POCATELLO — For two years, the only basketball Austin Smellie played was a handful of laid-back pickup games in soccer-crazed Argentina.
Two years removed from those days, Smellie is helping the Idaho State men’s basketball team create its own buzz.
The Bengal sophomore has his basketball legs back after his two-year church mission in Argentina and is one of the team’s most improved players. The toughness and consistency local fans remember from his Preston High days have ISU (5-7, 2-1 Big Sky Conference) near the top of the standings early in the league schedule.
As first-year Bengals head coach Ryan Looney says, Smellie saws wood.
“Austin has been our most consistent player every day with the effort that he gives in practice,” Looney said after Smellie scored a career-high 21 points and the Bengals beat Idaho on Dec. 28. “We’ve used the mantra all year long, ‘saw wood.’ He’s doing that more than anybody on our team.”
Smellie has nearly surpassed many of last season’s statistical totals, and he’s only played about 80 percent of last season’s minutes. He has easily cleared last season’s 55 points with 92 through 12 games, good for 7.7 per game — fourth-most on the team.
He has the highest field-goal percentage (57.4) among ISU’s everyday players and is one of six Bengals with a positive assist-to-turnover ratio. He earned his first start of the season Dec. 21 at Pacific and has started every game since, logging nearly 30 minutes per night in his four starts.
He’s playing 22.6 minutes per game for the season, up from 11.9 as a freshman, when he was a fringe role player averaging 1.9 ppg.
Smellie admits that his athleticism and basketball fitness weren’t up to snuff last season, when he was back in Idaho after spending two years in Argentina on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The full season back on the court and the recent offseason helped Smellie reacclimate.
“I’ve gotten bigger, I’ve gotten a little bit more of my athleticism back since coming off of my mission,” Smellie said Tuesday. “Last year, I still was kind of getting it back.”
Smellie mostly shot 3-pointers last season as a quick-hitting spark off the bench. He’s reverted back to his slashing athleticism and has flourished in Looney’s swing offense this season, getting inside much more and often playing bigger than his 6-foot-5, 185-pound frame.
He’s made 26 of 35 2-point shots (74.3%), including a combined 9 for 9 against Pacific and Idaho.
“I just feel more comfortable out there,” Smellie said. “Things are happening a little bit slower in my mind. That’s probably the biggest difference from last year to this year.”
Smellie is one of 10 Idahoans — and one of two from Preston — on ISU’s roster. Many members of this year’s Preston Indians basketball team have attended Bengal home games this season. He was a star for those Indians, winning a state title and leaving as the program’s all-time leading scorer.
He may be on another memorable path in Pocatello.