Georgia Tech guard Brandon Reed (23) passes around Clemson guard Tanner Smith (5) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012 in Atlanta. Clemson won 56-37. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
ATLANTA -- Although he became a fixture in the starting lineup as a sophomore, Tanner Smith was just a complimentary piece his first three years at Clemson.
That's changed this season, though.
The Wesleyan graduate is now one of the Tigers' unquestioned leaders and he is on the verge of becoming more than just Clemson's second four-time All-ACC academic team selection.
Smith is the only player in the ACC averaging at least 10 points, five rebounds and four assists. How impressive is that? No Clemson player has ever done it over a full season.
The 6-foot-5 senior reached 300 career assists in his homecoming Tuesday night at Philips Arena as Clemson (14-13, 6-7 ACC) stifled struggling Georgia Tech in a 56-37 victory that was its third in the past four games.
"It's always nice to win before friends and family," said Smith, who had a rooting section of about 25.
With Clemson able to pound the ball inside, Smith took just seven shots while scoring eight points. But he led the Tigers in both assists and rebounds with six of each and had three steals as Clemson held Yellow Jackets (9-18, 2-11) to the fewest points it had ever allowed in an ACC game.
"It was a really good defensive performance by our guys," Clemson coach Brad Brownell said.
Averaging 11.1 points and 5.2 rebounds, Smith came into the game third in the ACC in assists (4.0) and steals (1.7). He is fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio at nearly 2-to-1 and he has 24 assists to seven turnovers in the past five games.
"Tanner has been terrific," Brownell said. "He's the consummate basketball player. He does a lot of things well."
Smith, who graduated in 3 -1/2 years, needs 63 points the rest of the season to become the fourth player in Clemson history with a least 1,000 points, 400 rebounds and 300 assists in his career. He is 11th in career steals.
Smith's high games for points (26), rebounds (14) and assists (eight) have all been reached this season.
But after five straight seasons with at least 20 victories, Clemson is in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in Smith's career.
That's what will make his second trip back to Atlanta this season so important.
The ACC Tournament is at Philips Arena next month and the Tigers will need a strong run the rest of the way to get back into NCAA Tournament consideration. Three games remain before the ACC Tournament.
Clemson has won three of its four regular-season games in Atlanta during Smith's career, but lost to the Yellow Jackets in the 2009 ACC Tournament at the Georgia Dome.
"It's nice to have come in here and played well," Smith said of Philips Arena.
"Hopefully we can build off that."
Smith averaged 25 points per game as a junior at Wesleyan and helped lead the Wolves to a Class AA state championship as a senior. But Trey Tompkins was the Wesleyan player who was the top prospect and some thought that Smith might be overmatched in the ACC.
Smith played only 13 minutes per game as a freshman and the attention he drew was for his work off the court instead of on. His "Tanner's Totes" program for young cancer patients drew national attention and showed that Smith was far from one-dimensional.
As much has the continued growth of "Tanner's Totes" as meant to Smith, he spent three seasons waiting for his basketball breakthrough. It has come this season.
Brownell, in his second season as Clemson coach, asked Smith to increase his offensive production and leadership role after the Tigers' lost their two top scores from a year ago.
Smith has done both.
After averaging around eight points per game the past two seasons, Smith has seen his shooting percentage rise from 41.4 per cent to 45.3 and is all-round game improve as well.
"He's a professional in every way and obviously a role model with his charitable work," Brownell said. "You can't ask for a better kid."