Pepperdine Waves men’s basketball player Jade’ Smith’s journey to becoming the first Waves hooper to be named West Coast Conference Player of the Week in nearly two years began after a frustrating first season in a Pepperdine uniform.
The 6-foot-4 guard played reserve minutes and struggled with his jump shot and confidence as the Waves ended last season with a 6-26 record.
In response, Smith said after Pepperdine’s 32-game campaign ended, he began shooting a lot, whether he was at home in the Bay Area or in Malibu.
“I was consistent with working out, watching a lot of film and learning different areas of the game,” he said. “I knew I was better than I was last year. It was something I had to find within myself.”
The sophomore’s improved shot-making, paired with his self-proclaimed “scrappy, get-it-done” type of approach to basketball, has helped power the Waves to more wins than a season ago heading into their two home games this week—versus BYU on Thursday and Loyola Marymount on Saturday. Smith’s averages of 15.7 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals during a recent three-game stretch that included two WCC games garnered him the conference’s weekly honor on Jan. 7.
Smith tallied 19 points, five boards, five assists and three steals in Pepperdine’s New Year’s Eve win over Alabama A&M, and 15 points, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals in a Jan. 3 win over WCC-opponent Loyola Marymount. He recorded 13 points and 11 rebounds in a loss to conference-foe San Francisco on Jan. 5.
Smith knew of Pepperdine’s past woeful starts to the WCC schedule and wanted to prevent another.
“I was trying to lead the team and keep the intensity up,” said Smith, who shot a blazing 58.6 percent from the field including 54.4 percent from three-point range in the competitions. “Going into conference play, I knew I was one of the people that brings energy to the team, so I was just playing with fire and making sure everybody was together. The coaching staff and team trusted me with everything I was doing.”
The basketball player wasn’t the only Waves athlete to snag recognition seven days into 2019. Men’s volleyball player Kevin Vaz, a graduate transfer from California Baptist, was named the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation’s Defensive Player of Week after registering six blocks in Pepperdine’s 3-0 victory over UC San Diego on Jan. 4.
Waves coaches did a great job of preparing the team for the matchup, said Vaz, a middle blocker, and that garnering the defensive honor is great because blocking is something Pepperdine worked on during preseason practices.
“It’s nice to see it is paying off,” said Vaz, a MPSF All-Academic honoree in 2017 at Cal Baptist. “When I enter a match, I tell myself, ‘If I can touch a lot of balls, I am doing my job.’ My job is to slow down the ball for my teammates to be able to play it back. If I can get a block that’s great.”
The 6-foot-6 native of France helped the Waves post a blocking advantage of 10.5-5.5 and limit UCSD to a .207 team hitting percentage. A good block gets Vaz revved up.
“It’s a big momentum switch,” he said.
Vaz had one block and five kills in Pepperdine’s 3-2 win over UC Santa Barbara on Jan. 9. He had three blocks, nine kills, a .692 hitting percentage and one ace in a rematch two days later, a 3-1 Waves victory.
The Parisian began playing volleyball nine years ago when a physical education teacher introduced him to the game. The first position he played was middle blocker, but his role changed as Vaz moved up the volleyball ranks. He played opposite at Cal Baptist, but once the Waves recruited him to use his final season of collegiate eligibility in Malibu (Cal Baptist’s volleyball program was discontinued last season), Pepperdine coaches, including head coach David Hunt, told Vaz they envisioned him as a middle blocker.
“I was all in for it,” Vaz said. “When I started playing volleyball, blocking was my best asset. My job is to protect my guys and stop as many balls as possible.”
On the basketball court, Smith averaged 3.9 points and 2.6 rebounds last season for Pepperdine; a starter this season, he is scoring 9.7 points a contest and is second on the 9-9 squad in rebounding, at 6.4 a game. Smith has always excelled in rebounding and once grabbed 15 boards in a high school game. The player wants to corral missed shots because any extra possession the Waves can get is crucial. Smith is also splashing threes at 40.5 percent. He only hit one triple a season ago.
Since being the first Wave tapped as WCC Player of the Week since February 2017, Smith scored seven points and grabbed just as many boards in a three-point loss to Santa Clara on Jan. 10. Two days later, he earned four points and four rebounds in his team’s win over San Diego.
The belief Pepperdine coaches and his teammates have in him is allowing Smith to blossom. Waves head coach Lorenzo Romar recently called Smith one of the best defensive guards he has ever coached.
“People having trust in me gives me confidence,” Smith said. “I have put in the work. It’s about time it has started to show.”
Vaz, pursing his master’s degree in global business, is enjoying his time at Pepperdine. He believes Waves, ranked fifth nationally with a 4-0 record, have the talent and height to be college volleyball’s top team.
“It is just a matter of all of us buying in at the right time,” he said. “We are the only team that can stop ourselves. We have all the tools to make it all the way, but it’s not going to be easy.”
Pepperdine men’s volleyball plays at Loyola-Chicago on Friday and at Lewis on Saturday in Lewis, Ill.
Smith said the basketball team could excel.
“We know we aren’t at the peak of how good we can be,” he said. “That is exciting for us.”