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Leaders of pack

Lee, Smith provide foundation for Huskies

By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / November 7, 2011

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Running mates ever since they were freshmen, it only stood to reason Jonathan Lee and Joel Smith would form a perfect combination this season as junior cocaptains of the Northeastern men’s basketball team.

In fact, Lee, a 6-foot-2-inch guard from Flint, Mich., and Smith, a 6-4 guard from Leander, Texas, had asserted their leadership in the second half of their sophomore season as loyal lieutenants to Chaisson Allen, last year’s captain who led the Huskies in points (16.7), rebounds (6.1), and assists (3.7).

“We often say, ‘Captains are appointed but leaders emerge,’ ’’ said sixth-year NU coach Bill Coen, who returns eight players, including four starters, from last year’s 11-20 squad that finished tied for ninth in the Colonial Athletic Association. “Even though Chais was our captain and did a good job of that last year, both Jon and Joel took some personal responsibility in leading this team because they have pride in what they’re doing, they have pride in the program, and they’re both competitors.

“Towards the last two months of last season, I would say both these guys started the process of becoming the leaders of this program.’’

Lee and Smith succeeded in winning the respect and admiration of their teammates with their work ethic and positive energy, even as the team struggled through a nine-game losing streak from Dec. 29-Jan. 22, dropping their first eight conference games.

“I just knew that me and Jon, we could help Chais out a lot,’’ said Smith, who ranks as the team’s leading returning scorer (12.2) and third in rebounding (3.2) behind junior Kauri Black (4.0) and sophomore Ryan Pierson (3.7). “We couldn’t sit back. We knew we had a lot to offer the team. We knew we could be a voice and be like second-in-command behind Chais.’’

Lee, who set a school record last season by hitting .472 from beyond the 3-point arc (34 of 72), didn’t recall when he and Smith stepped up their leadership. “There wasn’t any particular point,’’ he said. “But after you start losing, everybody’s head gets down and everybody’s spirit gets down. The only way you can get back on track is how hard you work.

“You focus on encouragement and enthusiasm. That’s always been a part of my personality. I knew I couldn’t do it by myself, so I said, ‘Joel, we’ve got to get people up.’ And I knew Joel would be on board.’’

So when it came time to elect a captain for the 2011-12 season, a team vote was not even necessary. Coen made the command decision.

“We’ve done it many different ways,’’ Coen said, when asked about the selection process in naming a captain. “This year, I just thought it was more clear-cut. Both those guys earned it through their character and their work ethic and through their commitment to [team] unity.

“They’re both captains and both of those guys have gotten to this point in their career through hard work and they’ve earned the respect of their teammates and the trust and respect of their coaches. So they’re in a great spot and they’re excited to get started and see what kind of chapter they can write in the Northeastern record book.’’

Even if a vote had been taken, Coen said, “I think it would’ve been unanimous for both those guys.’’

Drawing upon the example set by Allen and his running mate, Matt Janning, Lee and Smith will be counted on to shepherd a team with six newcomers, including five freshmen and one transfer, 6-5 senior forward Kashief Edwards from Niagara.

“They’re best of friends, similar to Matt and Chais,’’ Coen said of his junior cocaptains. “They have great chemistry together and they love playing with one another. Joel’s kind of more the shooter-scorer. Jon is a scorer as well, but he really prides himself on his on-the-ball defense and is a high-energy guy on the defensive end of the floor.

“So they’re a good complement to one another. And they have each other’s respect, which is critical, because they’re going to be at the center of our team leadership.’’

Janning’s unassuming manner made an indelible impression when he hosted Lee on his recruiting visit to NU.

“I’m definitely going to take Matt’s attitude, because on my visit Matt hosted me and I would’ve never known Matt was the captain because he was so humble,’’ Lee said. “I had to hear about it from somebody else. I was like, ‘I had the captain? I had The Man showing me around?’ I didn’t know Matt was The Man. But he never talked about himself. He was all about the team. I really liked that. Matt really showed me how to be humble.

“Chais was the same way,’’ Lee recalled. “They had their big games, but off the court, they didn’t act that way.’’

Smith said he hoped to build that same kind of bond with Lee.

“When we’re on the court, it’s the J and J Committee,’’ Smith joked.

“They had great chemistry,’’ Lee said of Allen and Janning. It’s the same way with me and ‘J’. I always know where he’s at. I’ve got him on my radar. I’ll push it so fast and I’ll kick it to him, quick.’’

And, if Smith is anywhere near the 3-point stripe, Lee knows he’ll bury it.

As freshmen, Smith and Lee forged that bond when they played pick-up games at nearby Emmanuel College.

“I knew some people on the Emmanuel basketball team,’’ Lee said. “They had a pick-up late at night, around 10, and I’d always ask teammates and say, ‘Hey, they’ve got a pick-up at Emmanuel tonight, anyone want to go?’ And the only person I’d get to go was him. He and I would just be over there late at night, hooping with their guys.’’

But now they are captains, charged with setting the tone for this season, which they began to do during the offseason - well before Coen made their appointments official - by organizing team workouts, pick-up games, and bonding activities.

“Our last scrimmage, we really set the tone for the younger guys,’’ Lee said. “We weren’t taking any plays off just because we were juniors and were already established. If we’re going to play defense, it’s for 94 feet. If we’re going to hustle for a loose ball, we’re diving on the floor.

“So when the freshmen or anyone else on the team goes into the game, there’s no dropoff on the floor,’’ he said. “It’s little things like that - the intangibles - that can take your team a long way.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.