- Future Purdue teammate and Homestead senior Fletcher Loyer finished second in the voting.
- Braden Smith led Westfield to his first boys basketball sectional title in school history.
Shane Sumpter remembers Braden Smith’s first shot as a high school basketball player. Not because it was especially memorable, but because it was so unlike what was soon to come from the dynamic freshman guard.
“An airball,” said Sumpter, the Westfield basketball coach. “It wasn’t 30 seconds later when he hit a little runner in the lane and got his first basket. But that first shot, it went like three or four feet over the rim.”
From the start—or almost from the start—Smith was off and running. He might have looked like a sixth-grader as a freshman, but he did not play like one. Near the end of his fifth game as a freshman, a win over Noblesville, he dribbled near half-court on a fastbreak, then whipped a pass behind his back as a defender approached, hitting senior Caleb Welch in stride for a layup.
Plays like those quickly became part of Smith’s repertoire. He would finish as Westfield’s all-time leader in scoring (1,629 points) and assists (453). But even those impressive statistics were dwarfed by the team success — the first sectional championship for Westfield in 105 years of basketball — Smith and his teammates experienced at the end of his senior season.
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“I knew Braden Smith was going to be good,” Sumpter said. “I’ve known him since he was 4 years old. But when I saw him in sixth and seventh grade I said, ‘This kid is going to be the first Indiana All-Star at Westfield.’ If you would have told me, ‘He’ll be Mr. Basketball,’ I might have hesitated. But I knew he was an Indiana All-Star-type of player.”
As it turned out, maybe even his coach underestimated Smith — at least slightly. The 6-foot senior guard was voted IndyStar Mr. Basketball by a vote of the state’s coaches and media, edging future Purdue teammate and Homestead senior Fletcher Loyer. Smith was voted Mr. Basketball by 128 voters to the second place Loyer’s 109. Lawrence North’s CJ Gunn was third with 57 votes, Central Noble’s Connor Essegian fourth with 41 votes and Chesterton’s Travis Grayson fifth with 16 votes. Six other players received at least one vote, but none of those had 10 or more.
“It’s just an unbelievable thing that happens to very few people,” Smith said after learning he had been voted Mr. Basketball. “Even being in the discussion with those four other finalists who are all great players and going to do big things with their schools is an honor. When you look at the history of the award and how successful all of them were, it shows that the hard work can pay off. It’s worth putting in the extra work.”
Smith’s win follows Caleb Furst’s 2021 recognition, giving Purdue back-to-back Mr. Basketballs for the first time since 1964-66 (Dennis Brady, Billy Keller and Rick Mount).
Said Indiana All-Stars director Mike Broughton: “Braden Smith had a great season and took Westfield to places they have never been.”
There was a time, late in Smith’s senior season, it appeared his shot at Mr. Basketball was all but gone. He injured his left foot Jan. 21 during a game at Brownsburg. It was the same injury he had suffered after his junior season that had required surgery in July.
“You always kind of think Braden is invincible,” Sumpter said. “He’ll rub some dirt on it and go back out there. But he was limping and tried to go back in the game in the second half and couldn’t. You knew it was pretty serious.”
Even two weeks before the sectional, Sumpter was not sure if Smith would be able to come back. Smith’s parents, Dustin and Ginny, told him it looked unlikely. Sumpter was preparing to have Smith start the senior night game Feb. 18 against Franklin Central, but only to get in the game for the first few seconds to be recognized.
But after meeting with Dr. David Porter several times, Smith decided to put off surgery until after the season — whenever that might be — as long as he could play without pain.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to do anything that might jeopardize him playing,’” Sumpter said. “We kept getting feedback that he couldn’t do anymore to it. So he started shooting, really with no expectations still that he was going to play. As we got closer to senior night, he practiced a segment during practice, then practiced a little more. He wasn’t feeling any (bread). Next thing I know, he’s trying to dunk. He says, ‘I can play. I’m fine.'”
While he was not exactly “fine”, he did play half of the senior night game against Franklin Central and roughly the same the following night in a win over Decatur Central. He sat out the regular-season finale against Lewis Cass to prepare for sectional week.
“When I got hurt the Brownsburg game, I thought I’d be done,” he said. “But I was going to practice every day and it was finally like, ‘Well, why not try it?’ We ended up doing something special out of it.”
Sumpter still had no idea what to expect going into the sectional, other than he was planning to play Smith without restriction. The challenge ahead of Westfield was daunting, facing a Class 4A second-ranked Fishers team that came in riding a nine-game winning streak, including a 25-point win over Westfield when Smith was sidelined.
Smith’s performance that night — 28 points, 10 assists, six rebounds and four steals in a decisive 62-44 victory — was just the start of a memorable week at Noblesville. Smith and senior guard Cam Haffner teamed up to lead the Shamrocks to victories over Hamilton Southeastern, 77-50, in the semifinal and then likely the most satisfying victory in the history of the Westfield program with a 59-54 win over third-ranked and defending state champion Carmel in the championship.
After celebrating on the court with his team, family and friends, Smith carried the sectional championship trophy with him to the school bus. In three sectional games, he averaged 24.0 points, 8.0 assists and 5.3 rebounds and shot 28-for-40 from the field (70%) and 13-for-21 from the 3-point line (61.9%).
“He wouldn’t have won Mr. Basketball if we didn’t win the sectional,” Sumpter said. “That was the only way it was going to happen. I wanted that for him because he worked so hard for it.”
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In the regional semifinal the following week at Logansport, Smith and Westfield rallied from an eight-point fourth-quarter deficit to knock off Loyer and Homestead, 64-53. Haffner was the scoring star that game, scoring 17 of his 19 points in the second half. Smith added 13 points, five rebounds and four assists and played defense on Rent in the fourth quarter.
An issue for Westfield was its depth — the Shamrocks played just five players in the sectional title game. In the regional, Westfield had to turn around and play Kokomo just hours after knocking off Homestead.
“I was worried about us playing two games (in a day) anyway,” Sumpter said. “We knew it was going to take everything we had to beat Homestead. His foot was the worst I’d seen it after the Homestead game. Even if we won that game, I’m not sure he would have been able to practice the next week.”
Smith had 11 points, six assists and six rebounds in the regional championship, but Kokomo — led by 6-11 sophomore star Flory Bidunga — rallied in the fourth quarter for a 64-60 win.
That is where the ride ended for Westfield, which finished 22-7. Smith averaged 18.3 points, 6.0 assists, 6.0 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 21 games. In his four-year varsity career, he averaged 17.9 points, 5.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. Smith was 251-for-587 (42.8%) from the 3-point line for his career.
“It didn’t end how we wanted in the regional,” Smith said. “But we were able to do something our school had never done before and win a sectional. To do that with my teammates, some of them I’d been playing with since second or third grade, is something we always wanted to do.”
He sometimes did it with a flair that could be misinterpreted as arrogance. Smith played with a chip on his shoulder that served as motivation for those who told him he was too small to play at the highest levels.
“It’s just a mentality, you know?” he said after the sectional championship win over Carmel. “People are going to hate you no matter what you do. I’m a 5-11 point guard going to Purdue and some people aren’t going to like me because they say, ‘My kid is better’ or this or that. It helps me to get over that hump to have that chip on my shoulder, always. It’s what you need when you are my size.”
Sumpter said he never had a problem with Smith celebrating an assist or a clutch 3-pointer.
“I’ve known him since he was 4 yearhis old,” Sumpter said “I feel like I know him better than anybody. I’ve watched everybody say, ‘You’re not going to do that.’ I’m going to let Braden Smith be Braden Smith because I know that is how he’s wired.”
After the sectional championship win, Sumpter texted Smith’s future college coach, Purdue’s Matt Painter: “I know you already know this. But he’s good.” Painter agreed. There will be questions about Smith playing in the Big Ten Conference, too. Those are questions Smith will have to answer when he arrives in West Lafayette. Sumpter, after watching what he accomplished at Westfield, is confident that he will.
“He’s done a lot for this school,” Sumpter said. “People weren’t talking about basketball much here. Now kids around here are saying, ‘I want to be the next Braden Smith.’ It takes one kid to change everything.”
Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.