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The issue with junior power forward Leslee Smith was never about the type of impact he could have in Nebraska's lineup this season, but just how much his surgically repaired knee would allow him to stay on the court.
Through the first seven games of the year so far, Smith and his knee have been doing just fine.
In his first season of Division I basketball since tearing his ACL as a redshirt freshman at SMU back in 2011, the 6-foot-8, 255-pound native of the British Virgin Islands has been easily the Huskers' most productive post player on both ends of the floor. While he hasn't started a game yet, Smith is currently averaging 8.7 points per game on 62.2-percent shooting from the field along with leading the team with 6.7 rebounds per game. He's led the team in rebounding in four of NU's seven games, including hauling in double-digit boards against UMass and Georgia.
It's not just Smith's play on the court that has impressed Nebraska head coach Tim Miles. Smith's value has also been in the Huskers' locker room, as he's emerged as a veteran presence on a very young roster that features just one scholarship senior.
"His play on the court has been very good," Miles said. "His poise and his maturity off the floor, in team meetings and what he has to say, is really good. He's an old soul. I just look at him like one of those guys who's got a little bit of wisdom to him. So when he says something, his teammates really respect it and they really like his perspective, because A) he's right a lot, and B) he's man enough to admit a mistake or he's man enough to say, 'This is a real problem for us. If we don't solve this problem, it's going to be a bigger problem.' I think guys don't always want to face those facts, but when they hear them from a teammate, it just sticks a little tighter."
Smith's value will only continue to increase once Nebraska enters Big Ten Conference play next month, as he's essentially been one of the only sources of physical play in the paint the Huskers have had this season. That of course makes managing his knee, which he admits still gives him trouble if he doesn't give it enough rest, an extremely important task for Miles and NU's training staff moving forward.
"His knee is hanging in there," Miles said. "There are times when we have to back off, there's no doubt about it. It's something that concerns me all the time. That's one of the first questions I ever ask (to the trainer) after he's logged a heavy practice or a lot of minutes."
Even though he hasn't started a game, Smith is still logging 19.1 minutes per game off the bench this year. Smith said he actually prefers being one of Nebraska's first subs because it allows him to come in and provide a spark for the team inside. He even approached Miles before NU's trip to the Charleston Classic a couple weeks ago and said he would rather continue having his role off the bench than being in the starting lineup.
"Coach Miles and I had a meeting before the Charleston Classic, and I told him I really liked coming off the bench," Smith said. "We don't really have a lot of bigs that can come in and have an impact on the game. So, I told him I don't mind coming off the bench and being the energy guy and getting the rebounds and scoring a little bit. I just want to play that role."
If Smith continues to produce the way he has been, Miles said he doesn't care when Smith comes into the game.
"Yeah, I agree with Leslee," Miles said. "I think he likes that, and if you look at his minutes, I don't think it'd be any different than if he was starting. I agree with him. I like Deverell Biggs coming off the bench. I like those two guys coming in and really providing something else."