My Two Cents: All Transfers Unique, But Indiana's Justin Smith Quit on Teammates, Too
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The email came well past midnight, so there might have been some drinks involved with the sender. I didn't see it until this morning, and it was short and sweet, as they often are.
"You're a f----- hypocrite if you don't rip Justin Smith for quitting on his team like you did with Nojel Eastern,'' the email said.
Well, I never generalize, and all athletes are different. And when a player transfers from a college basketball program, there are often a million reasons why. Each is unique, as it was with the high-profile departures of Matt Haarms and Nojel Eastern at Purdue, which created a media firestorm after Matt Painter ripped into them for leaving the way they did, and as it is in Bloomington with Damezi Anderson and now Justin Smith, who left Indiana on Friday.
So, yes, I'll say it, because I believe it. Justin Smith quit on his teammates. That's plain and simple in my book, and you're not going to be able to change my mind.
As always, there are several factors that go into Smith's transfer. So let's dispense with the obvious things first.
Smith, who's an excellent student, graduated from Indiana's prestigious Kelley School of Business in just three years. Many of you will say that because he's graduated, he has the right to go wherever he wants, that he paid his dues to Indiana even with a year of eligibility remaining.
And I will tell you this: Yes, he has the right to leave and go play somewhere else immediately. That is his right.
But he's still quitting on his teammates.
And those of you who argue that this is addition by subtraction for Indiana, well, you would be wrong, too. Sure, it seems apparent now with the composition of the 2020-21 Indiana roster that his role might have been diminished next year, but he would have still helped Indiana win games if he was engaged and active. He was Indiana's best defensive player. He was Indiana's best rebounder after Trayce Jackson-Davis. He was, many times, a factor. He played more minutes than anyone last year.
And for an Indiana team that aspires to go from 20 wins to 25 or more next year, he could have helped. Others would have taken many of his minutes at the small forward spot — Jerome Hunter or any of the three wings coming in, for starters — but he still would have played inside and gotten key defensive assignments.
In his farewell tweet on Friday he said "to my teammates, you are my brothers. I wish you nothing but the best on the bright path to complete our unfulfilled 2020 NCAA tournament dreams.
But do it without me, guys, he said. I quit.
There are some who are saying that this was Smith's plan all along, to graduate and transfer after the season. One person even reported Friday night that he told his teammates BEFORE THE SEASON that he was quitting at the end of the year.
I don't know if that's true or not, but if it is, then it really says a lot about Smith. There's no denying that there's been tension between Smith and Indiana coach Archie Miller. You've seen that on the sidelines on more than one occasion. Smith isn't Miller's favorite player and Miller, quite obviously, isn't Smith's favorite coach.
Miller didn't recruit Smith to Indiana, remember. Tom Crean did. And if Smith is leaving, then, as I said, he has that right. But it's still fact that he's quitting on his teammates.
I'm sure you're wondering if I feel the same way about Damezi Anderson, and I don't. It just didn't work out with him, for reasons unknown. He became the 11th man on an 11-man team this year and that wasn't going to change going forward with Anthony Leal, Jordan Geronimo and Trey Galloway coming in at his same position. It was right for him to find a new home at a more comfortable playing level for him, because he wasn't going to have a role at Indiana. And he still has two years of eligibility remaining to make his new home at Loyola feel like the right place for him. He's a Loyola man now.
I do think it would have been different at Indiana with Smith. He still could have helped in several situations. Maybe he plays only 20-22 minutes a game instead of 30, but an engaged Smith could have made some contributions. Those voids — defense and rebounding — will need to be filled by others.
Many will say that it was already obvious that Smith was disinterested, and I can't really disagree with that. You could see it on the floor, the blow-bys and stare-downs with Miller, and some have said behind closed doors that it was even worse at practice.
I have said through the other transfers that it should be really bad to leave a program right at the end, especially with all that's going on in the world. Kids are transferring without even seeing their new schools, without meeting their future coaches or teammates in person. It's a total crap-shoot.
With COVID-19 mania still rampant, there's no guarantee yet that these transfers can even set foot on their campuses for the fall semester, though the odds of that have been improving since a month ago when this transfer wave started.
And, worst of all, we still don't even know when when a basketball season will begin, or if it will even begin at all. I don't even want to think about that.
Sure, I will be the first to admit that I am old school. I believe in TEAM. Even moreso, I believe in TEAMMATES. And I believe in finishing what you started. I never fault Isiah Thomas, Cody Zeller or Victor Oladipo — or even Romeo Langford, for that matter — for leaving early for NBA riches, because that's why they came to college. You can't ever argue with millions of dollars.
But to leave for ANOTHER COLLEGE, well, that's different. Justin Smith isn't going to the NBA. He applied for the NBA Draft, but the league made it very clear that he's not an NBA player.
And there's this. There is something very special about having an Indiana degree — and I'm not just saying that because I have one — and when it comes to Indiana basketball players, it matters, too. A lot. Your legend becomes etched in history to this fan base, regardless of your scoring average.
The guys who have played four years at IU are always remembered fondly through the years. Even 10, 20, 30 years later, they can walk into Assembly Hall and still get a round of cheers.
Justin Smith could have had that, but he walked away. He would have been embraced. Many people still did that Friday, embracing him with fond farewells, and even the detractors would have come around over time. That's Indiana.
Matt Painter caught a lot of flak last week when talking about the graduated Matt Haarms, that even if you've graduated from Purdue, if you walk away with one year remaining, "you're not really a Boilermaker.''
I agreed with him 100 percent, and caught flak for that, too. And I'll say the same about Justin Smith, who's walking away from his teammates with a year of eligibility left to continue his college career somewhere else.
Once he slides on another school's jersey, in my mind, he's not really a Hoosier anymore, either.
Justin Smith's farewell tweet
Related stories on Indiana basketball
- JUSTIN SMITH TO TRANSFER: Indiana junior Justin Smith announced Friday that he is entering the NCAA transfer portal as a graduate transfer. CLICK HERE
- FINAL GRADES: The grades are in on each Indiana basketball player, and what's your guess on how we graded forward Justin Smith? CLICK HERE
- SMITH ENTERS NBA DRAFT: Indiana forward Justin Smith has decided to test the waters and enter the NBA draft process. CLICK HERE
- SOCIAL MEDIA: Follow Tom Brew on Twitter @tombrewsports and on Facebook at Facebook.com/SportsIllustratedIndiana