By Bill Sheehan
A season-ending injury in her sophomore year threatened to derail Daeja Smith's basketball career at Cal State Fullerton.
The 6-foot-3 center tore the ACL in her left knee during preseason practice in the fall of 2015. Smith was forced to redshirt that season, and sitting out was more challenging than she imagined. Not only did she have to undergo a year of physical rehab, but the setback took a heavy toll on her mentally. "It was a rough time. When I realized I couldn't play anymore that season, I was devastated," recalled Smith.
The team finished with a 3-27 record and won just one Big West Conference game. "Watching my team struggle and watching my teammates going up and down the court without me changed my perspective. I thought, 'You can't be down on yourself. They need you.'
"She bounced back from her injury in dramatic fashion. Smith, who had averaged 4.1 points and 4.2 rebounds as a freshman, improved to 11.3 points and 7 rebounds per game as a redshirt sophomore. Last season, she averaged team-highs 12.5 points and 9.3 rebounds as a redshirt junior as she increasingly became a force in the paint.
The 22-year-old was recently selected to the Big West All-Conference Preseason Team and was named to the Lisa Leslie Award Watch List. The award, named after the three-time All-American and 1994 National Player of the Year, recognizes the top center in Division 1 women's basketball.
She has become a double-double machine this season as a redshirt senior, leading the Titans in both scoring (15.1 points per game) and rebounding (10.5). Her field goal percentage of 54.4% is third best on the team.
She now ranks among all-time great Titan defenders, moving into 9th place in career rebounds with 681 and second in blocked shots with 113. That's not too bad for a player who never earned all-league honors during her four years at Etiwanda High School in Rancho Cucamonga.
Smith will lead the Titans, who are 4-4, in an east coast road trip this week with games against Columbia on Wednesday and St. Peter's on Friday.
'She should have a double-double every night'
"Daeja is one of the top players in the conference, if not on the West Coast," said Titan women's basketball head coach Jeff Harada. "She should have a double-double every night. She is a very mobile and athletic post player who runs the floor like a guard."
"She's a kid who puts in a lot of work in the weight room in the off-season. We run specific plays for her in her effective spots. We expect her to make big plays and she does. She brings energy and it filters down to the rest of the team."
Smith has worked hard to become proficient at both ends of the court. "I take a lot of pride being a two-way player. It's a lot more fun when you can get a stop on defense and go down on the other side of the court and score."
"Rebounding is something that I love because it keeps the ball away from the other team and the opponent only gets one shot. A good block or outlet pass gets everyone going. My teammates say, 'Come on Daej. Let's go! Let's go!' I just love to see the energy it brings on the floor and on the bench. It's a great vibe."
Raina Perez, a redshirt sophomore transfer from Northern Arizona University, has played with Smith for just over a year. She said her teammate is a big presence on the team.
"Her leadership and her character are great," said Perez. "She brings a lot of energy every game. Daeja is an emotional leader and an energizer bunny. She is probably the most mobile post in the Big West. That makes it easier to get the ball to her for easy layups.
"She has been doing her part defensively. When she gets a block, we're all puffed out. In the past couple games, Daeja has held the opposition centers to 10 points max."
A Basketball Lifer
Other than a brief foray into Tee-ball, it's been non-stop basketball for Smith, who first stepped on a court as an 8-year-old. She said she wasn't a star at Etiwanda High, and that was fine with her. Smith committed early to Fullerton and has no regrets.
"I'm very family oriented, and I wanted to stay close to home," said Smith. "I like everything around the region – Disneyland, the malls and the beach. I love the facilities here. And I'm only 40 minutes from my mom."
Smith will receive bachelor's degrees in criminal justice and sociology when she graduates this spring. She would like to pursue a career in law enforcement or social work, but only after taking a stab at playing professionally overseas.
Ranch dressing is a guilty pleasure of hers. "I eat a lot of it as a dipping sauce," said Smith. And she said she drinks a lot of water, always served at room temperature. "I can drink a gallon in no time."
She calls her mother, Angel Hamilton, her biggest fan. "She comes to every home game and cheers us on. And she drives to the road games played in Southern California. She is always cheering for me and has always been there for me. She is a great person."
Hamilton kept her daughter's spirits up as she recovered from the ACL injury.
"She really felt like she was at a standstill after the injury," said Hamilton. "It was important to keep her motivated and tell her that she would come back stronger. And she followed every step of the rehab program."
Jamie Potter, a Titan assistant athletic trainer, also played a key role in Smith's comeback from the injury. "Jamie helped me get through it. She was very patient," said Smith. "She was telling me, 'It's going to be OK. You're going to do better than you ever did before.' And I had a lot of support from my teammates too."
Listening to Advice From Mom
Smith's mother advised her to stick out at Fullerton when she considered transferring before Harada's arrival in April 2017. "I told her, 'Stay with it – you'll get through it. You'll be shining. And you'll get to help the younger girls.' "
Hamilton said her daughter was, in a word, "soft" when she first started playing basketball. "She didn't have the fire in her," said Hamilton. "She wasn't aggressive and was afraid she would hurt someone on the court. Now you can't stop here out there."
Smith has praise for second-year coach Harada and his coaching staff. "The coaches are great. It's a better environment than when I arrived here. They tell us what we are doing wrong and how we can be better. The scouting is good, and they give us the keys to perform well. And their office doors are always open to us."
Harada said he is really proud of Smith as a player and a person. "Daeja has gone through a lot off and on the court. To see her grow as a person has been very satisfying to me. As a fifth-year senior, her experience gives us an edge."
"I'm trying to get her to believe in herself and what she is capable of. When she wants to, she can dominate a game," said Harada, whose team finished 8-21 last season, exceeding the win total of the two previous seasons combined.
As for this season, Smith said the Titans need to step up. "We have a bit more development that we need. We just have to take a little bit more time to be serious about things," said Smith, who said she is confident things will jell before the start of the conference season.
The humble Smith said she is not preoccupied with individual achievements. "The Leslie Watch List is an honor, but at the same time I just love playing. All the awards and accolades aren't what I'm thinking about. I don't worry about those things. I'm playing for my team."