Much of Derrik Smits’ development as a basketball player has come from merely listening, learning and observing.
Sidelined by a crushing lower-ankle injury, he painfully observed the Crusaders’ 30-win 2015-16 season from the bench.
Though very young at the time, he has fond, distant memories (which have been sharpened by NBATV re-runs) of watching his father Rik play in the NBA for the first five years of his life, including one season in which Rik’s Indiana Pacers played in the NBA Finals.
Like Derrik, Rik played his college ball at a small mid-major, Marist College in New York, which he came to from the Netherlands. Rik’s promising college career and 7-foot-4-inch frame made him a prized possession in the 1988 NBA Draft, when the Pacers selected him second overall.
Rik, nicknamed the “Dunking Dutchman,” cemented himself as an offensive force at the next level, averaging 14.8 points per game over his 12-year NBA career, and in 1998, he was rewarded with an All-Star appearance. Two years later, Smits’ Pacers played in the NBA Finals, pushing Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers to a six-game series.
Hampered by foot problems, Rik hung up the shoes after the conclusion of the 2000 NBA Finals. Almost 17 years later, his 7-foot-2-inch son is starting to make a name for himself.
Shorthanded at the center position, Derrik’s number was called upon in a Dec. 28 game at Chicago State.
“It just happened that there was a game against Chicago State and he was the only big we had (available),” associate head coach Luke Gore said. “Derrik was ready and he played well.”
With a productive outing in his first collegiate start, the coaching staff stuck with Smits in the starting lineup for its first conference game, at UIC, which served as a coming-out party for the redshirt freshman.
“For me personally, that game was a turning point,” Derrik said. “After that I started playing a little more consistently and producing a lot more. Mentally, it changed how I’ve been playing. It really helped to go up against a great defensive player in Tai Odiase and show that I can go at anyone in the league. It definitely brought up my confidence.”
Matched up against Odiase, a 2015-16 Horizon League All-Defensive team selection, Smits managed to snag a nifty six rebounds and put up 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting.
Since, Smits has started every conference game, splitting the big man minutes nearly equally with freshman Jaumee Sorolla.
“I think we have two guys that both could be considered starters at that position right now,” said Gore, who works with the big men. “We just kept rolling that way. He’s embraced it, and he’s continued to get better every day in practice.”
Smits has tried to take every basketball opportunity as a learning experience, a chance to get better.
At the start of last season, Smits was diagnosed with two torn ligaments in his right ankle, which would sideline him for the season. As difficult as it was for Smits, it gave him an opportunity to closely observe 6-foot-10-inch, two-time Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year Vashil Fernandez.
“He definitely taught me a lot when he was here, and I’m thankful for him,” Smits said. “He’s a great player and a great guy, and he helped me a lot. He showed me a lot of things I should do and some things I shouldn’t do just sitting on the sideline watching him.”
Uniquely gifted with a 7-foot-2-inch body, long arms and a high basketball IQ, Valpo has been a great playground for Smits to grow. The coaching staff remains committed to polishing his game over the next three and a half years.
But with NBA dreams, perhaps the greatest adviser Smits has is his father. Rik taught him since childhood how to play the game he loves, and has offered a wide variety of tips and pointers since.
“He’s got a ton of potential,” Rik said. “I see him doing a lot of things that I wasn’t doing at his age. Offensively, he’s got a great skillset. He can play inside and out. He can shoot threes. Derrik’s probably a better passer than I ever was. He’s definitely got the potential.”