FAIRBORN, Ohio -- One of the most valuable types of players a basketball coach can have is one who doesn't miss.
And coach Katrina Merriweather feels fortunate to have such a player in her first year at the helm of the Wright State program.
Sure, Lexi Smith misses some shots. Almost half of them to be exact. But it's not her team-leading field goal percentage that is worth the most to Merriweather.
It's the junior forward's can't-miss commitment.
"That kid has not missed a practice in three years," Merriweather said. "She's so extremely tough, and she plays herself into shape and she cares about being ready to play. You just have to love that kid. Most players miss at least one practice or two every year."
It's one thing to fight through the standard bumps, bruises, sprains and strains that arise over the course of a season and make it to every practice when you know you're going to be starting every game.
But that wasn't the case for Smith when she showed up at Wright State, which was the only Division I offer she had coming out of the storied Homewood-Flossmoor prep program in Chicago as an undersized post player at 5-10 1/2 inches.
Smith didn't play a lot her first two seasons with the 6-5 Richelle van der keijl ahead of her. But when WSU coach Mike Bradbury took the job at New Mexico, van der keijl followed him, leaving an opportunity for Smith to become a key piece of a Raiders team that has won nine of its last 10 games to improve to 13-5 overall and 5-1 in the Horizon League.
"I always had belief in myself and knew I was capable of doing this," said Smith, who heads into Friday's game in her hometown against Illinois-Chicago averaging 13.6 points and 8.4 rebounds, both of which are the second-best totals on the team.
"I knew it wasn't going to come easy," Smith added. "I just had to trust the process. I didn't play as much my freshman and sophomore years, but every day was a chance to get better, a chance to keep pushing to earn more playing time."
And practice, which appropriately is where the WSU coaches first saw Smith surrounded by players with multiple D-I offers.
"(Homewood-Flossmoore) coach Tony Smith told me 'I've got a player for you,' and I'm like, 'Tony, I don't want the kid nobody wants on your team,' " Merriweather said. "He said just come watch her. So it was like, 'Why not?' "Merriweather said she was impressed with Smith's strength and ability, but it was something else that WSU assistant coach Keith Freeman remembers most about that first meeting.
"I watched her practice, and what struck me -- other than the fact they had really, really good players -- was it would be between drills and there would be a ball bouncing on the floor, and she would run over and get the ball and get back and be first in line for the next drill," Freeman said. "Those are the things that stood out to me. Those are the reasons why she's successful."
That effort carries into games, where the only thing that amazes Merriweather more than Smith's attendance at every practice is her commitment to running the floor.
"Every single time," Merriweather said. "And this is a girl who is playing 34 minutes getting her body beat up in the post. When she does that, it draws the defense into the paint, which is why we get so many 3s in transition.
"A lot of players would say 'I don't want to do that. That's not pretty. That's not fun. You want me to run the floor harder than everybody else to not touch the ball so that somebody else can shoot it?' "
Merriweather said it's funny to watch Smith sometimes because she will she the fatigue on her face, and then Smith will whip her head back and forth as though she's literally trying to shake it off.
"I do feel tired sometimes, but I know I have enough energy to push past that," Smith said. "When I get tired, I feel like I just need to warm up so I run more. Knowing that it's helping my teammates out by getting them open shots, that just motivates me to run the floor. Any chance I get, I do it."
Of course not all of her teammates' 3-pointers go in. More than half, in fact, don't.
But when they miss, Smith is there to give the offense a second chance with an offensive rebound. It's another thing she excels at, with a staggering 59.9 percent of her rebounds coming on the offensive end.
"She just has this knack where she's so good at rebounding offensively," Merriweather said. "She knows that's where she can clean up."
Smith said her improved stats and increased playing time are derivatives of a simple formula.
"It all comes down to faith and hard work," she said.
This article is written by Jay Morrison from The Dayton Daily News and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.