Harvard putting the pieces together

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- For a big man, Kenyatta Smith has been at risk of getting lost in the run-up to the 2013-14 season.

Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry are coming back after sitting out a season after being implicated in an academic cheating scandal that embroiled the Harvard campus. Siyani Chambers is trying to build on the performance that earned him Ivy Rookie of the Year. And Wesley Saunders is, as Harvard coach Tommy Amaker likes to say, “hands-down our best player.”

So why has Amaker repeatedly pointed to Smith -- usually calling him “Yatt” or “Big Yatt” -- as a key for the upcoming season?

“I’ve said to our kids that I think that the front-line guys are gonna be the key to our team,” Amaker said before practice at Lavietes Pavilion on Tuesday. “Our post players. [It’s going to be] by committee, not just one guy here or there, but our grouping of guys. If we can protect the paint and rebound the ball and do things we need to do defensively, I just think they’re gonna be the key grouping.

“Last year I told our players I thought the key to our team was gonna be the sophomore class, and I thought that they ran with that and did an exceptional job.”

Indeed, Saunders took the leap from freshman to sophomore and led the Crimson, and all the Ivy, in scoring at 16.2 points per game. Chambers, the Minnesota magician, led the Ancient Eight in assists (5.7 per game) and minutes (37.8 per game).

After another summer of seasoning, big things will be expected from both.

But they weren’t the only second-year players to emerge in Cambridge in 2012-13. Smith, the 6-foot-8, 250-pounder from Sun Valley, Calif., announced his presence as a defensive force in mid-February. In a game against Penn, Smith set a school record with 10 blocked shots.

With 20 points and nine rebounds to go with the double-digit blocks in that game, Smith just missed a triple-double. He had another big defensive performance the next night, finishing with six blocks in a win against Princeton. He finished the season averaging 5.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 14.5 minutes per game, and scored 10 points, grabbed 7 rebounds and swatted two shots in the Crimson’s upset of No. 3 seed New Mexico in the NCAA tournament -- Harvard’s first NCAA win.

“Kenyatta has been a guy that really kinda came into his own last year,” Amaker said. “Really developed a level for us to be able to say he’s our interior presence on offense and he’s gonna protect the rim for us on defense. We were very pleased with his growth and development with our team.

“And we’ve been pleased with him thus far in practice. We anticipate that he’s gonna have a terrific year.”

Smith will be joined in the frontcourt this season by Steve Moundou-Missi, Jonah Travis and highly-touted freshman Zena Edosomwan.

“I’m really excited,” Smith said. “I know everybody is. Practices have been crazy competitive. Everybody is just working their butt off, grinding really hard.”

The junior said he worked hard on his conditioning this offseason, in anticipation of an increased workload this season.

“Coach has a saying, ‘Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,’ ” he said. “That’s one thing I wanted to make sure I did during the summer, to make sure I was in the best shape possible so I could hit the ground running.”

If Smith can live up to his potential, performing anywhere near the level he showed in that Feb. 15 matchup against the Quakers, Harvard will finally have the balance -- top-flight frontcourt play to go with standout backcourt play -- and the depth Amaker covets.

“We do think we have a few bodies and a few players that we could potentially rotate through, especially on our front line,” the coach said, “but I’ve been in this long enough to know that things can look a lot different a month from now than they look today.”

The Crimson hit the court for the first time on Sunday against Holy Cross in the Coaches versus Cancer tripleheader at TD Garden. While the focus figures to again be squarely on his more heralded teammates, Smith will be in the middle of the action.

And if things go according to plan, soon you won’t be able to miss him.

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.