If you’ve watched Craig Smith play basketball for a bit, you’ve probably heard this phrase thrown around.
Craig Smith is a beast.
We were some of the early ones to figure that out.
In November 2002, perched on the familiar confines of our Section I, Row 13 seats inside Conte Forum, we watched on excitedly as Smith out-worked, out-muscled and out-played the mighty BABC All-Stars in his Boston College Eagles pre-season exhibition debut. After witnessing Al Skinner’s latest diamond-in-the-rough reveal himself as a ready-out-the-box Big East forward, we quickly arrived at another thought. You know, besides the whole beast bit.
Hope this guy stays four years.
Luckily for the Pastuszek family, who watched almost every home game as Boston College season ticket holders in the same Section I, Row 13 seats from 2000 to 2011 — and for every other Eagles basketball supporter, for that matter — Craig Smith did end up staying through his senior season. As part of a long line of similarly under-the-radar players that Skinner and his staff roamed the country to find and recruit to The Heights, the 6-7 250 pound power forward played alongside Troy Bell, Uka Agbai, Louis Hinnant, Jared Dudley and Tyrese Rice among several other key players from that era to spearhead a golden age in the program’s history. By the time senior night came in March 2006, Smith had personally amassed 2,349 points and 1,114 rebounds and had led the Eagles to a record-setting 96 wins, including a school record 28 in 2005-06, alongside three NCAA tournament appearances.
For those who weren’t as lucky as we were to catch Smith beast the competition in college, they certainly had their chance to see it at the game’s highest level. After Smith graduated Boston College, he went on to be drafted 36th overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2006 NBA Draft. He would go onto stay in the NBA for six seasons, playing for the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers as well.
Now, playing in his first pro season overseas, he’s taking the beast thing global. After spending time in Israel with Hapoel Jerusalem, Smith is now in China, playing for the Hong Kong Xinda Bulls of the National Basketball League. A middle of the pack squad last year, the Bulls are off to a 9-4 start with Smith leading the way. Through the weekend, he’s averaging 32.5 points and 13.8 rebounds per game on 63% shooting, according to Asia-Basket. With promotion into China’s top league, the Chinese Basketball Association, potentially on the line, this season means more than ever for NBL teams this season; a fact not lost on Smith, whose dominance has garnered the attention of Asia-Basket, awarding him as the league’s mid-season MVP.
Last week, we jumped on the phone with the Los Angeles native to talk about the season, living in China, his days at Boston College and playing for a Hong Kong team that plays everywhere but Hong Kong.
NiuBBall: Craig, you’re a past the halfway mark in the season, how would you rate the experience so far?
Craig Smith: It’s been a pretty good experience, getting to learn about the Chinese culture, going to and understanding some of the cities. And then obviously the travel schedule, which has been pretty hectic. The NBL, I guess because of the Chinese national team, they kind of sped up the season this year. So instead of two games a week, we’re now playing three. It’s pretty cramped in. So you got to keep up and learn quickly about things and recuperate your body faster.
But the overall experience has been great. I’ve got a great interpreter, great teammates, and a great coaching staff. Everybody’s done a lot to cater to me, being an American and being that this is my first time over here. So I’ve really enjoyed it so far.
NiuBBall: How did you get introduced to the idea of playing in the NBL? And how did you end up making your decision to sign over here?
CS: Actually I was just at home relaxing and chilling in Los Angeles. Then I got a call saying that a team was interested to have me come out and play in the shortened season. What better way to come out, play the game that I love and learn something about Chinese culture?
NiuBBall: The squad is in pretty good position right now, you had two nice wins last week against Guangzhou Free Man and Jiangsu Tongxi, which are two of the top teams in the league. How would you say you guys are doing so far?
CS: It’s been good so far. Before the season, our coach said there weren’t any expectations. He just wanted us to go out and battle, play each game and try to win. But at the same time, I like to win and I have the desire and the will to win. My teammates have the same drive that I have and they come out and play to the best of their abilities. So far it’s been really good. I just hope in the second half of the season we can avenge some of our early losses and finish as the top seed to get ready for the playoffs.
NiuBBall: With promotion to the CBA potentially on the line, a lot of teams are really gunning for that championship. Beside you, there have been a lot of other talented foreigners who have signed in the NBL this season. Can you sense any pressure around the team? Do you feel pressured personally to get this team promoted?
CS: I don’t really feel any pressure. Of course there is pressure because there are some teams who are trying to be a part of the CBA. But at the same time, I feel like we’re in a good position and we have a chance to do it. I kind of see ourselves as the spoilers of that group who are trying to get promoted. I don’t see it as a pressure thing. We just go out on the court, have fun and try to win every game.
NiuBBall: In this league, there’s only one foreigner per team. You are expected not only to play huge minutes, but to also be dominant every night. Has that been an adjustment for you?
I don’t think it’s been a big adjustment. I’m a basketball player so it’s whatever is needed. In college, there was a high demand for me to be a scorer and to play both ends. In The League, I had different types of roles. Sometimes it was scoring, sometimes it was defense and rebounding.
Here, I mean, I love to score. But at the same time, there’s a responsibility on me to do other things and I take on that challenge and accept it. From day one, I got to understand my teammates and that’s been really cool because I didn’t really know what to expect in terms of how we were going to communicate on the court. At the end of the day though, we all speak the same language: basketball. We understand each other out there fine on the floor, through certain gestures or whatever. I am trying to learn some form of Chinese basketball terminology, too.
NiuBBall: How’s that been going?
CS: It’s been going well. I have a vocab list. But some days you have a tough time because it’s all about the pronunciation. Being an American, with the alphabet, you say it a little differently [than a Chinese would]. You just try to learn something different each day, and that helps. But it can be a struggle sometimes.
NiuBBall: You played earlier this year in Israel, now you’re in China. How has the overseas experience been compared to the NBA?
CS: Overseas is cool in the sense that you get to see different parts of the world. I just think it’s more demand on your body as far as the travel schedule. In The League, you have 82 games, but at the same time with travelling and the amount of times between certain games, you’re able to relax your body a little bit. And it’s less practice. In Israel, we practiced everyday, even if we only had one game that week. That was very difficult for me because I’m used to playing all the time. This schedule is a little closer to the NBA schedule because we play three times a week. It’s just that sometimes with the travel, you might have to fly somewhere and then take a bus for a couple hours to get to the main city. So I would say the main difference has been travel.
NiuBBall: What have practices been like here?
They’ve been really good. Our coach makes sure that first and foremost, we have some competition, which is good. We go over our offense, get some shots up, talk about defensive strategies… in a sense it’s a little bit like an NBA practice where he knows that he has a veteran core group. It’s pretty much get in, get our work done, and get out so we can get some rest.
NiuBBall: You’ve mentioned the culture aspect several times already and it really seems like that’s something your trying to experience while here. I saw on your Twitter account you posted up some pictures of different sites and tourist spots in Xi’an. Tell us about where you’ve been and how it’s been.
CS: It’s been good. It’s been a learning experience. I went the movies the other day for the first time; I got to see Iron Man, which was cool. The cities, I noticed that there’s a lot of construction going on. The place where I live at, it’s pretty solid. It’s not an extra huge city, but I feel comfortable. It’s a comfortable city. And then overall, I’m just trying to get the whole experience wherever I go in China. That’s been really cool. Not a lot of people get the opportunity to do something that they love and to explore a different culture and its country.
NiuBBall: You been getting into any of the local food?
CS: I been eating some of the Chinese food and some of it’s pretty good. I’ve just been staying away from the duck heads and most of the pork, too [laughing]. And the dairy.
NiuBBall: Hey, I’ve been out here for five years and I still don’t go for duck head. They do have good noodles out there, though.
CS: Yeah, the beef noodles are bomb.
NiuBBall: I don’t fully understand this myself, but your official team name is the Hong Kong Bulls… yet you guys play in thousands of miles away in Shaanxi. What’s up with that?
CS: [Laughing] I don’t even know, man. That confuses me, too. I looked on the map and I said “We’re so far from Hong Kong.” I don’t even know. I don’t even know what to tell you [laughing].
NiuBBall: When you got off the plane to see that you were definitely not in Hong Kong, what was your reaction?
CS: When I got into Beijing, I didn’t know yet. I just got on the plane. Then when I got off [in Xi’an] I said, “Well, this isn’t Hong Kong.” But I guess that’s part of what they do out here. The main team sponsor or whatever is maybe out here or there’s some deal with relocation… I don’t know. I have no idea.
NiuBBall: What are your goals for the future? Are you trying to get back into the NBA? Are you looking to continue to develop yourself overseas? Are you thinking about potentially playing in the Chinese Basketball Association next season?
CS: Right now I’m just trying to create options all over the world. At the same time, if it makes sense from a business standpoint to go back to The League, I’ll look at that. If the NBA presents an opportunity for myself and consider it a good one, then I’d take it. But if the CBA offers a good opportunity, I would take that, too. I’m just weighing my options, really.
NiuBBall: Let’s switch gears and talk about your days at Boston College. When you were coming out of high school, you weren’t heavily recruited… I think a lot of fans know the story already, but why do you think Coach Skinner took such an interest in you when nobody else really gave you a serious look?
CS: I think he saw something in me that others didn’t really see. Obviously when you come out of high school, people know of your talent and have an idea of your potential. I guess a lot of people didn’t really see that in me, or thought I had some kind of rep, which I would have no clue about. There’s no bad rep about me. I just knew at the end of the day I could play basketball and I knew I was very intelligent about the game and I think that’s why he chose me. He’s known for taking players under the radar and we had some very successful teams as a result.
NiuBBall: You were part of the best four year run in program history, why do you think that core group was able to have so much success?
CS: We were the underdogs. We all were under-recruited. We had something to prove in the sense of, we can play this game and we can play at a high level. It doesn’t matter what you were ranked coming out of high school, or what your team is ranked in college. We’re here to beat you guys. It’s not always about what it looks like on paper. It’s about who wants it more when the ball goes up in the air. As a group, we wanted it more. We wanted to let people know “Hey, we are good. And we’re a special group of guys.”
NiuBBall: During that run, you played alongside some very talented teammates during your time at BC including Jared Dudley, Sean Williams, Tyrese Rice, Louis Hinnant and Sean Marshall. As one of the elder statesmen of that group, what kind of leadership approach did you take when you became an upperclassman?
CS: Basically just making sure that even though things may get a little rough at times for us, we make sure to stay together as a unit. When we go onto the court together, we’re going to fight and we’re going to battle. Kind of like a “300” mentality. That’s how I like to put it. Making sure we stay glued together as a family because once we go apart individually, that’s when things tend to fall apart. At our toughest times, making sure we keep our heads clear and make sure that we don’t wander off.
NiuBBall: A few years ago Coach Skinner left the school under less than ideal circumstances. Some of the players from that era have either distanced themselves from the school or have said some things in the media… You on the other hand have continued to support the team. I read during the NBA lockout in 2011, you watched a few practices and followed the team around for a bit.
CS: Yeah, I mean it’s my alma matter. Anytime I have the time to go and see them, I will. It is unfortunate that a thing like that had to happen. Do I think it was right? No. But sometimes that’s just part of the business. Maybe sometimes people are looking for a change. But at the end of the day, I’m still an Eagle. Certain things you just can’t control. I know that. It sucks to not be able to see my coach still be there, but at the same time what can you really do? I could be still upset about it or whatever, but I understand that things happen for a reason.
NiuBBall: Post-college, you’ve carved out a really nice professional career for yourself as an undersized post player. Growing up, who were some of the guys you modeled your game after?
CS: I looked at Charles Barkely’s game a lot, Charles Oakley, Buck Williams… Those guys all played professionally and they were all undersized at their position. It’s not always about height. It’s all about heart and will and how much you want it. Those guys always outplayed the taller guys because even though they were taller and lengthier, width-wise they were like toothpicks. Us smaller guys are little bit more brolic. It makes it even when you’re playing against those kind of guys. Because they might be able to jump high or outreach you sometimes, but they don’t have the strength to deal with you and that becomes a problem for them.
NiuBBall: How did you develop that mindset? And when did you figure out that your calling card was going to be playing on the interior?
CS: I figured it out at a young age. I knew I had a knack for being around the basket, or at least 17 feet and in. I’d say it was probably during my teenage years. We ran a lot of flex offense in high school. I know I can hit the elbow jump shot, I know I can make plays with my interior passing and also I have the strength to create separation and get to the basket.
NiuBBall: Anything else you got going on that you want to mention?
I got a Weibo account. I’m waiting for it to be verified. So I would just tell people to follow me on Weibo. I need to get more followers. I’ve had a wonderful experience out here so far. The Chinese people have really been kind to me and I really appreciate them. And I appreciate the fans in Xi’an. They’ve been incredible every game for us.
NiuBBall: Craig, thanks a lot for talking with us. All the best with the rest of the season and beyond.
CS: My pleasure.