Wright State’s Malachi Smith had a steal and breakaway dunk against Youngstown State last week, a play that was important for two reasons.
It not only provided the Raiders with a much-needed spark on the road — giving them a one-point lead with 12:29 to go on the way to an 80-74 victory — but it also was the perfect response to the endless ribbing he was getting from teammates about his lack of jumping ability.
“A lot of people on this team say I can’t dunk,” the 6-foot-3 freshman guard said with a smile Wednesday. “Now they say, ‘You have to dunk four more times to be able to say you’re a dunker.’ Whatever.”
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Smith may have work to do before his high-flying teammates allow him into their club, but he showed he’s an indispensable part of the Raiders’ rotation after breaking out of a prolonged funk and earning Horizon League freshman of the week honors.
After scoring 10 points in a season-opening win against Western Carolina, the back-up point guard didn’t reach double figures again until tallying team highs of 17 points and nine rebounds at Youngstown State.
He followed that with an eight-point, four-rebound effort in an 89-66 win at Cleveland State .
“In the Youngstown State game, if he didn’t show up, we would’ve been in trouble,” coach Scott Nagy said.
“His ability to handle the ball, handle pressure and make plays off the dribble are a big positive for us.”
During that 17-game stretch between Western Carolina and YSU, Smith produced just 41 points — despite constant prodding from Nagy to be more assertive.
“He was getting on me in warmups and practice to be aggressive at all times. He tells me that a lot,” Smith said. “But being a freshman, it’s kind of hard picking your spots.
“The high school game is a lot different than college. But I’m starting to get a groove for it.”
Asked how he managed to get through the rough patch, Smith said: “The coaches tried to keep me upbeat. My mom, too. And past coaches I’ve had let me know, ‘Malachi, you’re fine. Just play your game.’
“Most of it was just over-thinking when I got in. I was always wondering, ‘Am I going to come out or am I going to play a lot?’ Now, whether I’m in or out, I just want to help my team.”
Smith’s contributions came at an ideal time. The Raiders have been short-handed all year with just nine scholarship players and only two subs, Bill Wampler and Skyelar Potter, they’ve been able to count on consistently.
Everett Winchester, who averaged 8.0 points and 3.8 rebounds as a freshman last season, transferred to Florida Atlantic. And key reserves Jaylon Hall and Grant Basile have been lost to season-ending injuries.
“Part of (the depth issue) is our fault because we didn’t fill out our roaster,” Nagy said. “But we also didn’t want to just throw scholarships at people and them not fit, and then we’re stuck with them. We gambled going into this year, hoping we’d be healthy, but we lost two very good players. It’s left us very limited.”
But Nagy pointed out the Raiders played much of last season with a seven-man rotation. And with Smith seemingly poised to help more, the bench no longer looks like a weakness.
Asked about his confidence level, the Belleville, Ill., product said: “It’s through the roof. Now I know what kind of player I am and the work I’ve put in outside of practice. There’s no need to be worried about anything.”
SHORT STAY: Omar Thielemans, a former four-star recruit who transferred from Arizona to Wright State over Christmas break, left school before classes started for undisclosed reasons and has enrolled at Milwaukee.
Milwaukee at Wright State, 7 p.m., ESPN+, 106.5-FM
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