FORT WAYNE – It took awhile for Tommy Smith to get to Fort Wayne. And once he got here, it took a little longer for his game to show up. But as far as Mad Ants coach Duane Ticknor is concerned, both have been worth the wait.
Hes just getting better and better, Ticknor said of the 6-foot-10, 215-pound forward. Hes getting more comfortable here. Hes finally worked himself into shape and becoming the player we knew he was going to be. Were really happy with the progress hes made.
The Ants (23-21), in a quest for the franchises first playoff berth, end a three-game homestand against Central Division-leading Rio Grande Valley (27-15) at 5 p.m. today at Memorial Coliseum.
With Eries loss Saturday, the Ants are in seventh place. The top eight make the playoffs.
Because Ticknor knew Smith, 32, from their nomadic basketball lives, and had seen his abilities, the Ants traded last years All-D-League rookie guard Cam Jones to Santa Cruz (formerly Dakota) to get Smith.
We gave up something when we gave Cam up to trade for Tommy, Ticknor said.
We knew we were giving something up, but youve got to give something up to get something, and we felt that we needed size and athleticism, and obviously he gives us that.
In Thursdays 107-93 victory over Maine that enabled the Ants to jump over the Red Claws in the East Division standings, Smith had his first double-double of the season with 14 points and 11 rebounds. He added three assists, three steals and two blocked shots, both of which came on a bang-bang sequence beneath the Maine basket in the second half.
Without a doubt it was Tommys best game, Ticknor said.
It was game No. 22 with the Ants for Smith, who said he had to take care of personal issues off the court before he could join the team in mid-January.
Any time you come to a new team, its a role, said Smith, who played four seasons at Arizona State before he became a minor league and overseas vagabond.
On this team, weve got a lot of vets. The transition was pretty easy. Coach tells you what you need to do, you just go out and do it, whether its running the floor or setting good screens, rebounding the ball or playing great defense. Whatever he tells you to do, you go out and do it.
But it took some time before he did it.
He scored six points in his Ants debut in Bakersfield, Calif. The next game, he didnt shoot, didnt score in eight minutes. As January turned to February, Smith played his role off the bench – hitting the glass, swatting shots, picking up a junk bucket now and then.
Now hes starting. Even though he had seven points in the Ants thrilling 106-104 triple-overtime win over Austin on Friday, he led the team with 13 rebounds, seven of which were offensive.
A lot of it is getting the ball, said Smith, who was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 2003. We have such great scorers, you dont always get the attempts. On this team you dont always get the touches you want, but when you get them youve got to take advantage of it.
Note: The Ants will be without point guard Ron Howard for the second consecutive game tonight, Ticknor said. Howard, whose 19.1 scoring average is second on the team, suffered a slightly fractured wrist late in Thursdays win over Maine and sat out Fridays triple-overtime win over Austin. Howard said he hoped to return within a week.