Hapoel Jerusalem hosts Hapoel Eilat on Friday afternoon as it looks to win its second Israeli league game in a row and even up its record at 2-2 under new head coach Aleksandar Dzikic.
The Serbian bench boss has put together an interesting cast of characters who will put it all on the line for the Reds game-in and game-out, never giving up on any play.
The catalyst for the capital city squad has no doubt been point guard and floor general Speedy Smith.
The 29-year-old Florida native attended Louisiana Tech University and has spent time both in the G-League and around Europe, having made stops in Latvia, Hungary, Belgium, France and Lithuania. During the COVID season of 2019/20, Smith arrived in Israel and signed with Maccabi Haifa for the balance of the campaign as he got his first taste of the Holy Land, where he left a good impression.
Ahead of Friday’s game, The Jerusalem Post sat down with Smith to discuss a myriad of topics, from his time in college and Europe to his dreams and desires, while of course about why he returned to Israel and decided to join Hapoel Jerusalem.
“Joining Hapoel Jerusalem was the luck of the draw. I was blessed with the opportunity to come back to Israel. There is a great atmosphere, more responsibility and more judgment - which is good. I feel that I have developed myself to have this type of challenge. Jerusalem is a very historic organization. I like the way they work and the last time I was here, I remember they were really good during the COVID season. I know they had ‘losing years’ but being able to put the team back where they are supposed to be – I like that challenge and responsibility.”
“Joining Hapoel Jerusalem was the luck of the draw. I was blessed with the opportunity to come back to Israel. There is a great atmosphere, more responsibility and more judgment - which is good."Speedy Smith
Smith arrived in June of 2020 just in time for the restart of the season that was paused in March of that year due to the outbreak of COVID-19. During the time he was in Israel, the guard – who averaged 14.6 points, 7.6 assists and 3.9 rebounds in eight games – found a league that was to his liking and fit his style of play.
“The league is fast-paced and I like how it operates – to me it’s like an NBA style of play. I really respect the league. It’s a very aggressive and strong game. One of my favorite parts of Israel is the weather. I’m tired of playing in cold weather so to get some sunshine, I’m definitely into that.”
A whole new basketball squad
Hapoel Jerusalem put together an almost entirely new squad including a brand-new coach in Dzikic, who has put a big emphasis on the tactical side of the game as well as making sure that he is a player’s coach and one that can understand the needs of his squad.
“I believe that we have the best coach in the league with his tactics and I really feel he’s going to make us better. He’s a player’s coach, which makes us better right away to have a coach that can relate to us. We have Khadeen Carrington, who is going to be the best scorer in the league, and Levi Randolph, who will be right up there with him – they’ll be neck and neck all year. Two great post players with Zach Hankins and Itay Segev - really great shooters, and Oz Blayzer and Siim Sander-Vene - so I really feel that we will be a dominant team. It’s just putting the pieces together. We are unselfish and no one is jealous of one another and we all want to see us win. I like the vibe of the team.”
One of the things that attracted Smith to Hapoel was Dzikic’s time as an assistant coach with the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves between 2005-07.
“As for coach Dzikic, we both had been at Rytas at different times, him being an NBA coach. I feel like as every American, your drive and motivation is to get to that spot, so I feel that I can pick his brain and vice versa. He is the first coach that told me that I can get better. At my age, I feel that I still want to get better so if someone tells me that they can help me after coming off of a very dominant year, that put him at the top of the coaches that I wanted to play for. If you can make me better, then the sky's the limit.”
As for off-the-court highlights, Smith is liking what he sees and how relationships have been developing with Jerusalem.
“We spent a lot of time together and we aren’t afraid to challenge one another. Levi challenges me about taking shots, I get on Segev about dunking the ball. We talk about what needs to be done.”
Speedy, whose given name is Kenneth, got his moniker because his mother delivered him in the hallway of a hospital and it was, so to speak, a “speedy” delivery as she never made it to the labor room.
As Smith was growing up basketball wasn’t his first sport as football took top honors. To this day, he still follows the NFL and his favorite teams.
“To be honest, basketball isn’t even my sport. I was a football player - a quarterback, and played basketball as a hobby. Football was something that I was intrigued with and had a lot of favorite players in Shaun King and Michael Vick. My only favorite player I looked up to in basketball was Allen Iverson. I went to a basketball practice with a friend and the sport just got me. I always had playground talent and in high school and I made the decision to go with basketball.
“Football is easier where they can pick so many guys and basketball is only 12 so that drove me to the challenge to make the cut. A ton of people still ask me to this day why I chose basketball over football due to the impact I had on football because I was really good. Some of my peers are in the NFL. We all took our different paths, but my favorite NFL team is America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys. But with me living in Florida, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are also up there.”
For college, Smith originally wasn’t supposed to even head to Louisiana Tech, but as fate would have it, he ended up at the Ruston, Louisiana-based school where he excelled on the court,
“Crazy story. I was a week or two from going to a Division II team in Boca Raton, but the coach saw me off a highlight tape that I had put online and came to me and I went right then and there. It was a surreal moment. I really developed my name there and it gave me more of a universality.”
While Louisiana Tech always threatened to punch its ticket to college basketball’s “Big Dance,” for one reason or another it just wasn’t able to get over the hump to find its way into the NCAA Tournament.
“Unfortunate circumstances,” noted Smith. “My freshman year we lost in the [division] championship, just not experienced. In my sophomore year, we lost the first game and it was the other team’s night. Junior year, we lost in the championship, the schedule was messed up and the other team had more rest than us and in my senior year we go and play on the road at UAB - nothing was ever on our side. The tourney should have been at a neutral site, but it’s all about money and making it where they can. We just never got the advantage.”
In his final year in college, Smith won the 2015 Conference USA Player of the Year Award, which as he says was the cherry on top of his undergraduate career.
“I should have won it the year before when I was averaging a double-double. Overall, it was the icing on the cake by not only winning it my senior year, but my coach won the coach of the year award, so winning it was exciting to do so together and not just alone. I wish I could have put all of my teammates’ names on that award because we went hard every practice together. I wanted them to put my jersey in the rafters because I have so many records, but not getting to the tournament dimmed that light. Winning that award really speaks to the college career that I had.”
The NBA, Smith says, is not only a dream but also why he came to Israel.
“That’s why I came to play for this coach. I feel that I am definitely a point guard that can play there, but it’s politics. You see, a lot of these guys aren’t better than me and don’t do anything different than I do but his agent may be best friends with an owner. I am preparing myself as it’s only 0.1% that do. If I can get there, it would be life for me. Some guys have had that experience and I am developing myself to get that experience to where it’s a no-brainer. I don’t want to go there and get cut. I want to go there and have an actual opportunity and I am playing for the coach that can give me that best opportunity.”
With a big season coming up with Jerusalem, Smith laid out his personal goals and that of the team.
“I just want to be the best that I can be every night. Of course, I have bigger goals than that and a lot within myself. I want to make this team as bright as I can make them and lead these guys; I feel that is the goal. We want to win the midseason cup, we want to win the Champions League and the Israeli league and I feel that we have the team to do that because of the weapons we have.
“When those big games come up, be prepared, be ready and put the team in a position to win. I know what it feels like to be a champion, Levi Randolph knows what that feels like and I want that taste again. This is one of the biggest ones you can win overseas.”
As for strengths and style of play, Smith explained that Dzikic has given him pretty much carte blanche and has given him the keys to the car, so to speak.
“I am a very good passer and I read the defense really well. I have to work on shooting it more in the game. I can be different in any game, but I want to be big every night and we can’t afford any low nights.
“Coach gave me the open-court rule when I talked to him before I came here. If I want to shoot 15 a night, I have the freedom to do so just like if I want to shoot it three times a night. Each game will ask offensively for something different from me. I have to make sure that my scorers are being scorers, and my shooters are getting shots because I have the ball in my hand 90% of the game, so I can dictate what I want to do each night. It’s just being able to be versatile with the game.”
Smith has spoken about trying to be a leader of this team as soon as he arrived and that has been crystal clear throughout the preseason.
“Just being a person that shows it, showing how I am going through the game. I can talk as much as I want, but I have to show it. I am the next voice after the coach so I have to repeat what he says and the point guard-to-coach connection is high volume, talking aggressively, as we are all looking at the bigger picture. The best thing about me is that I am very chill.”