Ishmael Smith has always played basketball like he has something to prove.
Listed at 6-foot, 175 pounds, Smith has faced others questioning if he could be successful because of his size from the Harrisburg youth leagues up to Central Cabarrus High to Wake Forest and now at the highest level of basketball in the NBA. But he's never doubted himself.
"I've never thought a lot about my size, I just go out there and play ball," said Smith, known as "Ish" to friends and teammates. "You really don't have to prove anything to anyone but yourself."
So far, Ish has proved he belonged on every level.
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Smith made the Central Cabarrus varsity team as a freshman and cracked the starting lineup halfway through the year.
As a Viking, Smith went on to be a two-time all-state point guard as well as the ME-CA 6 conference and Charlotte Observer Player of the Year in his junior and senior seasons.
Smith averaged nearly 25 points and 10 assists in his senior campaign, earning a scholarship to Wake Forest because of his ability and speed.
Former Central Cabarrus basketball coach Scott Brewer, who is now the coach at Concord, remembers Smith as a dedicated player.
"Not a day went by when Ish was in high school that he didn't go the gym and work as hard as he could," said Brewer.
After struggling at times in his first two seasons at Wake Forest, Smith became a three-year team captain, capping his career with a second-team All-ACC performance. He averaged nearly 13 points, six assists, five rebounds and two steals per contest his senior season.
Brewer said Smith developed at Wake.
"Everything didn't always go his way when he was there, but he really grew as a player, fought through some adversity and came out a better player and person for it," said Brewer. "He became a real leader for his team by his junior and senior seasons."
Smith is now out to prove he belongs at the highest level of basketball with the Houston Rockets. Brewer said Smith is the first Cabarrus County basketball player to play in the NBA.
Smith earned the starting point guard job for the Rockets' summer league team in Las Vegas. He averaged 7.8 points, 4.8 assists and 1.2 steals per game while shooting 58 percent from the field.
Smith's performance earned him a three-year deal worth over $1 million to play for the Rockets.
"When I was in summer league, I just went out and tried to play my game and not worry about the pressure," said Smith. "God has really blessed me with this opportunity in my life."
Smith should benefit from playing with the Rockets' top two point guards, Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry, as both of them are similar in height and style of play.
Both Brooks and Lowry, who also had to fight their way up from the bottom of the depth chart when they entered the league, have been eager to help Smith learn the ropes.
"Right now, I am focused on getting better every day, learning the system, the plays and my role on the team," said Smith, who might be one of the fastest players in the Rockets' roster with the ball.
But while Smith has earned the respect of a lot of his teammates, he will have to perform well during the preseason, which opened last night, to earn a permanent job with the Rockets.
But like he has done so many times in the past, Smith isn't worried about what people say or what will happen with his career. He just wants to keep playing the game he loves.
"Basketball is a game of confidence," said Smith. "I know I can play at this level, and I have worked very hard to get to where I am. That won't change. I will work as hard as anyone out here, every day."