I’m certain that somewhere in the fine print of Shaka Smart’s job description, down at the bottom of page a-hundred-and-something is the phrase: “Will serve as team psychiatrist”. Because, make no mistake, Smart is as much a manager of minds as he is a leader of men.
Especially this season, with a basketball team chock full of youth, Smart has had to carefully manage players’ attitudes and mindsets. When sophomore Rob Brandenberg was mired in the worst shooting slump of his life, Smart had to find a way to rebuild his confidence. When freshman Briante Weber’s defense sagged after receiving a CAA Rookie of the Week award, Smart made sure Weber refocused on stability, not steals.
Smart’s is as cerebral as coaches come, and his dedication to the game from the neck up is responsible for his measured approach with sophomore Juvonte Reddic. In his second season, Reddic has ascended to a place of prominence in VCU’s master plan. An explosive, 6-foot-9, 235-pound forward, Reddic is the Rams’ second-leading scorer (10.5 ppg), as well as the team’s top rebounder (6.8 rpg) and shot blocker (1.2 bpg). Those are all dramatic increases from his freshman year, when he averaged 3.5 points and 1.9 rebounds in about 11 minutes per game.
In short order, Reddic has moved from bit player to VCU’s No. 1 option in the post. He’s had some head-turning moments already this year. In addition to his three double-doubles this season, Reddic dumped a 28-point, six-rebound, six-steal performance on William & Mary Jan. 19.
It would be easy, and understandable, for Smart to gush about his athletic power forward after games like that, but this is where Coach Smart gives way to Dr. Shaka. Smart has been cautious in how much praise he heaps on Reddic this year. Often, he’ll start or finish his assessment of Reddic’s play on a given night with, “I still think he can play much better” sometimes accompanied by its fraternal twin, “He’s just scratching the surface”. Even this interview gave him pause.
“Sometimes the media has to write about something, and the reality is he’s a guy that went from being a three points per game guy to pretty good productivity,” Smart said. “There’s been a lot to write about this year.”
But know this, Smart is careful about what he says for a reason. It’s because he sees a potentially great player and wants to make sure that Reddic, the dominant, shot-blocking, floor-running terror, finds his way to the surface while he’s at VCU.
“I just know how good he could be,” Smart said. “Where he could be is a long way from where he is. That’s okay. In only his second year, he’s made dramatic improvements. Sometimes, when people start focusing on how much guys are improving, it takes away from the fact that he’s got a long way to go.”
Reddic doesn’t mind. He says one of the main reasons he came to VCU was because Smart and his coaching staff saw his potential.
“They saw something in me I didn’t see in myself,” the Winston-Salem, N.C. native said.
What Smart and his coaches saw was a player that could control the paint at both ends of the floor. He may not be that guy yet, but Reddic is getting there.
Reddic isn’t without opportunities this season. The graduation and Jamie Skeen and departure of Toby Veal left the Rams with a dearth of experience in the frontcourt. Skeen’s savvy veteran play was a strength of VCU’s Final Four squad, and his exit left a sizable void.
As a freshman, Reddic often floated around the perimeter on offense, content to knock down 15-18 foot jump shots. But this season, he’s added 10 pounds of muscle and has been happy to spend more time on the low block, where he’s showcased an improved array of post moves and jump hooks with both hands. He’s also become one of the CAA’s best offensive rebounders.
As happy as they are with these developments, both Smart and Reddic know he could do more. Reddic admits that his understated personality sometimes gets the best of him on the floor and leads to uneven play. He speaks softly and rarely displays emotion publicly. It’s an area of emphasis and an acknowledged part of his growing process.
“I can have a high motor on one play and the next I don’t have the same energy,” Reddic said. “One of the big keys coach talked to me about was having high energy the entire game, instead of just some possessions. Not most possessions, all of them. It’s something I’m working on.”
Smart is confident Reddic will get to that point. When Reddic arrived at VCU, he was a skinny, 205-pound freshman that had never lifted weights before and could barely keep up in workouts.
“He’s a very fast learner and a very bright kid,” Smart said. “He’s picked up things pretty quickly in terms of basketball concepts. He’s just got to keep getting better.”