This spring I had the opportunity to interview Jai Smith of the new Overtime Elite League. I came away impressed with his determination and versatility – qualities that apply to him as both a player and person.
Q: Who is Jai Smith? What are some things that people may not know about you?
A: Jai Smith is a guy who brings that energy every game and is willing to work hard and play his role. I go hard even if I don’t touch the ball the whole game or anything like that so I’m really just willing to work.
Q: You committed to the Overtime Elite League after receiving offers from Baylor, Kentucky, Kansas, and other high-majors. Can you describe what your recruiting process was like?
A: My recruiting process was very crazy because I went from my junior year going into senior year with like two-to-three offers and one of those offers ended up getting pulled away so I just really worked. I had kind of a growth spurt and I just really worked and I ended my senior year with fifty offers so it was kind of crazy to see both sides of how it is in the recruitment.
Q: Can you please further describe the Overtime Elite League and what you heard from them as they made you an offer?
A: OTE is a great league. I love OTE. They put out a format of how to be pro – we have people like Kevin Ollie and overseas champion Coach RG [Ryan Gomes] who played in the NBA, guys who have already been where we want to be, especially guys like Brandon [Williams] and Aaron [Ryan] who worked in the NBA. Brandon was even an [assistant] GM in the NBA. I’m definitely seeing that getting feedback on the things I need to work on in order to achieve my goal is a huge thing for me. Seeing how professional the school and workouts and stuff like that are, putting my trust in them has helped a lot.
Q: Are you planning on testing the 2022 NBA Draft waters?
A: Yes. I believe I definitely could get drafted but even if I don’t I still feel like I will definitely be the best player in that class just because of my work ethic.
Q: What role do you see yourself (eventually) playing in the NBA?
A: In the NBA, I’m centered towards those guys like Kobe [Bryant] shooting three air balls while everyone is talking about “oh stop shooting those air balls” and stuff like that. I’m one of those guys where there’s ups and downs and everything and hardships you have to go through but it’s really how you respond and how you get back on the grind. I feel like I definitely could be a 10 and 10 player. I’m not saying I’m just going to come into the league and just be there. Obviously I have to work to do that but even if I don’t [get there] I’m still going to work my tail off 100% and I’m still going to be that player at the end of the day. To be honest I’m one of those underdogs people sleep on. I believe and I know who I can be.
Q: How did you get your nickname the Ice Man?
A: Before I had the nickname I watched the George Gervin and Dwyane Wade Gatorade commercial. I just fell in love with it seeing him hold the ball. When I watched him in a game I said everything’s cold, this dude is really good. One time [my friend and I] got on the phone with Derrick Gervin, George Gervin’s brother, and he was like “you’re gonna be Ice Man? What the hell, you’re crazy” and stuff like that and he was making fun of me at first. Later on we were talking and he was like you’re cool. He gave that name and handed it down.
Q: When was the first time you dunked?
A: I first dunked at the end of sixth grade. From then on out I ended up starting to get used to it. I started with little dunks but later on I was going two-hands, two-hand cock-backs, dunking off my vertical. It just came along.
Q: What are some things that motivate you in your career?
A: Being an underdog, being slept on, people telling me I can’t be this or that. I see other people under the same circumstance that I was coming up. Sometimes being an underdog really fuels my fire to prove people wrong and it makes me very happy.
Q: Who are your role models both on and off the court?
A: I would definitely say my parents. My uncle is [also] a very big motivator to me. Coaches, Coach Ollie is a very big role model for me. I look up to players like [Stephen] Curry and Giannis [Antetokounmpo]. Jimmy Butler is a very very big role model to me just because of his being an underdog coming from nothing to something. I fell in love with underdog players like that, like Ben Wallace and Dennis Rodman, because even when I was struggling I was like I have nowhere near as bad a setback as these guys so if they can do it I sure know I can do it.
Q: If you could train with any current or former NBA player, who would it be?
A: Wilt Chamberlain. I just want to see that. It’s kind of a myth, like a story-time. He’s like [creating] a 7’5” player in NBA2k. It sounds unreal. To actually talk to someone like that I feel would be a very legendary workout. 100 points? Come on now.
Q: What are your biggest strengths on the court?
A: My biggest strengths: people don’t talk about this much – I’m a player, I’m a yes-man, I set my role, but honestly I’m a very, very good shooter. I can shoot from the perimeter and I can knock down corner threes when needed. In high school I pretty much played the stretch big role; I wasn’t just an athletic dunker, I was more of a stretch big. I always had a motor, I’m always able to rebound very well, way above average, so I can be a top rebounder in the league. Dunking [is another strength of mine]. I love to fly and I look up to players like Blake Griffin and John Collins who get a lot of posters and are very explosive. I feel like I can handle it and once I get comfortable with a team I feel like I can definitely play the three and the two at 6’9”, 6’10”. To be able to do that and showcase that I’m a very versatile player. I feel like once I get on a team I can show my strengths more: rebounding, putbacks, dunking, reads, and I can really shoot it too.
Q: What are you currently focusing on the most when it comes to improving your game?
A: Ball-handling. Ball-handling opens up everything on the basketball court. To be able to handle the ball you can basically do everything. Everybody needs a really good ball-handler. I want to be able to work on ball-handling so that one day I can play the one. Believe it or not I love Ben Simmons’ game. Even though he doesn’t shoot, there’s other stuff he does – if you know basketball you know basketball. He’s still a great defender, great slasher, and very, very good playmaker and dribbler at 6’10”, which is very different. I look at players like that in terms of being a big guard and having no limit on my game. Also, Ben Simmons really can shoot, it’s just a mental thing. Once you get over that you can stay focused.
Q: What is your daily routine like?
A: I wake up around 7:30 AM, brush my teeth and wash my face, and leave at like 7:50 so I’m in there rushing and going fast. OTE has academics and internships for post-grad so I work out for a little bit or I go with the content team and work on stuff for careers outside of basketball. After that I have practice – half weight room and half on the court (offense and defense). After practice is usually lunch. After that we can leave, get treatment, do whatever we want. Then there’s dinner, then after that I’m done, get home, and play a little bit of NBA2k.
Q: What topics off the court interest you most?
A: Entrepreneurship. I’m really really good with my money – I barely spend it unless I really have to. You need to save your money, be a good saver, and not always spend and go crazy. I want to be a GM for an NBA team one day. I love things like that outside of basketball – even when I’m not playing basketball I’m playing NBA2k so it’s really [still] basketball. Honestly, I would say mostly entrepreneurship and being a businessman: clothing lines, shoe brands, fashion, stuff like that. Overtime Elite is really great with media.
Q: What is your favorite pre-game music?
A: Sometimes I listen to Lil Baby, I like Lil Baby. There’s a ton. Sometimes I like calming music. Lil Baby gets you hype, Lil Durk, G Herbo, they get me hype and get me into it.
Q: What is it like playing with Jean Montero?
A: Jean Montero is a very, very good point guard. He can play-make and shoot it. He’s very good at reading off of pick-and-rolls. He and I together remind me of Trae Young and John Collins so it’s kind of like that duo.
Q: What is it like playing for Kevin Ollie?
A: I love playing for Kevin Ollie. When I first came in I wasn’t used to level five energy and stuff like that so I was a little slower and behind some guys. I was supposed to be like the OK guy in the league and wasn’t supposed to be how I am now as one of the top guys/best players. Ollie really instilled in me a love for defense and being able to know the game and understand the game more. My game really took off. I can really lock up one-to-five. I can kind of play from five-to-two or threeish because of my defense, my ability to read, space out, and know the game more – he helped me with that a lot. My conditioning, he got me in really good shape, and now I can play a whole game without any problems and be fine. I really love that he taught me that and instilled it in me. He wasn’t soft on me (not coaching me) – I’ve had that in the past being able to do what I want. Having that [hard] coaching made me into a better player.
Q: What will (eventually) make you the right pick for an NBA team, or in other words, how do you specifically stand out from everybody else?
A: I would say I’m not afraid to guard anybody. When a team really believes in me I feel like I can definitely change the game. I’m the winningest player in the Overtime Elite League – this is a fact. I have the most wins because I can affect the game. I’m super athletic and super defensive. I talk on defense. I’m not quiet on the court. I love to play. I crave, eat, sleep, and dream good basketball. That really excites me. I love playing good basketball, finding the open man, dump-downs, dunks, alleys, making the right plays, playing as a team and playing together. Those are things I crave. Any team I go with I am fine with playing my role and just accepting my role as long as we win, like players like Dennis Rodman and Draymond Green. I feel like other players might come out okay, they might be able to shoot better than me, might dribble better than me, even dunk and be more athletic than me, but I’m definitely a winning player and I love to win. I’m all about winning. If you want a big winner for your organization here I am. I always play my role to the best of my ability. I will do whatever is asked of me. I am very coachable. I love to be coached. I don’t like not being coached. Yell at me hard and I won’t take it to heart – I will take it, react, and play on the court calm and cool.
Be sure to check out Kyle Cohen’s work on Twitter: @KyleCohenNBA