At the start of 2021, Colorado wasn’t even on RJ Smith’s radar.
In reality, it’s not like Smith spent the bulk of the COVID-19 lockdown fending off a deluge of Zoom calls from power conference coaches.
Yet as the spring gave way to summer, and collegiate coaches once again could hit the road following the end of the NCAA’s coronavirus travel restrictions, a little more attention started coming Smith’s way. Smith was introduced to Colorado assistant coach Bill Grier, and his journey to Boulder was on its way.
Smith wasn’t, and still isn’t, registering on recruiting sites like 247Sports.com enough to even receive a player ranking. But Grier, and CU head coach Tad Boyle, had seen more than enough to make Smith part of the Buffs’ 2022 recruiting class.
Smith, the unheralded guard out of southern California, and four-star big man Joe Hurlburt out of North Dakota made their commitments official with CU this past week by signing national letters of intent.
“I first started talking to coach Grier and he came to a few of my games in the summer. I kind of got interested from there,” Smith said. “It’s a Pac-12 program, and a chance to play against high-level guys every night. It’s an attractive place to go. It’s a beautiful campus. Coach Boyle is a good coach who believes in me.
“I loved the trip (to Boulder). When I first got there, the view was amazing. It was nothing I’d ever seen before. And I connected with the guys really well. We went to the football game, hung out, and I just knew it was the right place to be.”
As a somewhat overlooked 6-foot-4 guard, the Buffs’ track record of developing talent under Boyle caught Smith’s attention. George King was in that boat, and he ultimately was a second-round pick in the 2018 NBA draft. Same with current starting guard Elijah Parquet, who landed on the Pac-12 All-Defense team last year and is an early candidate this season for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
“It’s definitely a process,” Smith said. “Guys like McKinley Wright, in four years he had to trust the process with coach Boyle. They developed him to be a great player, and now he’s in the league. And I know they can do the same thing for me and I believe I can make it to the next level.”
Like most coaches, Boyle doesn’t get enamored with rankings while working the recruiting trail. And certainly not every gamble on eventual player development works as well as it did with King and Parquet. But in Smith, Boyle and his staff see the sort of versatile, all-around traits in a combo guard that generally have thrived in CU’s system.
“RJ was a name on our list. I got out to see him in June and July, and every time I saw him I liked him more and more,” Boyle said. “He’s not a guy who’s going to jump off the page at you with his quickness. He’s got good size but not exceptional size. He’s just good at everything. He’s a good rebounding guard. He can defend. He can shoot it. He can handle it. He’s one of those guys where you felt like his upside is there. You know he’s going to get better, because he’s got a good work ethic and he loves the game.”