Even when JaJuan "The Pest'' Smith was an eighth-grader, he was making folks around Decatur and AThens raise their eyebrows in disbelief while watching his antics on the basketball court.
"He was real skinny, but he was real good,'' said McMinn County's Keith Elliott, who coached Smith in high school ball.
"We were struggling a little his freshman season, so we moved him into the starting lineup,'' Elliott said. "He was our leading scorer the last 10 games that year. From the beginning of his high school career, you good tell he had a lot of skills.''
Smith walked on at Tennessee last year and earned a scholarship. He had limited playing time under coach Buzz Peterson, but has blossomed this year under new UT coach Bruce Pearl as the Vols have raced to a 16-3 start.
Smith, nicknamed "The Pest''by members of the Tennessee radio team due to his aggressive play on defense, is averaging 24.6 minutes-per-game for the Vols. He scored a career high 17 points on 7-of-14 shooting during Saturday's victory over Ole Miss. Smith also had seven rebounds and four steals.
"He is a pest,'' Elliott said. "It's unreal they have T-shirts of him in Knoxville with 'The Pest' written on them.
"It's a good description of him. He always guarded the other team's best offensive player for us. He was our stopper.''
Elliot said Smith was a "tweener'' in high school due to his size, meaning he was recruited mainly by mid-majors like Arkansas State, MTSU and UT-Chattanooga. Tennessee did show some interest, but didn't have a scholarship available at the time.
"We were 17-17 his senior year and he didn't get a lot of tournament exposure,'' Elliott said. "Still, he had three 40-point games, four 30-point games and averaged 22 per game.
"He had his heart set on D-I basketball and UT was a dream for him. He decided walking on was his best option. Really, the fact he wanted to go there so badly may have led some schools to think he wasn't interested in them.''
Smith has put on 15-20 pounds since joining the Vols, and fits perfectly into the Pearl's offensive and defensive schemes.
"His style of play is to get after people,'' Elliott said. "He has long arms, quickness and great anticipation. And under coach Pearl, he has become more than just a shooter. Now, he's driving, rebounding and finishing plays.''
Elliot said he stressed one thing to Smith during his four seasons in Athens -- become a complete player. He never was that at McMinn County, mainly concentrating on shooting three-pointers.
"And now he is starting to develop into that complete player,'' Elliott said. "That's why he is seeing so much significant playing time for the Vols.''
(E-mail Stan Crawley at email@example.com)