Dylan Smith wanted more.
He led UNC Asheville in scoring as a freshman and guided them to just their fourth NCAA Tournament appearance in program history, but playing for a low-major team in the Big South Conference wasn’t enough for him.
“I want to compete at a high level,” he said. “I feel like I’m talented enough to do so.”
Smith ended up at UNC-Asheville because he didn’t have any other options.
The Mobile, Alabama native had zero offers from major-conference schools coming out of Hoover High School. He was a late bloomer.
“I didn’t play AAU as much. I got into that late and I grew late,” said Smith, a lanky 6-foot-5 swingman. “I wasn’t that big and strong until probably my junior year or senior year.”
Smith was overlooked on the recruiting trail but once he got to UNC Asheville, it became clear he could compete in a major-conference, averaging 13.5 points per game as a freshman, including a 14-point outing against Villanova in the NCAA Tournament.
So when an opportunity to join the Arizona Wildcats presented itself, Smith jumped at it.
“[Coach Sean Miller] put a lot of faith in me,” Smith said.
But transferring west was a leap of faith for Smith, too.
He knew he would be giving up his standing as the featured player on UNC-Asheville to join an Arizona roster where he was substantially lower on the totem pole — plus he had to sit out the 2016-17 season because of NCAA transfer rules.
He was OK with that.
“A lot of people don’t know I didn’t start at Asheville until the end of the year,” Smith said. “I’m used to it.”
He added: “I was obviously talented, so the coaches put more and more trust in me as the season went on.”
Smith is working to earn that same trust at Arizona.
The redshirt sophomore is averaging roughly 12 minutes and eight points fewer with the Wildcats than with the Bulldogs, but he is coming along nicely lately, shooting 8 of 14 from 3 in Arizona’s last six games.
Miller said Smith has made strides as a defender, too.
“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better as far as knowing my role and what Coach Miller wants me to do,” Smith said.
Smith also has a penchant for stepping up in big games, as his top two scoring performances have come against No. 7 Texas A&M (13 points) and No. 3 ASU (9).
He shot 6 of 8 from 3 in those crucial wins.
Arizona’s starting five is talented enough that all it needs from its backups like Smith is adequate defense and a made shot here and there, and he delivered.
“His 3-point field goals were big in our victory against Arizona State,” Miller said.
“I’ve talked about the guys that don’t start the game and how important it is for our coaching staff to continue to develop them so that if you judge them as players in the months of November and December … we can point to their comfort level and how they’ve settled in, how they’ve found their role and now they’re doing their role really well. Dylan is on his way to doing that.”
Smith’s role at Arizona will be limited so long as Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins are eating up minutes on the wing, but that could change next year when both those guys are expected to be in the NBA.
Smith certainly wouldn’t mind being a starter again — “if I ever get my opportunity to start here, I’ll take advantage of it,” he said — but he’s just glad to be in Tucson.
After all, the guy who had zero major-conference offers out of high school is now a contributor on one of the nation’s most talented teams.
“(Miller) put a lot of faith in me to come in and be good for the team and have a role,” Smith said. “I’m just following what he wants me to do. Whatever he needs me to do for the team, I’ll do it.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire