BY CHAD DARE
Denzel Smith had very limited success in his first two seasons with the Vikings.
But the Danville junior center wasted very little time making a name for himself in the 2012-13 season.
In the season opening game against Champaign Centennial and future University of Illinois player Jeff Finke, Smith had 28 points and 13 rebounds.
“I was just trying to prove to myself that I was just as good as him,’’ said Smith, who wound up averaging 15.6 points and 7.0 rebounds a game this year for the Vikings. “Jeff is my buddy, but at the same time, I think we’re similar players.
“Having that kind of game against him in the first game, gave me a lot of confidence.’’
Smith was an all-tournament selection in the Lincoln Thanksgiving Tournament, earned first team all-Big 12 Conference honors and was an honorable mention all-state selection by the Associated Press. He can add one more accolade as Smith was also chosen as the Commercial-News Player of the Year.
“I had no idea that any of this was possible when the season started,’’ Smith said.
And why was that?
“I didn’t have a very good year last year and I wasn’t sure what to expect for this year,’’ he said. “The first thing that changed for me was my attitude and then I was able to improve my post game and my dribbling.
“Once I did those things, it seemed like everything just came easier for me. But, it definitely started with my attitude.’’
Danville first-year coach Ted Houpt admitted that Smith made huge strides both on and off the court this past season for the Vikings.
“Some of the games he had this past season were as impressive as any we’ve seen here at Danville in a number of years,’’ said Houpt, noting that Smith had career-highs of 39 points and 17 rebounds in a triple overtime loss to Champaign Central. “He definitely made some big strides and the good news is that he has a lot of room to grow.
“I don’t think we’ve seen anything close to what he is capable of doing on a consistent basis.’’
That’s the one area that Houpt is looking for improvement from Smith.
While the 6-foot-6 center had some monster games, he also had some very average games as well.
Smith also missed a few games with an ankle injury and he missed a game because of disciplinary reason.
“Those things are proving to me that I need to learn to fight through things better,’’ Smith said. “I allowed my actions to get me in trouble and it kept me off the court. I cannot allow those things to keep me down.’’
Houpt said it’s just part of growing up and maturing as both a player and a young man.
“When he gets that stuff cleaned up, the sky’s the limit for Denzel,’’ Houpt said. “He is very talented — there is not a lot that he can’t do. He can put the ball in the hole a lot of different ways.
“I think he will be one of the best players in the state. He is heading in the right direction and another year of maturity all-around and the talent he has it’s as good as I’ve seen.’’
In an effort to expand his abilities this offseason, Smith is playing on an AAU team with Finke.
“We have three guys that are 6-9, so I’m playing on the wing,’’ Smith said. “It’s allowing me to work on my perimeter game instead of just playing on the post.
“I’m working on my ballhandling skills and learning how to come off of screens. I feel like I’m becoming a more complete basketball player.’’
Smith points out that this added experience will not only help him for his senior year, but it should also open up opportunities to play at the next level.
“He can already do a lot of things on the court,’’ Houpt said. “We would love to see him play the kind of defense that he played at times this past year. I think he can hit the outside shot. But, if he puts in a little time during the offseason, that will be a shot that he will be comfortable taking even more next year.
“When you mix a good outside game with his ability to post people up on the low block, it will make him a super player.’’
Smith has set a pretty lofty goal for the Vikings.
“I want to end my senior year on a bang,’’ he said. “Our goal is to win a state championship.’’
His coach didn’t go that far, but admitted the Vikings, who were 5-21 this past year, could make some incredible improvements with Smith.
“He is obviously a very talented player, but we also need to get some improvement from the people around him,’’ Houpt said.
And if Smith has the kind of improvement next year that he displayed this year, the Vikings could be contending for a conference title and even more.