heads sometimes,” Smith said. “That’s always going to happen with a point guard and a coach. It’s nothing bad or anything. He just coaches me really, really hard, and it makes me work even harder so that I can be out there and play hard for him and my teammates.”

After Tech’s win Wednesday – a game in which Smith came off the bench for eight points, nine rebounds, seven assists, two steals, one block and no turnovers in 32 minutes of action – Pastner singled out Smith for his positivity and energy at practice leading to the game.

“Just the way he was, I knew he was going to play well,” Pastner said.

Smith said he was motivated by playing only a total of four minutes in the two previous games – losses to Louisville and N.C. State – because of an ankle injury.

“My energy was good,” he said. “Just starting in practice, not taking practices for granted or just trying to get through it. Just playing in practice like it’s a game. I think that helped me a lot.”

His 9/0 assist/turnover ratio against the Fighting Irish reflected how his decision-making and ballhandling also have been refined. It was evident in one particular play when, while fronting Notre Dame forward Nate Laszewski in the post, he leapt high to intercept a lob pass and then started a fast break. Speeding down the middle of the floor, Smith was focused on attacking the basket for a dunk. Guard Kyle Sturdivant joined him on the left wing.

But when Irish guard Cormac Ryan chose to leave Sturdivant to stop Smith, with Notre Dame guard Dane Goodwin also protecting the basket, Smith made the decision to bypass the chance at a highlight dunk and flipped the ball to Sturdivant, who buried a wide-open 3-pointer. There was a chance that, with his explosiveness, Smith may well have scored over Goodwin and Ryan.

“He’s one of the most athletic guys in college and super fast with the ball,” Wilkins said. “So betting on himself is not necessarily a bad option.”

But he also risked not making the shot or getting called for a charge. To Wilkins, Smith’s decision to pass was the smart play and an indication of his maturation.

“Very rarely does he try to make a home-run play,” he said. “In a viral-content world in basketball, players are rewarded for making that highlight-reel play. I think he’s gotten more disciplined in really buying into hitting singles.”

Smith was a much more highly recruited player out of high school than Tech great Moses Wright, but Wright faced a similar challenge of learning to apply his elite physical ability with unrelenting effort.

“Different positions, but yes, I think that’s a fair comparison,” Pastner said.

Pastner sees in Smith someone who can make a jump next season to being an All-ACC candidate who could be the league’s defensive player of the year.

“He can be as good as he wants to be,” Pastner said.

Going hard to the defensive glass, limiting turnovers and playing with consistent energy – they’re not the typical way to get widescale attention. For Smith, it might do the trick.

“I like (the improved statistics), like my work is showing,” he said. “It’s definitely showing. But I’m just trying to play hard, make the next play.”