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Mike Smith leaves a blueprint as the new gold standard of up-transfers

Smith transformed his game in Ann Arbor.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Maryland vs Michigan Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

From the moment Mike Smith committed to Michigan as a graduate transfer last April, the move was surrounded by question marks.

At the time, they weren’t unwarranted. The Wolverines were in the market for a facilitating point guard following Zavier Simpson’s graduation, but Smith hardly seemed to fit the bill. He finished as the nation’s sixth-leading scorer during his final year at Columbia, averaging 22.8 points on 43% shooting.

But with the lack of talent around him on an Ivy League bottom-dweller, his unreasonably high usage rate and 19 shots per game stood out as caveats. So did his size, which checked in at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds. Doubts loomed over whether he’d be able to adjust to the physicality and talent of the Big Ten.

In Ann Arbor, he silenced any qualms about his up-transfer.

Other up-transfers of years past have failed miserably. Smith, by contrast, was a slam dunk. And on Wednesday, he took the next step by declaring for the NBA Draft.

Smith averaged nine points on 42% shooting and a Big Ten-best 5.3 assists, but the most impressive part about his season at Michigan was the way he transformed his game. Rather than continuing his Columbia role of shot-first guard, he became an elite facilitator in transition and out of the pick-and-roll. Smith’s evolution added multiple dimensions to the Wolverines’ offense, which helped him pilot them to the Elite Eight.

“It’s hard when you have a guy who comes in and you’ve averaged 20-plus points per game for years when you’ve been a primary scorer for your team and then you’re asked to a different role,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said last month. “Your role’s going to change when you’re going to be more of a facilitator, but at the same time, reading game-like situations like when to be aggressive as a point guard, that’s not an easy adjustment to make. It says a lot about Mike’s character and about how he wants to accept winning and put winning first and the team first before his individual stats.”

Smith’s best performance of the season came in Michigan’s comeback win over Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. He posted 18 points and a tournament record 15 assists, all without committing a turnover. The near-flawless afternoon helped the Wolverines erase a double-digit deficit and weather Howard’s second-half ejection.

Perhaps most importantly, Smith repeatedly proved that he can play with NBA talent. His former Columbia roster and the rest of the Ivy League were a far cry from orchestrating an offense that includes future NBA Draft selections Franz Wagner, Hunter Dickinson and Isaiah Livers.

Smith was the catalyst of an offense that ranked No. 9 nationally in adjusted efficiency, according to KenPom. He held his own at the other end of the floor in most matchups, shielding his size from becoming a major liability and proving he could manage the conference’s physicality.

Now, Smith will look to do the same at the next level. And on his way on the door, he’s now the national model of a successful up-transfer.