There was a time when Tolu Smith dreamed of donning the white and green of the University of Hawaii.
Fate steered the 6-foot-9 Kahuku hoopster in a different direction. Now a sophomore at Mississippi State, the now 6-10 Smith is averaging 14 points and nine rebounds per game for the Bulldogs.
“It’s been a tough journey in all honesty. I knew personally what I wanted to accomplish and still want to accomplish to this day, but it hasn’t been the easiest road,” Smith said. “However, that’s the beauty of it all, just seeing the results pay off.”
Transferring to Hawaii from the mainland as a sophomore allowed him to be near his mother’s side of the family on the North Shore. With mom, dad and his Polynesian roots nearby, Smith became the Star-Advertiser All-State player of the year in 2018.
Then, and now, his ball skills were prominent. Sometimes, the tallest kid on the hardwood can also be one of the best playmakers with the rock in his hands.
“Personally, I feel like being able to handle the ball at a young age allowed a smoother transition to college basketball. Being a versatile player is a hot commodity in today’s game,” Smith said.
The Southeastern Conference has always been a force in college basketball. The NBA’s No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft, Anthony Edwards, played at Georgia. Going all the way back to the 1980s, when Hawaii coveted high school phenom Bobby Lee Hurt of Alabama, the region has been a battleground for recruiters.
Smith wondered about staying in the islands after high school. He had already committed to Western Kentucky before coming to Kahuku. His freshman year at WKU was modest: 3.3 points and 2.6 rebounds, appearing in 34 games.
There were offers from Arkansas, LSU, Texas A&M and West Virginia when he decided to transfer to Mississippi State, his home state. Smith redshirted and was named to the SEC first-year academic honor roll.
Mississippi State (5-3) has gotten good mileage from Smith, who is playing nearly 30 minutes per game, third on the roster. He is also shooting 59 percent from the field, and nearly half of his rebounds — four per game — are on the offensive glass.
His relationship with MSU coach Ben Howland has been rock solid.
“He is a great person on and off the court with a great knowledge for the game. I am a sponge trying to soak up as much knowledge as possible from him. His resume speaks volumes, so I try to learn as much as possible,” he said.
Success comes with a price.
“The love and culture. There was never a dull moment in Hawaii. I miss my family, team and coaches dearly,” Smith said. “I want to become a great basketball player in the NBA and tend to my family in any way possible. I want my family to never have to work again.”
Top 3 movies/shows
1. “The Best Man.”
2. “The Wayans Brothers.”
3. “Just Mercy.”
Top 3 food/snack/drink
1. Life Savers Gummies.
2. Doritos, Spicy Sweet Chili.
Top 3 music artists
1. Fiji – “Zion.”
2. Fugees – “Fu-Gee-La.”
3. Blxst – “Overrated.”
New life skill: cooking.
NBA role models: “I really love Jusuf Nurkic and Jabari Parker’s game.”
Tolu’s Christmas wish:
“That everyone is safe and everybody has a great Christmas, and to be with my family.”
“Shoutout to the Red Raider family! Red Raider for life!”