This time, Semaj Smith is choosing her own basketball adventure
Semaj Smith celebrated her first birthday in a Paris airport. In lieu of a birthday cake, mom Rhonda Smith bought some muffins to tide them over on the way to Israel.
"We didn't need a big celebration," said Rhonda, who was embarking on a professional basketball career that would take mother and daughter from Israel to Turkey to Croatia, China and South Korea. "This was the start of something for us, and it was fine just the way it was."
Rhonda, a 6-foot-7 defensive force, and Semaj's dad, 6-10 James Williams, both had played basketball at Long Beach State University. When Rhonda, a single mother, was in class finishing her bachelor's degree in Black Studies in the months following her final college game, she would have one of her ex-teammates watch Semaj. Sometimes, coach Rosa Stokes would handle babysitting duties.
"She was known as the 'Long Beach State Baby,' " Rhonda said.
During their time abroad, Semaj -- whose name is James spelled backward and is pronounced Seh-ma-jay -- would sometimes be watched by a team interpreter. Sometimes, Rhonda said, fans she knew would watch Semaj in the stands. When she was old enough, Semaj would sit on her mom's team bench.
Today, it's still all about basketball for Semaj, a 6-foot-6 senior at St. Anthony (Long Beach, California) and the No. 52 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Top 100 for the 2018 class.
And the "Long Beach State Baby" is about to choose her own basketball journey.
She's got dozens of scholarship offers and about two dozen days to decide. She has narrowed her choices to five schools -- four she has already toured and Arizona, which she will visit this weekend. Her other finalists are Cal, Oklahoma State, UC Irvine and Washington. She intends to sign during the early period, which opens Nov. 8.
"I'm looking for a college that has strong biology and psychology programs," said Semaj, who has a 3.1 GPA and is interested in becoming an orthopedic surgeon. "I'm also looking for a team where I get along with the girls well -- somewhere that will feel like home for the next four years."
Loyalty and continuity have always been big things for Smith. For one thing, she stopped going by the last name Williams once she entered high school. She wanted to be loyal to her mom, the person who has raised her.
And in an era in which kids switch high schools and/or AAU teams about as often as they buy new cell phones, Smith has stuck with St. Anthony coach James Anderson and AAU coach Elbert Kinnebrew of the Cal Sparks for her entire prep career.
Anderson and Kinnebrew, who also work together on Cal Sparks, have rewarded Smith's loyalty by developing her talent.
"Semaj was really raw when I first started coaching her," Anderson said. "She was tall and gangly -- still growing into her body. ... Her defense has always been ahead of her offense. But we started to see her offense click by July of 2016. That's when she started holding her own against post players who were high-major Division I prospects."
Smith didn't even start until her junior year of high school ball. As a freshman, she averaged 2.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. As a sophomore, she improved to 7.8 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.3 blocks.
But in her junior season -- fresh off her breakout AAU performances -- Smith finally become the focal point of St. Anthony's attack, averaging 15.9 points, 15.2 rebounds and 5.7 blocks.
Those are strong numbers, but Smith still is not in the stratosphere once enjoyed by her mother, at least defensively.
The eighth of nine children and the only one taller than 5-foot-10, Rhonda blocked 118 shots her junior year in 1998-99 and another 111 as a senior. Those single-season marks remain Nos. 1 and 2 in the Long Beach State record book.
"Rhonda was the shot-block queen," said Kinnebrew, who knew Smith even before Semaj was born. "Semaj can't be better than Rhonda defensively. That's how good Rhonda was, but Semaj can be better than her offensively."
Smith, who can hang on the rim but doesn't yet dunk, has her mom's mindset: She'd rather block a shot than score a bucket.
Her shooting range is from the free-throw line and in, but Kinnebrew said she's a "very good passer" and is the best he's seen defending the pick and roll. Smith loves working on the low block with a jump hook, showing a soft touch off the glass.
But last season in practice, a teammate consistently fooled her with a drop step.
"Now that's my go-to move," Smith said.
Kinnebrew wants her to work more in the high post to add variety. "In college, she's going to have to be more versatile," he said. "She has good footwork. I'm trying to push her toward the center of the key."
Kinnebrew also wants Smith to be more demonstrative. He asked her to wave her finger "no" in much the way former NBA star Dikembe Mutombo did after a blocked shot.
But Smith, not wanting to show up opponents, declined.
Player and coach have since come to a compromise in which she raises her pointer finger after she swats a shot.
"It's still not me," said Smith, ever humble. "But I do it to make [Kinnebrew] happy."
Kinnebrew said it's all part of the plan.
"She's a tremendous shot-blocker -- that's what she's best at right now," he said. "I want her to continue to focus on it and understand it's a big thing."
No worries there. Blocked shots were what kept her fed the first five years of her life.
If anyone understands their importance, it's Semaj Smith.