K.J. Smith makes a name for himself at UNC while embracing his dad's basketball legacy
Sophomore K.J. Smith (30) drives past N.C. State players during game in early February. UNC men's basketball beat NC state with the most points scored on the Wolfpack since 2003. UNC won 113-96 at the Smith Center on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019
Sporting a sweat-drenched practice jersey, Carolina Blue shorts and Air Jordan sneakers, K.J. Smith stares up at the rafters of the Smith Center.
He hears head coach Roy Williams yell after the team struggles to secure a rebound in an in-practice scrimmage.
“You see McAdoo, you see Montross,” Williams shouts, pointing toward the 53 honored and retired jerseys hanging from beams of the arena’s ceiling.
The Hall of Fame coach often references greats who have left their mark on the North Carolina basketball program to motivate his players. This time, he uses two former All-American selections whom he believes wouldn’t have made the mistake his team just had.
Though K.J.’s ears register the message, his eyes begin to wander elsewhere: a few feet left of Montross’ 00, to the jersey with the No. 30 and his last name. The one that hangs to honor his father, Kenny Smith, the Tar Heels’ second all-time assists leader and 1987 consensus first-team All-America selection.
“And I’m like, ‘Man, that’s crazy,’” K.J. said. “‘He really did something great here.’ And that’s super inspiring.”
K.J., a redshirt sophomore walk-on point guard for the Tar Heels, dons the same number his father wore. For a while, he even rocked the same flattop haircut the elder Smith — nicknamed “The Jet” for his elusiveness on the court — did during his UNC playing days.
“I just feel like I'm a younger version of him, almost,” he said with a laugh. “There's a picture my sister took on the couch and we're both just like doing the same exact thing.”
It isn’t hard to tell K.J. now fully embraces his dad’s legacy, to the point of letting his teammates call him “Baby Jet.” But it wasn’t always easy for the 22-year-old to be the namesake of the two-time NBA champion.
‘Everyone’s path is different’
Even before he began playing organized basketball as a 5-year-old, K.J. was around some of the game’s best.
Being the son of a 10-year NBA point guard and Emmy Award-winning Turner Sports broadcaster allowed K.J. to have opportunities most aren’t afforded.
When he scored his first basket as a Tar Heel in UNC’s second game at Elon, it was off a slick half-spin hesitation move he learned from former Michigan State standout Steve Smith during the 2005 NBA All-Star Weekend in Denver.
But, with unique experiences came a special kind of pressure. And as a high schooler in Calabasas, Calif., it weighed on him.
“When we were playing AAU and going to these trips in the summer in Vegas and all the college coaches are there and there’s pressure to perform, that’s when I felt, ‘I’m Kenny Smith’s son,’” K.J. said.
Though K.J. admits he placed much of the burden of living up to his father’s legacy on himself, he was often a popular target on the court.
At travel ball tournaments and high school games, kids were motivated to lock up and score on Kenny Smith’s son. This, and the fact that he didn’t inherit his father’s NBA Dunk Contest-level athleticism, made it hard for him to block out the noise.
K.J. wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American like Kenny was in 1983. He also wasn’t a recruit on the radar of Power Five schools. But, at times, Kenny thought K.J. didn’t give himself enough credit.
“I used to say, ‘If grandpa was a brain surgeon, that wouldn’t make me a brain surgeon,’” Kenny said. “‘You gotta put the work in to be a brain surgeon. So if you wanna play basketball, you just gotta put the work in. And everyone’s path is different.’”
K.J.’s mother, Dawn Reavis, always wanted her son to attend North Carolina, also her alma mater. But when it came time to consider schools, he told her he was reluctant to choose UNC for the fear of being compared to his father.
“Well, you should’ve played soccer,” Reavis responded. “... Wherever you go, if you’re playing basketball, they’re gonna compare you to your father."
Still, Reavis backed off. And K.J., having few scholarship offers following his prep year at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., chose to play for head coach Damon Stoudamire at Pacific.
When Kenny received a phone call from K.J. one day in April 2017, he didn’t expect the conversation to be about anything out of the ordinary.
The father and son talk for at least three or four minutes a day. But, this time, what Kenny heard on the other line caught him by surprise. K.J. said he wanted to transfer from Pacific.
Although K.J. says being at Pacific helped him find his own identity, he wanted a change of scenery after one season. Especially after he grew frustrated with fluctuating playing time.
“I went to three great high schools,” K.J. said “… I felt like I wanted to get back at that level.”
Kenny’s first thought was to call his former North Carolina assistant coach, Roy Williams. But he didn’t want to ask Williams to add his son to the roster at UNC. Instead, he asked him to contact other coaches regarding K.J.
Williams went through a list of potential coaches he could call and programs where K.J. would likely play more than a bench role. Then, after a few minutes, he paused.
“Just send him here,” Williams said.
K.J. was in disbelief when Kenny told him the coach’s suggestion. Having built confidence in his individuality, he was more thrilled than worried with the idea of being a Tar Heel.
A few days later, K.J.’s phone rang while he was on a movie date. He saw the Chapel Hill area code and ran out of the theater mid-film. On the phone was Williams, as candid as he is with any recruit.
“You might not ever play, but I do play the best players,” Williams told K.J. “If you get to the point where you could play, you’ll be on the floor.”
Even then, Kenny didn’t realize how much his son had learned to embrace his roots.
Until that October, the day of Late Night with Roy, an event that Kenny emceed. An hour before the festivities, Kenny got a call from K.J. as he read over his script at the Smith Center. K.J. told his dad to announce him as “Baby Jet”: a nickname coined by teammate Brandon Robinson.
“I wanted it to be known that my dad is who he is, and I'm comfortable with that,” K.J. said.
Hours later, K.J. ran onto the court during player introductions, his arms extended out in the motion of a jet flying. Kenny looked up at one of the arena’s video boards in awe.
“It looked like me,” Kenny said. “We looked so similar back at that age. I had the same haircut, pretty much. I had that flattop for a while. So I was like, ‘Damn. That looks like me.’”
‘You gotta be here on your own’
Shortly after UNC’s Dec. 22 loss to Kentucky, K.J. flew to his dad’s house for Christmas. The night before his flight back to Chapel Hill, K.J., Kenny, K.J.’s cousin and his grandfather talked basketball well past midnight in the theater room of Kenny’s home.
They re-watched the Kentucky game, then discussed the LeBron James versus Michael Jordan debate when K.J. saw Kenny in a YouTube video of Jordan’s NBA highlights.
“You know, I really never saw any of your game film,” K.J. said to Kenny.
K.J. says he never watched Kenny’s footage as a child because of the dissociation he wanted from his dad’s name; Kenny never encouraged him to, either. But, this time, he was curious.
So, Kenny found a YouTube video of a game from his senior year in 1987: when he put up a career-high 41 points at Clemson. For the first time, Kenny felt his son was in awe of him as a player.
“We have some of the same movements and stuff,” K.J. laughed. “And then he’ll go on a fastbreak and jump two times higher than what I can do right now.”
Although he’s only averaged 1.2 points per game in 35 total minutes for the Tar Heels as a walk-on, Kenny calls his son a “late bloomer.” He thinks K.J., now 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, finally has the chance to be successful at the collegiate level.
“Someone one day’s gonna go, ‘Where the hell did he come from? I know that’s Kenny’s son, but where did he come from?’” Kenny said.
Nowadays, Kenny hears a newfound confidence in K.J.’s voice. After sitting out the 2017-18 season because of NCAA transfer rules, he understands what it takes to play at North Carolina.
Staring at his father’s jersey in the Smith Center rafters, K.J. recognizes Kenny’s accomplishments, but knows he’s his own person. And he’s finally comfortable with that.
“I just had to be in that moment and feel like the pressure’s on me,” K.J. said. “But now, I feel surrounded in the most Kenny Smith-atmosphere here at UNC, and I feel no type of pressure at all.”
Weeks before he made the decision to leave Pacific, K.J. hung out with Kenny on the CBS broadcast set at the 2017 NCAA Championship game. The two watched the Tar Heels capture a sixth NCAA title.
As the father and son walked across the confetti-covered floor at University of Phoenix Stadium, Kenny stopped at center court. He wanted to take a picture with K.J. to capture the moment’s significance.
“Okay, this is the last time I’ma bring you as father-son,” Kenny said. “The next time, you gotta be here on your own.”