RJ Smith arrived at Colorado last year a little battered and facing a numbers crunch in the backcourt.
One redshirt season later, Smith is setting his sights on a rotation spot for the Buffaloes.
The second-year guard is one of the few question marks surrounding the potential rotation for the 2023-24 CU men’s basketball team. In terms of the backcourt mix, juniors KJ Simpson and Julian Hammond III are locks to play heavy minutes.
Beyond that duo, minutes could be there for the taking for Smith.
“Really, the main thing for me in the offseason was just getting in the gym every day,” Smith said. “Just getting shots up, ball-handling. Whatever that can translate to the court this season. I worked a lot on getting in shape. That’s pretty much what I was working on this offseason, getting the ball and trying to put it in the basket. Last year, we didn’t make a lot of shots from the outside, so that’s one thing I’ve tried to come in here and focus on.”
When Smith joined the Buffs last year he still was recovering from a knee injury he suffered in the state championship game at the end of his senior year of high school. He also was staring at a backcourt rotation already set to feature Simpson, Hammond and Nique Clifford, who transferred to Colorado State following last season.
At 6-foot-4, Smith is slightly bigger than Simpson (6-2) and Hammond (6-3), and the only other true guard on the team is 6-foot-5 incoming freshman Courtney Anderson Jr.
“RJ has got great physicality,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “He’s 6-4, he’s strong, he’s athletic, he can shoot it. One of the reasons we recruited RJ is he can play with the ball in his hands, but he also can play without the ball. We’ve talked about playing KJ and Julian together, and RJ I kind of put in the mold of KJ and Julian. He’s probably a combination of both. He’s not quite as dynamic and explosive as KJ, but he’s strong and quick and can attack the rim. He’s maybe not quite as good a shooter as Julian right now, but he’s not far behind. So he’s kind of a combination of KJ and Julian, which is nice.”
With the Buffs preparing to run a five-out offensive system, pairing two shorter-type guards in the backcourt like Simpson and Hammond may not be problematic on that end of the floor. CU also boasts two small forwards who can play like guards in senior Luke O’Brien and freshman Cody Williams.
Defensively, however, a Simpson-Hammond backcourt pairing might present the occasional matchup problem. And as always under Boyle, that defensive ability — Smith is the all-time steals leader at Damien High School in La Verne, Calif. — might be how Smith ultimately earns his playing time.
“Coach Boyle really emphasizes defense, and I think I can be a great defender on this team,” Smith said. “Last year, I knew I wasn’t going to play. But at this point of the season, I feel very comfortable. Going through everything — the full practices, the games — experiencing that stuff not firsthand, but watching from the sideline, I definitely think I’m ready for this year. I learned a lot just watching the older guys and I think I’m definitely ready for this year.”