Getting a new head coach before his senior season could have made for a difficult transition for Warren County standout guard Andrew Smith.
The wrong hire could have hindered his chances to play at the next level.
But getting a new coach before your senior season helps when it’s your brother-in-law, as was the case for Smith, when TJ McRae filled the vacant Eagles boys’ basketball coaching position last summer.
Fast forward almost a year later and Smith, under the tutelage of McRae, is now looking forward to joining the Guilford Tech basketball program in the fall, having recently committed following a stellar final campaign for Warren County in which he averaged 18.7 points, five rebounds and two assists.
“The last year was real important because TJ always held me to a higher standard than everybody else,” Smith said, “always pushed me harder than anybody else. He challenged me to be a better defensive player, and I think that took my game to another level. He also challenged me to be a better leader, be better vocally on the court.”
Playing in Greensboro seems appropriate for Smith. That’s where McRae and Smith’s sister, Ashleigh, met while students at UNC-Greensboro.
One of the first times McRae recognized Smith had serious game was during pickup contests on a family trip to Maryland when Smith was 12 or 13.
Later, McRae watched Smith bloom into a talented player for Warren County while privately wishing he could work more closely with him in his development.
He finally got the chance following Smith’s junior season when, at the encouragement of Smith’s mother, Gwen, McRae started coaching Smith and other Warren County players on a new Warrenton-based AAU program, the N.C. Raptors.
The Eagles rebounded from a sluggish start to the high school season, at least in the win-loss column, to reach the second round of the NCHSAA 1A playoffs, a major feat for a new, young coach taking over a program that had won only one game the season before.
Smith scored 12 points, tying for the team high, in the playoff loss at Princeton High in Johnston County, only two days after a memorable win at Cape Hatteras High in the first round.
Veteran Princeton coach David Cobb wouldn’t have known very much about Smith and probably didn’t get to see much film on Warren County, but left the game impressed with his court presence. “That is a heck of a ball team,” Cobb said immediately following the game. “We don’t see athletes like that. And No. 12 — he can play.”
That’s Smith’s jersey number, by the way.
Most of his Northern Carolina Conference opponents learned that the hard way. He led the league in three-point shooting percentage (49 percent) and was fifth in scoring. He also got the experience of guarding likely major Division I guards (Class of 2021) Terence Harcum and Bobby Pettiford of Granville Central and South Granville, respectively.
McRae hopes Smith, too, will end up playing at a Division I school following his run with Guilford Tech, a National Junior College Athletic Association program that is no stranger to national rankings.
Head coach Kirk Chandler has led Guilford Tech, which competes in the same Region 10 Division 2 conference as Louisburg College and Vance-Granville, since 2012 after coaching Division 3 Averett University as well as holding assistant jobs at UNC-Greensboro, St. Andrews and Barton.
“They definitely focus on the development of the player,” Smith said. “They also want to win. They want you there for the two years, but they also focus on the development of your game.”
For Warren County, Smith was a combo guard the Eagles relied on to score. At Guilford Tech, Smith said he expects to play more point guard, still with an eye for scoring, for a team losing its top two scorers.
Smith, who has spent the last two-plus months of his senior year taking online courses due to schools being closed, said he’s looking forward to getting on campus and being a regular student again, whenever that might be.
If he can’t attract a Division 1 school, Smith should have a good chance to move on to a four-year school at a lower level.
McRae hopes putting Warren County players in the college ranks will be the new norm. And he’s confident Guilford Tech won’t be his brother-in-law’s final stop on the next level.
“He’s competitive,” McRae said. “He works hard. He was the best player on our team, but he was also the hardest-working player on our team. I think that goes a long way for anyone.”