Jamar Smith is proud of his career overseas and success at Bahcesehir

2022-11-16T19:10:17+00:00 2022-11-16T19:28:54+00:00.

Bilal Baran Yardımcı

16/Nov/22 19:10


A regular in Europe and making shots count, Jamar Smith keeps on winning

By Bugra Uzar/ Buzar@eurohoops.net

Bahcesehir Koleji won the 2021-22 edition of the FIBA Europe Cup and moved into the Basketball Champions League. Jamar Smith was named Finals MVP and stuck around for a second season at the Istanbul outfit.

Smith, 35, sat down with Eurohoops to talk about his career in Europe from nervous beginnings to joining his current team, college years, the evolution of basketball and how much the NBA has changed, old school versus new school, and more.

Q: I would like to start with your life in Turkey. How is life in Istanbul for you and your family?

A: “Istanbul is amazing. I thought I really loved Malaga. When I played in Malaga, it was one of my favorite cities, one of the best cities in the world for me. But when I came to Istanbul, it was like a totally different vibe. Big city vibe, which I like. Traffic is a problem but other than that, Istanbul is great. The people here in Turkey are amazing. My wife loves it here. Both my kids go to Turkish schools. They like it here too. They can speak a little bit of Turkish too. It has been amazing. Culture and the acceptance of everybody here have been very cool.”

Q: You have played in two different colleges. One of them was Illinois, and the second one is Southern Indiana, where you won the Division II MVP award. How were your college days and why did you decide to change university in your sophomore year? 

A: “College was great. At both schools, the college experience was really good for me. I made some bad choices in my first college, I got in some trouble, which caused me to have to go to a Division II school. I kind of thought that my career did not take off the way it did after going to Southern Indiana. But the success that I had there, my continuing progression as getting better as a player helped me to end up having a really good career overseas. College was really like a stepping stone to getting to who I am now. When I went to my second school, I didn’t know anybody there. I was kind of alone. I was like; gym, school, gym, school… I really had nothing to do except basketball and focus on the game. It kind of prepared me for being alone overseas. You know, overseas life as a player is really tough. Especially coming out of college, where you used to be able to call your friends whenever you think about it. Now, you have the time difference and a language barrier. So, going to my second school and being able to just focus on basketball and being alone really prepared me.”

Q: I read in an article that you had a great relationship with your coach Bruce Weber at Illinois. I saw that you wanted to help young guys and their choices too. I believe it is still continuing.

A: “Yeah. Not necessarily their choices, I would say I was trying to focus on helping kids that already made bad choices. You are going to make bad choices, people are going to do stuff that upsets people and people will have periods of their life where they feel like whatever dream they are chasing is over. I had that feeling, but here I am, playing pro for 13 years after making the mistakes I made. I wanted to just let kids, and not just kids, adults too, know that you can make bad choices that change your whole life but that doesn’t mean that you have to quit. Whatever your dream is, you can keep chasing it, pour more into that, and pour more into being positive. I think things will work out.”

Q: In your second year, you had some injury problems. Would your NBA chances have been higher without injuries in your opinion?

A: “I didn’t have a crazy injury. I had a bad ankle roll. I didn’t break anything or tear anything. Thank god, I just had a bad ankle roll. A high ankle sprain which had me out for two and a half months. Possibly. At this point, knowing what I know, there are a lot of things that I can say would have changed my path. I could’ve possibly landed on an NBA team, and had an NBA career. I was just talking to a friend, Marcus Keene on Instagram literally like 20 minutes ago. I was telling him that ‘I am happy with my story,’. I didn’t make the NBA, but that is okay. I am happy with my level. I had a really good career overseas. I played for some amazing teams in the European circle. I am happy with my story.”

Q: My final question about NBA. We know your skills in three-point shooting. You are a high-level shooter. And now, basketball in the NBA has completely changed with Stephen Curry and other great shooters. Do you believe that if you started your career now with the skills you have, do you think you could be the new Stephen Curry or Trae Young?

A: “Yeah, for sure (laughs). I was talking to my friends some while ago like when I was in school, it was okay to shoot the three. It was good, You could be a good shooter. But all the NBA scouts and the teams wanted highly athletic guys, high-motor guys. It wasn’t about having ball-handling skills or being able to shoot. I think if I was in school at this point now, my chances for being in the NBA probably would be a lot higher with the way I shoot the ball. Not just catch and shoot, being able to shoot off the dribble. I definitely think I would have got a lot more NBA looks.”

Q: Was it hard for you to make the decision to come overseas? Why did you decide to come overseas after the experience you had in the USA?

A: “It was definitely hard for me to come overseas. I knew nothing about overseas basketball. I knew nothing about the players overseas. I think now, because of social media, sites like Swish Culture, you guys, a lot of people in the States are able to learn about the players overseas. And they realize there is good money overseas. When I was playing in the then-D League, I think the salary was about 800.000 dollars for the year. And I had a teammate, Stephane Lasme, who was telling me ‘I played overseas’ and was telling me the kind of money overseas. I was like ‘What??’. I had no idea, I didn’t even know basketball was a big thing overseas. When I came to the Czech Republic in my first year and played, I ended up talking to a guy named Tre Simmons. He was telling me ‘You keep working on your game, you can easily make ‘this’ amount of money,’. I was looking at him and like ‘That is way more than I make, I didn’t know that money was out here,’. After that, I realized there is a high level of basketball all over Europe. NBA is by far the highest level you can play at, but there is a high level of basketball all over too. I just didn’t know that. The more I learn about players, different teams, and different leagues, I started to realize how big basketball was overseas. Being a good shooter in Europe, you can play until you are 35 or 37. I just tried to perfect my craft and stay with it.”

Q: Did you expect to change so many teams and countries before you came to Europe? I believe you like traveling a lot.

A: “Yeah, I definitely like traveling. I would say, I didn’t really know what to expect. The first year I came over here, I felt like I was like any young player. I think every young player who comes over here and says ‘I’m going to come over here and try to kill in my first year, then I will try to go back to the NBA’. That is the route that I took. I played well, came back to Summer League with Boston, and did a Summer League with the Timberwolves. Then I realized that my place is overseas and my place is in Europe. I will just try to get the best level I can get there.”

Q: You got used to winning trophies really quickly in Europe. Your first trophy was Balkan League Championship, then you won the French League, then other European cups, EuroCup, and last year, Europe Cup. We can say it is a huge success for you, being in Europe and changing teams worked out really well. 

A: “Yeah, it did. But I definitely enjoy being on the same team for more than one year. Because changing teams every year, most of the time it is hard to find success that way. Most teams that win are teams that had been together for at least two years. Guys know each other, they have good team chemistry, and they trust the coach and what he is trying to do. That comes with time. I was lucky to have been… You know; Kazan for four years, Malaga for two years, now being here for two years… I would prefer to be on the same team longer than just one year. Because I feel like you can make a bigger difference with a team that has a lot more chemistry.”

Q: How did you prepare yourself mentally for all these changes? Playing at guard means that you are really close to your coach because you have to understand his system, then you have to transfer it to other guys on the floor. It is really tough work, but you did it over and over again. What was your key?

A: “I would say being coachable. I met tons of young players and played with tons of young players that had more skill than me, more talent than me, and more athletic than me, but they weren’t coachable. You have guys who have their own idea of how they want to play and who they are as a player. But when you come to Europe, it is not an individual game so much. You have your Mike James’s, Errick McCollum‘s, guys like that, wherever they go, you know what they are going to do, giving you baskets. But for the most part, you get your role and you have to play your role. I was able to do that early on in my career. Then, I got to the point where coaches, especially in Kazan, my coach gave me a lot of freedom. ‘Okay, you get baskets too, go get buckets,’. He gave me freedom. Then I feel like how people looked at me as a player. ‘Oh, he can really score the ball’. That carried on to here, I am able to play my game. I think early on, guys have to be more coachable. I think that is what helped me have a long career overseas, have the success that I had.”

Q: You won your first European title with Unicaja Malaga with EuroCup in 2017. How was that experience, what did you feel when you hold your first European trophy?

A: “It was an amazing feeling. That whole year was crazy. Early on that year, I felt like we had something special. Even though we didn’t play that great during the regular season, the chemistry and comradely we had on that team, I felt like we had to win. Winning a cup is not about playing well all year, it is about playing well at the right time. I felt like we started playing really well at the right time and we are able to win. After winning that one, I felt like ‘Man, I am trying to win another one, I want to win more,’. You kind of take it for granted. Winning a European trophy is hard. It takes a lot of things to go your way. I was able to realize that from the coach, down to everybody being healthy, it takes a lot. After that year, I was able to realize that.”

Q: I want to ask you about your UNICS Kazan days. As you said earlier, your coach gave you freedom, and the result was great for you individually. You won the EuroCup MVP award. Everybody was expecting you to go to an even higher level, maybe a EuroLeague team. Was it your choice to stay in UNICS and play over there, or the offer didn’t come out?

A: “I wanted to play in EuroLeague just to play at that level. Because the first time I played in the EuroLeague, I wasn’t who I was now as a player. When I played in France and Malaga, I was kind of learning the European game. I definitely wanted to play in EuroLeague, but at the end of the day, I am going to the highest bidder (laughs). At the end of the day, I’d rather make 100.000 or 200.000 more for my kids and my family than take less money just to say that I played in a different league. For me, it was about the money, why I never went to EuroLeague. I had some EuroLeague offers, but they weren’t as much as some of the other offers that I had. So, I always go to the highest bidder.”

Q: Your performance in UNICS was great, and it resulted in EuroCup MVP. Getting this MVP  award, was it a validation of your skills in your sight?

A: “I think it was that. I think it was a credit to my coaching staff. They taught me a lot about the game, about reading the game. It was a credit to the team we had that year. Even though we didn’t win EuroCup, I think we had a EuroLeague team that year. We had a really good team. I think it was just all of those things. I don’t think it was just me because if we hadn’t had a winning season that year, I wouldn’t have gotten that award. It was definitely big ups to my team and my teammates.”

Q: After Kazan, you signed with Bahcesehir. Were you surprised by their offers? What did you find after coming here? Bahcesehir is a newly established team, they don’t have a long history but they are doing really good. Did you know a lot about them before coming here? And finally, why did you decide to sign with them?

A: “I spoke with GM, I spoke with the coach and they were telling me they wanted me to come here and kind of change the culture, the expectations, and the dreams they had as a club. They wanted to win, win the FIBA Cup and make the playoffs in the Turkish League. You know, they have never made the playoff. For me, that was a challenge. I was like ‘That is a challenge for me. Accept it,’. Once I got here, they have everything in place in the organization to be a high-level team here in Turkey. We signed great players, had great players and we had a lot of success last year. So, I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to continue trying to take new steps in Champions League and Turkish League this year and try to have the same success we had last year. Because this is a very ambitious club. When I got here, I realized that from the first day. It is never just to win and be in a certain standing in the league, their dreams and ambitions are to win the Champions League, to win Europe Cup, to compete in the highest leagues that they can over here.” 

Q: You won the FIBA Europe Cup. It is a tough tournament, what would you like to say about last year’s success?

A: “Any trophy you win in Europe is a big deal. No matter what competition you are playing in, it is very hard to win. As I said, it takes a lot of things. Not just players, but also staff, the luck of everybody being healthy all year, it takes all of that. It takes the good home crowd. We had all of those things last year. We were able to win the first Europen Cup for the club. I was happy and felt honored to be a part of that. Even if we didn’t win, the fact that they wanted me to be a part of it and believed in me. I felt honored. Winning it brought a lot of happiness to the club. As I said, they are a very ambitious club. Now, that is a thing of the past. Now, we are trying to have success in the Champions League this year.”

Q: You are in a very strong group in BCL, and the level of competition is higher. How do you see your chances in BCL?

A: “I see our chances good. We took a big blow early, Langston Hall and Jaka Blazic being out… Two of our main guys. It was tough, but we got some good new signings. I think that is going to help us tremendously. So, I think these next games are definitely important for us to control our own fate. We still have a chance to advance in the next round for sure, we just have to really take care of the business in the next few games.”

Q: You mentioned your new signings. Especially James Gist has a huge history in Europe. Did you talk with him before coming here?

A: “No, I didn’t talk to him before he came, but when I heard that he was the guy they are looking at, I was super happy. Because I know what he is as a player and what he brings to the team. He is the type of guy that anchors the whole defense. He is that type of defender, a high-energy guy. I was super excited about it. When we got it done, the first game that he played with us was one of our best defensive games all year. We added one player and he totally changed our defense. I think the addition of him and Kasey Shepherd will definitely help us.”

Q: How about your coaching staff? What would you like to say about them?

A: “I have a lot of confidence and trust in our coaching staff with the vision they have for us to play. I think it has been good for us. They give everybody on our team freedom and confidence. They don’t look at our team and players as a hierarchy. You know, you have some coaches that treat the guys who are considered best players totally differently. They show respect and treat everybody the same, which is one of the first clubs I’ve been on that I can say genuinely do that. And they have a lot of basketball knowledge. Adding James let me know that they were able to see what we are missing. The first game he played with us, we were totally a different team. I have a lot of faith and confidence in our coaching staff.”

Q: It is your second year in the Turkish League. How do you evaluate the talent level here? What would you like to say about the level of TBL?

A: “Turkish League is tough. Night in and night out, you play against a team that can beat you by 10 or 15, no matter what their standings in the league. And, the crowd man… I wasn’t expecting that. Some of the crowds are super hostile crowds. I don’t know if it is Galatasaray or Bursaspor that has the most hostile, crazy crowd. The Turkish League is really tough. There are a lot of scorers here. Night in and night out, you look at the scouting report and there is somebody averaging 15 or more points.”

Q: We have really good players here too, one of them is Errick McCollum. I believe you know him pretty well.

A: “Absolutely.”

Q: What would you like to say about playing against him, are we seeing some trash talks between you two on the court?

A: “That is my guy. I had a great time playing with him in Kazan. I have fun playing against him as well. He is a competitor. What he is doing this year is unbelievable, but it is not surprising to anybody who has been over here for a long time. I am super excited to play against him, that is my dawg.”

Q: You played against so many great players. Could you make us an all-time five from the players you faced and the players you played with? And all-time five from your idols?

A: “All-time five from the players I played against and played with… At the one, I have to go with JB, John Brown. Just because of what kind of defender he is and the energy and toughness he brings. He was one of my favorite teammates to play with. Errick McCollum. Sonny Weems was a monster. Teodosic. I feel like I have to get a big man here. I may not be able to take a five. I like De Colo, he was a problem too. I am going with that five. I didn’t have an overseas idol until I did some homework on guys. From NBA, I’d say Ray Allen, Kobe obviously. KD, Tim Duncan, and probably Shaq.”

Q: So, you like the old school basketball I guess.

A: “I like the new school too for sure. I think they are honestly more skilled. I think they are better passers, better shooters, and better dribblers by far than the old school. Just the dominance that the old school had was a little bit different.”

Q: How about your future? Do you have any age limit that you have in your mind to continue playing basketball?

A: “No, I am listening to my body. I take really good care of my body. I spend a lot of time. As much time I spend in practice, I spend on recovery. I do a lot of stuff to take care of my body. As long as my body holds up, I feel like I can play probably four or five more years. At a high level? I don’t know. Probably two more, but I still got some good years and a lot of work left to give up.”

Photo Credit: Basketball Champions League