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Shaka Smart signs another elite local big and two more prospects on ideal trajectories

The 2019 signing class for the Longhorns could finally put Smart’s program over the top.

Texas basketball

On Wednesday, the Texas Longhorns basketball program signed three prospects in a class that slots at No. 6 nationally in the 247Sports Composite rankings in terms of average ranking, but perhaps possesses even more upside than the rankings indicate.

“We’re very excited about our three signees and what they mean for the future of our program,” head coach Shaka Smart said in a statement released by the school. “All three come from very strong basketball backgrounds and possess a competitiveness that will help them make the transition to the college game. This class fits a variety of needs for our program and will make an immediate impact on next year’s team.”

Those three signees are Fort Bend Elkins guard Donovan Williams, Wolfeboro (N.H.) Brewster Academy forward Kai Jones, and Austin Westlake forward Will Baker.

Smart and his staff took a relatively unusual approach to recruiting those three players — instead of having a primary assistant assigned to each prospect, as is the case in football, assistants Jai Lucas, Darrin Horn, and Neill Berry all played big roles in each recruitment.

“We tried as a group, as a staff, as a whole to work together in letting all three of those guys know they were priorities to our program and they’re guys that we really, really wanted here and I think this group of three assistants worked as well together on recruiting and making sure these young men understood how much we wanted them at Texas as any group I’ve been around in the past,” Smart said.

Of course, the most important pitches in recruiting often don’t come from the coaches — they come from the players. Because prospects take trips around the country and interact with players on multiple teams, they quickly develop a deep understanding of which programs have strong chemistry.

So Smart emphasizes getting recruits around players when they visit to facilitate a personal understanding of that team chemistry.

“That really went a long way towards relationship building,” Smart said of his players. “And as you’re trying to build a program, that’s really, really big. Matt Coleman played a big role in helping us recruit Courtney Ramey and then Courtney Ramey and Jaxson Hayes played a really big role in some of these guys that we’re bringing in, as did Matt and some of the other guys, so that’s the type of pattern that you want to set.”

Coleman did his part with Baker at the Texas Tip-Off, when he unveiled a sign that expressed how much he wanted Baker to play with him on the Forty Acres. And that’s extremely important, Smart said, because recruits want to feel wanted by their future peer group.

There’s been a shift in that regard — Smart held his coach at Kenyon College in the highest esteem, but now the Longhorns head coach is benefiting from having players on his team that he considers energy givers as players increasingly emphasize their relationships with their future teammates.

“When guys come on campus, they feel that, and that goes a long way,” Smart said.

To a large extent, that’s a credit to Smart for building a program with players that reflect his culture outwards. No one has had a bigger impact in that regard than Coleman, who helped recruit not only Baker and Ramey, but also Mo Bamba. In fact, Smart recently described Coleman’s biggest flaw as the fact that he’s a “man of the people,” which sometimes makes it difficult for Coleman to add a little more salt with the sugar of his interactions with his teammates.

“He’s someone that makes you feel better about yourself, every time you’re around him,” Smart said of Coleman.

Still, that’s a good problem to have in terms of Coleman’s challenges as a leader, and it illustrates the way that successfully building a relationship with Coleman over a number of years has translated to Coleman successfully building relationships with key targets over a shorter period of time.

Pragmatically, as Smart noted, it also helps that Coleman is a pass-first point guard who is willing and able to get his teammates involved, especially for big men like Baker and Jones.

For certain prospects like Baker, who is interested in becoming a filmmaker, Texas had to offset the appeal of a school like UCLA. So a June visit that featured a visit with the dean of the communications school and faculty in Radio-Television-Film provided Baker a new perspective on just how much Texas has to offer in that department.

Once again, Smart and his staff were able to keep a local product at home, as Baker, the nation’s No. 20 prospect, committed to the Longhorns last week and then officially ended his recruitment on Wednesday.

“Will possesses outstanding offensive talent, including the ability to score around the basket and on the perimeter,” Smart said. “He’s as good a shooter at his size as I’ve seen at the high school level. He will be an excellent fit with how we utilize and develop our versatile bigs.”

In fact, Smart said that Baker is much more skilled than Jarrett Allen or Mo Bamba offensively, but he doesn’t have the length or athleticism of those two players, which could actually result in him staying for two years on the Forty Acres.

“What Will has, at his size, is really, really unique in that he’s really gifted around the basket in finishing and being able to make plays,” Smart said. “He’s also a really good passer, but then he can step away from the basket, he can shoot the ball extremely well from outside, and then, like I said, he can pass the ball and handle it some, too, which just makes him a unique player.”

Texas also added two more high-upside players who fit the mold embraced by Smart over the last several classes — recruits who made big strides late in the process and possess trajectories that have them on track to become impact players sooner rather than later.

Smart called those considerations huge and noted that it’s been a longtime focus for him, as evidenced by landing late-rising recruits like Andrew Jones and Jaxson Hayes, among others.

“You look for guys that can continue to grow and improve, because the reality is, they sign in November of their senior year,” Smart said. “They’re still 12 months until they’re gonna play a college game, and then there’s still another year or two until they’re sophomore or juniors, so there’s a lot of time for development and everyone’s development happens at different times. The thing we’ve learned with guys like Jaxson is because they’re on the way up, they get better quicker.”

The first commitment came from the 6’5, 175-pound Williams, with Jones, a 6’10, 200-pounder, joining Williams in the class back in October.

As the nation’s No. 54 player, Jones has some similarities to Hayes — both are extremely long and athletic and neither player saw much time on the court as juniors.

“We’re excited about Kai’s tremendous upside and character,” Smart said. “He has an infectious personality and a great work ethic. His trajectory and development on the court since last year has been fun to watch, and we’re extremely excited about what’s ahead of him.”

The trajectory for Williams, according to Smart, looks like that of Jones.

“Donovan is a versatile guard who can play and defend multiple positions,” Smart said. “He is young for his age (will not turn 18 until September of 2019) but has shown rapid development in his game, and we’re excited about his terrific potential.”

The ties of assistant coach Jai Lucas to Houston — his father, John, is a major figure in the basketball scene there — helped with Williams, who Smart thinks is improving at an incredible rate.

What sets Williams apart is his work ethic and how that is translating to his improvement. The lanky guard also played with Kentucky signee Tyrese Maxey, a guard ranked as a top-10 prospect nationally, and several other high-level prospects on his Houston Hoops AAU team, so Williams didn’t always have a chance to dominate. That’s the result of having two other high-major guards on the same team — De’Vion Harmon signed with Texas A&M and La’Vontae Shenault signed with Texas Tech.

Not only does Williams have an understanding of how to play with other talented players as a result, he’s also played multiple positions, he can shoot, he can pass the ball, he can handle the ball, and he has an ideal frame for basketball that includes good height and length.

“He has a gliding quality to him that is unlike anyone on our team right now,” Smart said.

Now it’s just about adding some weight to that frame and giving Williams some time to develop.

As for Jones, Smart thinks that the native of the Bahamas is “really going to surprise a lot of people.” While the Longhorns head coach admitted that he’s not always right about these things, he believes that Jones is going to be a really special player.

Jones spent his junior year playing behind the nation’s No. 3 prospect, Nasir Little, at Orlando Christian Prep last season. So Smart and his staff had only watched Jones on tape before entering his recruitment during the spring when Berry was hired.

“One of the things that’s great about Kai is that he’s a phenomenal communicator,” Smart said. “He loves communicating with people. He was always easy to get on the phone and build a relationship with, so the relationship came relatively quickly between our staff and with him.”

The takeaway for Smart is that Jones is an energy giver and the type of player that fits the culture he’s trying to build at Texas.

The more important takeaway for the overall program arc is that Smart and his staff identified Jones and built a relationship with him before he burst onto the national scene with performances on the AAU circuit in July that made Jones a national name.

During that month, Jones received offers from Syracuse, Providence, Kansas, Florida State, and Arkansas. Florida State, Syracuse, and Baylor all received official visits from Jones, but it was his trip to Austin for the weekend of the TCU football game that ultimately cemented his recruitment.

“He’s a very, very thoughtful kid, so he’s one of those guys who looked at the decision from every different angle, thought through it, probably changed his mind several times, but at the end of the day, he felt good about the relationships he had built here with the coaches and players, and also about the plan that we had for him to continue to develop and grow,” Smart said.

And though numbers are tight in the class — Texas only has two seniors and three signees already — Smart said that he and his staff aren’t done recruiting.

The big target is Federal Way (Wa.) forward Jaden McDaniels, the nation’s No. 4 prospect, who took his official visit to Austin earlier this month. Kentucky looms in that recruitment, and McDaniels has also visited San Diego State, UCLA, Washington, but Texas is a definite factor.

For now, though, the key is that the Longhorns have already landed what Smart described as the three players who emerged as “must-have” prospects after the last several months.

Given the talent of Baker and the incredible trajectory of Williams and Jones, Smart has already made a case for why he should receive the opportunity to coach those three players as part of the program that is increasingly building a culture and setting the foundation to retain key building blocks over multiple seasons.