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Originally published Tuesday, February 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Kentwood's Josh Smith large and in charge

The classroom is as silent as a room with 15 teenage boys can be. Only the whir of a videocassette can be heard, as coach Michael Angelidis...

Seattle Times staff reporter

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COVINGTON — The classroom is as silent as a room with 15 teenage boys can be. Only the whir of a videocassette can be heard, as coach Michael Angelidis fast-forwards through game tape.

Then he pauses.

The freeze-framed image on the projection screen shows five defenders jammed into the lane as if it were a jail cell. In the middle of them, a 6-foot-9, 270-pound baby-faced kid searches for space.

"Big, Josh!" Angelidis says, breaking the silence. "You've got to be big there!"

In the front row, that kid searches for space again, this time in the confines of a high-school desk. Kentwood's Josh Smith nods. He understands. As big as the 15-year-old sophomore has been this season for the Conquerors, he will need to be even bigger now. Their next game could be their last.

A day earlier, in this same room, Angelidis told him, "If you perform over the next seven games, we'll win the state championship. You take us there."

Smith's eyes lit up. No, the state won't let him drive yet. But he already knows the route to the Class 4A state boys basketball tournament, and he's the 15-passenger van that can carry the Conquerors there.

"He wants to do that," Angelidis said. "He's not a kid that will buckle down under pressure."

Smith has already become one of the state's dominant forwards. This season, he has averaged 21 points and 9.8 rebounds with a 74 percent shooting percentage.

"He can be one of the great high-school players in the state of Washington," Angelidis said.

As he towers above the Kentwood campus, students and teachers that Smith doesn't even know pat him on the arm to tell him, "Good game." Even the school janitor pulled him aside before one recent game. "Go tear them up," he said.

Smith already holds Kentwood season records for rebounds and shooting percentage. He's eyeing school records for career points and rebounds set by Rodney Stuckey, now playing for the NBA's Detroit Pistons. But Smith has one advantage: an early start.

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Before Smith's freshman season, his dad found Angelidis and asked where Smith fit in.

"In all my years of coaching," said Angelidis, then in his first year at Kentwood, "I have not started a freshman."

"OK, Coach," Smith's dad replied. "You might change your mind."

Six games into the season, Smith had the starting job. "Don't lose it," said his dad, who goes by Big Josh, though, at 6-3, his son shot past him three years ago.

When Smith was born in 1992, he weighed 7 pounds, 11 ounces, but it wasn't long before Smith began sprouting upward. When he was 3, he looked so much older that people wondered what he was doing out of school. By age 7, his parents had to shop for him in the men's department.

In fourth grade, Smith joined a youth basketball league in Covington. But he blocked so many shots, the league changed the rules so he couldn't station himself under the basket.

"We're out of here," Smith's dad said after two games. "That's not normal basketball, son."

As a 6-4 seventh-grader, Smith heard his dad yell from the driveway.

"Come here!" his dad said. "I gotta show you something."

His dad placed a basketball in front of the portable hoop in the driveway.

"Grab the ball," Dad said. "Go straight up. Once you hit the rim, push it down."

And there, Josh Smith dunked for the first time.

"His eyes got about that big," Smith's dad said. "The confidence shot through the roof."

The dunk has turned into Smith's most dangerous asset. He can catch and slam the ball in one fluid motion.

Opposing coaches have gone to greater lengths to keep Smith away from the ball. Teams often pack all their defenders in the paint, smothering Smith and daring Kentwood to beat them from outside.

Kentwood's guards haven't given up on getting him the ball. The team runs a drill in practice where Smith must fight off a triple team and get a good shot.

"Josh has to work even harder to get the ball," Angelidis said. "He has to do a better job of making himself available. He has to move more."

He's also working on his midrange jump shot. He knows that once he goes to college, he won't always be the largest player on the court anymore — though he is expected to grow to 6-10 or 6-11.

Colleges have mailed him letters almost daily since eighth grade. That first letter came from Washington, and Smith paraded it around school the next day.

"It came from Lorenzo," Smith explains, "I think he came to one of our AAU games — "

His dad interrupts: "Coach Romar."

"Yeah, coach Romar."

"Lorenzo," his dad says, shaking his head. "Like you guys are buddy-buddy or something."

Letters and media guides fill a shoebox from a pair of Smith's size 19 Reeboks. The Smiths expect 10 to 15 calls a night, from schools such as Duke, UCLA, Gonzaga, Tennessee and Washington, where Smith has an open invitation to sit behind the Huskies' bench.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few attended a Kentwood game a week ago. USC recently joined the 20-odd schools who have been to practice. But Smith likely won't make a decision until after his junior year.

"I really haven't thought about it," Smith said.

The season isn't over yet, though the Conquerors face a loser-out game tonight against Curtis of University Place. Kentwood (18-6) will have to win two consecutive games to qualify for the state tournament.

But if Smith's freshman year is any indication, his season is just getting started.

Beginning with a 32-point night in a winner-to-state game against Mount Tahoma last winter, Smith averaged 22.5 points in a four-game run that led underdog Kentwood to the fifth-place game at state. Smith was the only freshman on the all-tournament team.

Kentwood needs its towering teenager to be big yet again.

"He really steps up when there's a lot on the line," Angelidis said. "A year ago, this is about the week where he elevated his game. I would love to see him elevate his game again."

Tom Wyrwich: 206-515-5653 or twyrwich@seattletimes.com

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