As Israeli basketball teams around the country continue to build their rosters for the upcoming 2022/23 season, one familiar face has found his way back to the Holy Land.
Kenneth J. “Speedy” Smith, returns to Israel after having played at the end of the 2019/20 campaign with Maccabi Haifa when COVID-19 had been ravaging the world. But Smith’s addictive huge smile and good vibes brought hope and fun back into the game of basketball during those dark days just two years ago.
Smith joins Aleksandar Dzikic’s squad after having just won the Lithuanian league championship with Rytas Vilinius as he ran the offense to the average tune of 10.4 points and 5.8 assists in 51 contests across all competitions.
Prior to his title-winning season, the 29year-old American featured in France, Belgium and Latvia while also having attended Louisiana Tech, where he won the Conference USA Player of the Year award in 2015.
To find out just what the capital city Reds fans can look forward to when “Speedy” steps onto the Jerusalem Arena’s floor, The Jerusalem Post spoke to a number of journalists who covered the dynamic guard, as well as some of his former coaches and teammates who offered their thoughts on what the supporters can expect this coming season.
These are the journalists:
Marius Milasius, a Lithuanian sports journalist at 15min, saw Smith up close and personal this past season as he began by analyzing the guard’s trials and tribulations upon arriving at Rytas.
“Speedy signed a contract with Rytas pretty late and came to Lithuania after the season had already started, so he missed all of the preparation time and began slowly. At first, his level of play was pretty disappointing, he missed some clutch shots and was very unstable. But after Rytas’s point guard Vaidas Kariniauskas suffered an injury, Speedy took on the main point guard duties and felt a lot better.
“During the first International FIBA window in November, Speedy went back to the United States and when he returned he played differently, more poised and calm. He was the main point guard during the remaining part of the season and, in my opinion, he was one of the most important players during the league playoffs along with Arnas Butkevicius.”
Rytas head coach Giedrius Zibenas, who led his team to its first championship since 2010, spoke about Smith’s contribution to the club and how he changed his style of play over the course of the campaign.
“Smith will make his team better, that’s for sure, because he is a pass-first player, like he has been all of his career. However, last season with our team, he converted himself into a scorer and a clutch player as well.”
"Last season with our team, he converted himself into a scorer and a clutch player as well.”Rytas head coach Giedrius Zibenas
Daniel Seoane, who coached Smith with Maccabi Haifa when the league restarted during the pandemic, shared some of the guard’s qualities and why he wanted to bring the new Jerusalem floor general to Israel to begin with.
“It was the restart of 2019/20 and we were putting the team together. Smith had played very well in Belgium and we needed to replace Gregory Vargas, so the fact that he was a player who could create was ideal for us. He’s a big guard who plays at a high pace and he will see and pass the ball to whoever is open. He will try to make the right play and if he needs to make a big shot he is capable of doing it. We found out what a great person and player he was, as well as his winning mentality. He is also someone who is always in a good mood.”
The St. Petersburg, Florida, native really made his mark in Lithuania by implementing his style of play that worked perfectly and that will be his calling card for Hapoel Jerusalem as well, explained Milasius.
“Speedy was very vocal and wasn’t afraid to take the most important shots. Actually, his shots led to at least two or three very important Rytas victories at the end of the season. He also distributed the ball very well and caused a lot of trouble for the opposing guards with his full-court pressure. He also became a fan favorite for his clutch shooting and emotions. Plus he liked living in Vilnius a lot.”
Zibenas also spoke about Smith taking the game upon himself when needed.
“He won a lot of games for us with his game-decisive shots and was never afraid to take all of the responsibility upon himself. If we would lose, he is the first guy to take the blame. If he has an amazing game, he is the first guy who will give all the credit to his teammates and coaching staff.”
Andre Jones, who was one of Smith’s former teammates at Szolnoki Olajbányász in Hungary, recalled his time with the guard.
“The team made one of the biggest mistakes in its history, which still affects it until this day, and that was letting him go. I had my best statistical career with him that year and it was mainly due to having a point guard like him who was really smart, really hungry and really eager to learn. He always tried to make the right play, most of the time he made the best pass and the right pass and he would find the open man every time.”
Michale Kyser, who just won the Israeli league championship with Hapoel Holon, shared the court with Smith in college and saw how the guard began to develop into the player he is today.
“He’s a winner and a great overall point guard. Add to that he is a great person, tough, hard-nosed and he just wants to make everybody around him better.”
As for how Smith will adjust to playing with Hapoel Jerusalem, Zibenas shared what he feels will be the key to his success.
“He really must feel the green light and absolute trust from his coach.”
Seoane added: “I believe he’s a good fit for Jerusalem due to his aggressiveness and passion, which is great for the team, and the fans will love him.”
“I think Jerusalem just found a point guard that it could keep around for many years.
“He knows how to win and overall he’s just a really good teammate. He’s that point guard that you need as a scorer, as a big man and as a shooter.”
Keenan Evans, who played for Maccabi Tel Aviv last season, and joined forces with Smith in the G-League was also effusive in his praise of Hapoel’s new player.
“I’m excited for him to be going to such a good club. He fits in so well with their system and he’s been elevating his game every season. So of course I’m expecting him to have a big season.”
Willy Workman, who played with Smith at Maccabi Haifa, put it plain and simple.
“He’s a great guy and a great player. He knows how to find people and make his teammates better. He’s just a hooper.”