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How Mark Smith went from potential MLB draft pick to a big-time college hoops recruit

Mark Smith's transformation from pitcher to coveted point guard for Illinois is the most unlikely story of the college hoops recruiting cycle.

Icon Sportswire / Contributor

Mark Smith had his future all mapped out. As a high school junior, he committed to Missouri to play baseball as a right-handed pitcher with a fastball sitting in the low 90s. If he continued to improve his velocity and command, there was reason to believe his big 6’5, 225-pound frame could make him an MLB draft pick before he ever arrived on campus.

That feels like another lifetime ago now. On Wednesday, Smith announced his college decision as a basketball player when he committed to Illinois. He was the subject of one of the spring’s most intense recruiting battles, rising from a low-major prospect to a player with offers from John Calipari and Tom Izzo.

Duke paid him an in-home visit earlier this month. The Illini viewed him as a potential program-changing recruit. All of this for someone who had essentially given up on basketball 12 months earlier.

Smith has had one of the most unique ascents of any top-100 recruit in the country. Here’s how he went from an SEC baseball recruit to a coveted basketball player.

Giving up on baseball

Smith’s decision abandon baseball happened for two reasons: injury and the resignation of the coach he originally committed to.

Smith sustained a strained flexor pronator tendon in his throwing elbow last summer. That’s the same injury that shut down Philadelphia Phillies starter Clay Buchholz for 4-6 months last week.

At the same time, Mizzou coach Tim Jamieson retired after 22 years on the job.

Smith’s elbow wasn’t healing and he was starting to get frustrated. He had the right to stick with his original commitment to Missouri, but without Jamieson there was now more instability around the program.

With summer AAU season in full swring, Smith and his parents wondered if he should pick up basketball again. Hoops had always been in his blood. His mother Yvonne played college basketball at SIU-Edwardsville and his father Anthony played at Southern Illinois and then SIU-Edwardsville.

That’s when Smith decided to start playing grassroots basketball again. He joined the SW IL Jets on the Adidas circuit and quickly showcased his gifts as a big lead guard.

An unlikely rise to Illinois Mr. Basketball

Smith was offered his first basketball scholarships at the onset of his senior year of high school. Northern Illinois, Wright State, and Indiana State all came calling. Smith was serious enough about the offers that he used three of his five official visits at those schools.

Smith’s stock really took off when the high school season started. That almost never happens in the contemporary college basketball recruiting cycle. AAU is the place to be seen and build your name. Smith was able to use the high school season as a launching pad for a couple different reasons.

For one, downstate Illinois had suddenly become a basketball hot bed. Scouts came to watch borderline five-star center Jeremiah Tilmon at East St. Louis. There was also former Illinois commit Javon Pickett at Belleville East, and highly touted sophomore E.J. Liddell at Belleville West. When they took the trip to southern Illinois, they couldn’t help but notice Smith.

Smith led his Edwardsville Tigers to a 30-2 season by averaging 21.9 points, 8.4 assists, and 8.2 rebounds per game. In March, he was named Illinois Mr. Basketball, an honor that placed him alongside Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker, and Jahlil Okafor.

Smith had risen all the way to No. 74 in 247 Sports’ class of 2017 composite rankings. Illinois came with an offer and put on the full-court press. It didn’t take long for the Illini to realize they had lots of company.

The value of being a spring recruit

Indiana and Ohio State offered in February. Michigan State followed in March. Kentucky offered in April and Duke had enough interest to pay him an in-home visit.

How did this all happen so quickly without the help of AAU?

So much of it goes back to the value of being a spring recruit. Players transfer or leave for the NBA. Scholarships open up. Staying uncommitted into the spring is typically a route taken only by elite five-star prospects, but it ended up paying off in a big way for a four-star recruit like Smith.

Michigan State needs depth in the backcourt after losing Eron Harris and Alvin Ellis III. At Illinois, Smith would be hailed as a potential savior. Illinois hasn’t locked down the state’s Mr. Basketball since Jereme Richmond in 2010. After Tilmon and Pickett decommitted following the firing of John Groce, Illinois needs some good news. This would be their first big win of the Brad Underwood era.

Kentucky sells itself. A place like Ohio State does, too.

Smith’s recruiting battle has received an enormous amount of attention over the last few months. He’s taken his time because all of this happened so fast. Now that he’s made his decision to play at Illinois, the entire college basketball landscape will be watching.