Smith embraces role with Gophers

Malik Smith came to Minnesota with Richard Pitino and has adjusted well.

Minnesota guard Malik Smith looks for a pass in the game against Montana on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013, at Williams Arena.

Ichigo Takikawa

Minnesota guard Malik Smith looks for a pass in the game against Montana on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013, at Williams Arena.

by Jace Frederick

Malik Smith averaged more than eight three-point attempts per game as a junior at Florida International last season.

That’s going to be tough to do this season with the likes of Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins playing alongside him.

“I pretty much had the green light to go whenever I felt like it,” Smith said of his time at FIU. “Now I have to pick my spots.”

It’s a new role for the Gophers senior guard, who followed his head coach Richard Pitino to Minnesota and was the Panthers’ second-leading scorer last season.

And it’s a role he struggled to adapt to through two games. He averaged just 4.5 points per contest.

“It was pretty hard for me to figure out through the first two games — when to be aggressive and when not to,” Smith said.

He figured it out Saturday night in the Gophers’ 74-59 win over Richmond. He scored a season-high 11 points on 4-for-10 shooting.

“[Pitino] just preached to me to stay confident, and that’s all I was thinking that game,” Smith said. “Just be aggressive.”

Pitino said he’d love to give Smith all of the offensive freedom he wants, but he said Smith has to make sure he does all of the little things, too.

Smith said he’s tried to be the most forceful player in rebounding drills to prove that he’s more than just a shooter.

“This is a totally different role for him this year than last year,” Pitino said. “He knew he was going to play 34, 35 minutes a game regardless of what happens. That’s not the case here, so it’s an adjustment for him.”

Though it’s early in the season, Smith could be turning a corner. Saturday was the most comfortable he’s felt in maroon and gold, he said.

“I’m going to start being more aggressive, especially with that game behind me,” Smith said. “I’ve been trying to do that more, and it’s pretty much what I’ll continue to do.”

Home-run hitter

Pitino said Smith shoots some ill-advised shots, but he gives him a bigger leash than some players.

Smith showed why Saturday.

He hit his third and final triple of the game with 3:40 to play to extend the Gophers’ lead to five. Pitino said the shot “essentially won [the Gophers] the game.”

Pitino said Smith is a “home-run hitter who wants to be up in the ninth.”

“He’s just one of those guys you want on the court,” Pitino said. “There’s something unique about a kid who wants to shoot that shot. … Some people hide from it. He does not hide from it.”

Smith said he’s more aggressive in late-game situations than he is at any other time.

“When some people are worried about, ‘What happens if I miss?’ I’m just thinking the ball is going in every time,” he said.