Like an elite point guard holding his team together at a crucial time, Ja’Vonte Smart did his best to not let his emotions overcome him Wednesday afternoon.
With his mother, Melinda, seated beside him and a framed photo of his late father sitting at the end of a table in the Scotlandville High School gym, Smart signed a national letter of intent to play basketball for LSU.
There was no suspense. The two-time Louisiana Mr. Basketball pick had announced June 30 that he would stay home and play for the Tigers — which he made official on the first day of the early signing period in front of family, coaches and classmates on the gym floor he’s starred on the past three seasons.
The only thing left to see, as far as Melinda Smart was concerned, was whether Smart would be able to control his emotions long enough to sign the papers that were being prepared to send across town to LSU coach Will Wade.
“I thought he was going to cry because his dad means everything to him,” she said later. “He talks about him a lot. The picture was over there, so I thought he was going to get really emotional about it.”
There were no outward signs of it, although Melinda Smart said she could see it in her son’s eyes.
Ja’Vonte Smart, the 6-foot-4 star point guard who has led Scotlandville to two Class 5A state titles with one season left, was one of two prospects to sign with the Tigers on Wednesday, joining 6-7 power forward Darius Days of Williston, Florida.
A third LSU commitment, 6-10 power forward Nazreon Reid — a close friend of Smart’s from their time together on the national AAU circuit — will sign Monday in his hometown of Asbury Park, New Jersey.
That trio earned LSU the No. 3 spot on the national recruiting list by 247Sports at the start of the one-week signing period, putting the Tigers only behind reigning national champion North Carolina and Kansas.
Smart ranks 29th overall on the 247Sports composite rankings, while Reid is 17th and Days 65th.
While Days and Reid are coming from far away, Smart, Scotlandville’s all-time leading scorer with 2,219 points, was perfectly content to stay home — choosing LSU over blue bloods like Kentucky, Kansas and UCLA.
“That’s what I live for,” Smart explained. “I love my city and I love everybody that’s in it ... and everybody loves me.”
Even Melinda Smart was stunned to learn, two days before he tweeted out his announcement in late June, that he was headed to LSU.
“I was shocked,” she said with a smile. “I knew Kentucky was his favorite school that he watched growing up. So it was a surprise to me. I said, ‘Are you sure? Did you pray about it?’ After that, he was set and ready to go.”
Ja’Vonte Smart said playing in front of his family and friends was a big factor in his decision.
“It’s special to see everybody at my (high school) games because everybody comes out,” he said. “So just think about if I go to LSU and everybody comes out. It’s going to be crazy.”
Smart, who averaged 25.1 points, 8.7 rebounds and 6.4 assists last season, said he immediately felt comfortable with Wade when they met on the first day of the spring recruiting period in April — just a couple of weeks after Wade accepted the LSU job.
In the 7½ months since accepting an offer to coach the LSU basketball team, Will Wade has been on a serious roll on the recruiting trail.
“I want to win, and he’s a young guy who’s going to push me,” said Smart, who led Scotlandville to state titles in 2015 and ’17. “He said he didn’t know if he was going to get me, but I was one of the in-state players he had faith in. He said if he got me we were going to make something happen.”
Like Melinda Smart, who described her son as a "homebody," Scotlandville coach Carlos Sample was certainly pleased to see his star player stay home.
“Ja’Vonte has raised the bar in Louisiana high school basketball history, and he hasn’t even had his senior season yet,” a beaming Sample said. “So it was a priority to keep him in state. Coach Wade came and visited and I just told Ja’Vonte he had to go where he felt comfortable.
“I’m very happy he chose LSU. I’m happy for him, but I’m also happy we’re all going to get to see him some more. I’m not saying he’s going to be the savior for LSU, but he’s going to be a very, very big piece of the puzzle coach Wade is building there.”
247Sports Recruiting Rankings
as of Nov. 8
1. North Carolina
7. Notre Dame
9. Wake Forest
10. Michigan State
13. North Carolina St.
17. Ohio State