By: Rich Flanagan
West Chester, PA – Robert Smith Jr.’s collegiate career was nearly in doubt.
During his decision-making process on where to play next, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill and as Smith concluded his senior year at Bishop McDevitt in Wyncote, his list of options began to diminish. Division I possibilities such as St. Peter’s and Binghamton ceased to exist along with interest from Wagner and Howard as high school recruiting stymied and programs shifted their attention to the suddenly robust NCAA transfer portal.
So much was out of his control that it became overwhelming, but he recalled a conversation with Damien Blair, the head coach at West Chester University, early in his recruitment, and that epiphany would springboard a career that found success early and reached new heights every step of the way.
Robert Smith #2 - Bishop McDevitt alum - PSD Photo by Kathy Leister
“After the pandemic started, I was supposed to take my SATs, but I couldn’t take them as they were canceled,” Smith said. “’It set me back a little bit because I didn’t know if I was going to have to go the prep route or whether I could get into a Division I or II program. I was all over the place, but I got in touch with Coach Blair because at the West Chester Elite Camp, he said to me, ‘If anything happens, you always have a place here.’ I kept that in mind and once it became time, I chose to come here.”
The 6-foot-1 junior lefty is averaging a career-best 17.6points per game along with 2.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists on 43.8 percent shooting as West Chester (14-8, 11-5 Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference) nears yet another postseason berth. He has made 53 three-pointers, matching his total from last season, and has scored in double figures in 17 games, with eight 20-point performances. He is coming off a career-high 31 points in an 86-82 victory over Shepherd University, going 9-18 from the floor with six three-pointers.
Smith is in his second full season as a starter, but he was equally as impressive as a freshman, coming off the bench and bringing an added element that has benefited Blair and his Golden Rams program immensely.
He has showcased that scoring prowess that made him such a coveted prospect at Bishop McDevitt, but it has taken on a whole different level under Blair, who wanted Smith at an early age and while there were many suitors for the electric guard, he basically laid down an offer that would be there should Smith want to go that route.
“When I watched him play in high school, I saw he had the skillset to be able to do that at our level,” Blair said. “We knew he was a Division I caliber basketball player with multiple schools interested in him. What I tried to do was stay connected and develop a relationship with him just in case things didn’t work out. He came up to our elite camp and I was able to get to see him play live while coaching him, and I realized this is the type of kid we wanted in our program.”
Damien Blair, West Chester head coach - Photo Courtesy of WCU Athletics
“We were fortunate enough to be able to seal the deal because some other schools had dropped off late, and he stepped in as a freshman, made some big plays and has helped us win a lot of games to this day.”
Smith joined Blair in an exclusive club earlier this season as he went for 22 points in a 100-97 victory over No. 9 California (Pa.) and surpassed 1,000 career points, becoming the first West Chester player to reach that mark since the 2018-19 season. Smith has already been named Second Team All-PSAC East twice in his career and reaching the 1,000-point mark is the latest accomplishment for a former heralded prospect who found his landing spot after things looked dire.
For Smith, he’s simply doing what he has always done and what comes naturally: putting the ball in the basket.
Robert Smith Jr. notched his 1,000th career point as a Ram in an 100-97 victory over No. 9 California (Pa.) - Photo Courtesy of WCU Athletics
“I’m a scorer so I can find ways to score at any spot on the floor,” Smith said. “Whichever way it comes, it’s going to happen. It’s me focusing on getting my teammates involved because not only am I helping them, but it also opens my game up.”
Blair was a prolific scorer and shooter during his playing days at his alma mater, scoring the second-most points in West Chester history (2,025) while owning the career record for three-pointers made (319) in 109 games.
The 16-year head coach who is inching closer to 300 career wins felt he was more of a spot-up shooter and distributor during his playing days, and as he has developed Smith, he sees a stark difference between their skillsets.
“His game is a little more dynamic than mine because he’s spectacular at times as far as finishing at the rim,” Blair said.” I was more of a perimeter shooter and playmaker and that’s probably something that I would love to pass on to him to slow down a little bit. When he really needs to kick into high gear, he can do that.”
Smith’s trajectory to West Chester was forged at McDevitt under Will Chavis, now an assistant coach at Drexel. After playing JV as a freshman at Roman Catholic with the likes of Lynn Greer III (St. Joe’s), Seth Lundy, Da'kQuan Davis and Allen Betrand starring on the varsity team, he transferred to the Wyncote school and led the Royal Lancers to the Philadelphia Catholic League playoffs where they fell to Ed Croswell, Kyle Thompson, Darius Kinnel, and St. Joe’s Prep. Smith led the team in scoring at 15.8 ppg on his way to Third Team All-Catholic and even took Bishop McDevitt to the PIAA Class 3A Tournament quarterfinals where it loss to eventual champion and league foe, Neumann-Goretti.
His junior season saw a historic breakthrough for the Royal Lancers program and Smith was at the forefront of it. He poured in a career-high 35 points against Fairmount Heights (Md.) early in the season then led Bishop McDevitt to 11 Philadelphia Catholic League wins, its most since winning that same total in 1989. Furthermore, he scored 19 points in a quarterfinal win against Archbishop Wood to lift the Royals Lancers into the Philadelphia Catholic League semifinals at the Palestra for the first time since that 1989 season.
He avg. 14.2 ppg and earned Second Team All-Catholic honors then spearheaded the deepest state tournament run in program history as the Royal Lancers advanced to face the Saints in the quarterfinals again, but this time left with a 60-57 win as Smith scored 17, including a key free throw in the waning seconds to provide that three-point margin.
Bishop McDevitt reached the state semifinals for the first time ever and the run ended with a loss to Chance Westry (Syracuse) and Trinity. The vaunted 2020 class of Smith, Jamil Manigo, Shamir Mosley, Glenn Smith, and Kevin Young were even better as seniors propelling Bishop McDevitt to 12 league wins with Smith leading the way at 16.2 ppg. He never finished with less than 10 points in any game that final season and scored exactly 10 in his final high school game, a loss to Camp Hill in the opening round of the 2020 PIAA 3A Tournament.
Smith culminated his career with a First Team All-Catholic selection on a list that included Manigo, Greer, Detroit Pistons forward Jalen Duren, league MVP Rahsool Diggins (UMass), Jordan Hall, Hakim Byrd, Tyreese Watson, Justice Williams, and Jaylen Stinson. He also made the Pa. All-State 3A Team twice, including first team as a senior, and finished with the second-most points in Bishop McDevitt history (1,203).
Will Chavis, now an assistant coach at Drexel, was the head coach at BIshop McDevitt during Robert Smith's tenure - PSD Photo by Geanine Jamison
The Royal Lancers were 54-27 during Smith’s career with 27 of those wins coming in the Philadelphia Catholic League along with three league and state playoff appearances. Bishop McDevitt closed its doors after the 2020-21 academic year due to declining enrollment.
Following what had been a historic career to that point, Smith still carries many of the lessons Chavis shared with him throughout his collegiate career and all have served him well.
“Will Chavis always told me to be ready and not take anything for granted,” Smith said. “Just keep your head down and stay humble because your time is going to come. Once I got here, I already had the mentality that I’m going to take anything in front of me. I’m here for a reason and I came here to play, so I’m going to do anything I can to stand out, be on the floor and help my team win.”
In October 2020, West Chester University became one of the first schools in the area to cancel all winter and spring sports, leaving Smith and a host of others without the opportunity to start their careers right away. A one-year hiatus proved to be beneficial for the Philadelphia native and, according to Blair, “he started off his career as a freshman as one of the better guards in the PSAC.”
Robert Smith Jr. #2 West Chester University - Photo courtesy of WCU Athletics
Smith avg. a team-leading 14.2 ppg and shot an incredible 48.8 percent from the floor and an even equally striking 46 percent from behind the three-point line with 69 makes from deep, which currently stands as the seventh-best single-season mark in program history, in 29 games (10 starts).
He scored 28 points in his second career game against Lincoln University.
Even in year one, Blair was already witnessing subtle nuances in Smith’s game that differed greatly from his high school career and those moments allowed Blair and his staff to frame the next phase of Smith’s maturation.
“In high school, he was more of a pull-up guy who could get all the way to the rim and finish at the basket,” Blair said. “He has expanded his game now where he has to be able to shoot threes, use his mid-range game, and finish and play off two feet. What we want to do is put the ball in his hands so he can make winning basketball plays.”
That next phase was getting Smith more comfortable bringing the ball up the court and facilitating the offense. “His decision-making from that spot is something we’re working on, and while he’s such a good scorer, he needs to get others involved,” as Blair noted. Smith increased his scoring average to 15.5 ppg, leading the team once again, in helping the Golden Rams to a 21-8 record (16-6 PSAC).
He played with more patience and composure as a sophomore, giving up good shots for better ones and finding ways to use his scoring ability as a decoy as West Chester avg. 78.9 ppg – top three in the PSAC – and had five players average double figures.
He was transitioning into the next phase of his development and excelling in a position he was unaccustomed to playing for much of his career.
“I feel I found my pace in becoming a point guard and seeing the floor better,” Smith said. “I feel I can score any time I want to, but it’s not always just about me. Getting other people involved and having them gain confidence goes a long way.”
He has scored 1,196 career points and his 175 three-pointers made puts him sixth on the West Chester all-time list. Both are remarkable accolades when considering his college career almost didn’t get off the ground. He’s not only taken off but has engineered a career that will put him in the same breadth as some of the Golden Rams greats. With one more year of eligibility remaining, he could choose to continue to climb those ranks or take his talents elsewhere.
Blair admitted selfishly he hopes Smith closes out his career in the purple and gold, but having seen how Smith has grown and persevered, he will not pressure his young guard into making a hasty decision. In retrospect, Smith waited quite a long time and finally picked West Chester almost at the buzzer, yet it turned out to be the perfect decision. As Smith prepares to graduate at the end of the spring semester, Blair wants him to approach it that same way.
“He’s going to have a lot of options and obviously we’d love for him to stay,” Blair said. “He’ll probably score close to 1,800, maybe 2,000 points. He will probably be one of the best players to ever play here at West Chester, but he’ll also have some opportunities to make other decisions if they present themselves. He’s in a really good spot and we’re concentrating on getting him better every day.”