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Braden Smith’s evolution on display in Purdue’s Maui Invitational win over Gonzaga

HONOLULU — Braden Smith has one of those basketball brains where he stores every bit of information. He does not forget.

The Purdue guard was playing a near-perfect game on Monday in the first round of the Maui Invitational — 4-of-4 shooting in the first half plus a couple of steals — until he took one too many dribbles against No. 11 Gonzaga’s hard-hedging ball screen defense. Zags big man Ben Gregg got his hand on the ball, knocked it off Smith’s knee and let out a roar. The No. 2 Boilermakers trailed by five points at the half and would have been down more if Smith hadn’t played so well. But Purdue coach Matt Painter expects Smith to know better.

“A little bit less is more,” Painter said. “Like, you can’t just attack and get past their outside shoulder every time. If they beat you to that spot, you got to be able to retreat dribble and get the ball out of your hands and get them in rotations and let other people do the work.”

Fast forward to the moment when Purdue was ready to deliver the knockout blow in the second half. There was Gonzaga big man Graham Ike aggressively hedging and swatting at the ball. Smith retreat-dribbled, waiting for Ike to turn his back and chase down Zach Edey and then read the tag, delivering an on-target pass to Myles Colvin for an in-rhythm 3.

Less than a minute later, Smith took a charge and barked back at Gonzaga’s bench, from whom he said he’d been hearing he “sucked” all game long.

“Everybody has something to say, so I had something to say back,” Smith said. “I’m like, ‘All right, bro. It’s my second year beating you, but all right.’”

Smith does not forget.

The sophomore guard was brilliant for the second year in a row against the Bulldogs, going for 14 points and seven assists last year in Portland and then putting up 13 points, six assists and five steals in Monday’s 73-63 win.

If you want a reason to bet on Purdue to actually win in March this year, it’s the evolution of Smith and the arrival of a secondary handler in Lance Jones.

The finish to last year was nightmarish for Smith. He had seven turnovers in the NCAA Tournament loss to No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson. It was a lot to put on a freshman. He needed help in the backcourt. Someone else able to handle the ball and a guard with some speed to match up with smaller teams. That’s why adding a guard like Jones, who transferred in from Southern Illinois, was so important. Smith believes the FDU loss doesn’t happen if Purdue had Jones, who also had 13 points against Gonzaga.

More importantly, Jones was able to guard Gonzaga’s star point guard Ryan Nembhard, the most taxing assignment of the day.

“It’s been amazing,” Smith said of the Jones addition. “Just helped me and my legs. I don’t get so tired. He’s another guy to go make plays.”

Jones also gives Purdue a slasher it was missing. He got to the rim repeatedly against the Zags, especially in transition. The senior is like Smith in that he attacks like he has something to prove. “He’s a little bit older,” Smith said, “so he knows how to control it a little bit more.”

Smith keeps any slight in his back pocket, and he says Painter encourages that. “I was born with an edge,” he says. “’I’ve always played that way. I feel like I got to, because otherwise I wouldn’t be playing in this type of environment.”

He’s short-selling his game and his gifts. The 6-foot sophomore might be small, but he has long arms — a 6-5 wingspan — and sees the game on both ends. The Zags would think they had a driving lane on Monday, and then there was Smith’s hand reaching in and knocking the ball away.

Offensively, Smith knows if he uses his shoulders to get into a bigger defender that his long arms will allow him to get the ball over the reach of shot blockers.

That offers a changeup to just Edey, Edey, Edey for the Boilermakers.

Smith is a maestro working out of ball screens. Most teams are playing drop coverage this season against Purdue to try to contain the 7-foot-4 reigning national player of the year. Smith has been making them pay by hitting pull-ups instead of always trying to hit the roll man.

“My instinct is trying to get other people the ball in the right position,” he said. “Last year I tried to hit the roll a little too much. And I think now when I’m looking for my shot, it just opens things up, because then they gotta respect me. Then once they respect me, then I can make those plays.” 

Just like Edey sees a lot of different defenses, the same will be true for Smith the more success he has. Gonzaga was more aggressive in its coverage, and Smith used that to his advantage. Either by waiting a tick to drive once the extra defender disappeared to chase Edey or rejecting the screen and driving where the defense wasn’t.

Smith is following his coach’s orders by shooting more, but he’s never going to be over-aggressive to the detriment of his team. That was the difference on Monday. One team had a point guard in Nembhard who tried to do a little too much — Nembhard was 5-of-17 from the field, forcing some tough shots late — while Smith controlled the game and made the smart play almost every time.

And it resulted in the only stat he cares about: a win.

(Photo of Braden Smith driving by Gonzaga’s Luka Krajnovic: Darryl Oumi / Getty Images)

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