Richard Pitino said he sees something new in shooting guard Malik Smith -- and it's not necessarily the shooting precision and higher point totals that have come along as well.
What the coach sees is trust.
In the last three games, Pitino has played Smith an average of 27.6 minutes per game after the senior logged 18.6 a game in the first five.
The baskets, Pitino knew, would come. It's what he saw all last year at Florida International. But it's no coincidence they seem to be falling more than ever now. Smith is on the court more, which allows him to get in a comfort zone. And he's on the floor more because he's doing a better job at the little things.
"At FIU, he was not a great defender," Pitino said. "And honestly a lot of that had to do with he knew he wasn’t coming out. So I could yell and scream at him as much as possible but then I couldn’t take him out. So he had me. But now he knows if he doesn’t do those things, that leash is a little bit shorter ...
"Now, he’s defensively pressuring a lot better. He really wasn’t a great leader at FIU. You’re hearing him a lot more in time outs, so I’m proud of him. I think he’s understanding that he needs to bring those things or he’s going to sit."
The new role took some time for Smith to balance. After being the primary scorer at FIU, the guard has come off the bench at Minnesota, a change that required a lot of adjustment.
Pitino said he didn't think he handled it well in the beginning, and noted that Smith was "really really frustrated." But that sentiment has come around, and the results are evident. In the last three games, Smith has led the team with a total of 47 points.
"The first couple games for me were pretty rough," Smith said. "I was pretty hard on myself. Got in the gym as much as possible after practice, before practice, getting up shots. And I just came into Maui with the mindset that I’m going to be aggressive no matter what, and that’s what I just tried to do."
It's still not pretty all the time -- Smith has the tendency to get cocky with his shot when it's falling -- but Pitino has always said it's part of the give-and-take with a player that is able to provide such a big spark.
"Coach tells me that all the time – don’t be scared when you’re out there. Just go out there and be aggressive, take shots if you’re open," Smith said. He laughed. "Sometimes I don’t do that. I know I take some contested shots sometimes but coach says he’ll deal with it as long as I rebound and play defense."