February 27, 2024

She is known in the basketball world as “Special K” and already Ontario Christian High point guard Kaleena Smith has her sights set on the Southern Section career scoring record.

“Yes, it’s a set goal of mine,” she says with absolute assurance and without hesitation.

That might seem a bit premature for a 15-year-old halfway into her freshman season, but anyone who has watched her play knows why she is being heralded as perhaps the most gifted ninth-grader in the country. She has almost 50,000 Instagram followers and has received scholarship offers from close to 20 NCAA Division 1 programs, including UCLA, USC, Arizona, Connecticut, Louisiana State and South Carolina.

“Around California people know me but my brand and my image have expanded more nationally over the last year,” she says. “I’m comfortable with it now. Playing on the Nike EYBL circuit in the summer gives me a chance to travel around the country to cities like Chicago, Dallas and New York. I love it.”

Ontario Christian coach Matt Tumambing insists Smith is destined for the WNBA.

“She’s all over social media,” he says. “People come from everywhere to watch her play. It’s wild!”

A comment on her Instagram page reads: “I’d rather guard Steph Curry than freshman Special K.”

Exaggeration? Hardly. Smith has the numbers to back up the hype.

Her averages through 17 contests read like a video game: 33 points, six assists, four rebounds, three steals, one block and nearly 48% shooting from the field. She has totaled 40 or more points five times, 30 or more 11 times and at least 25 in every outing except one when she was limited to nine points versus national power Long Island Lutheran at the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix — a game in which she was double-teamed from start to finish.

Freshman guard Kaleena Smith of Ontario Christian High dribbles the ball up court.

Freshman guard Kaleena Smith of Ontario Christian High has been held to less than 10 points in only one game this season, when Long Island Lutheran double-teamed her the entire game.

(Craig Weston)

The Southern Section scoring mark Smith is chasing belongs to her mentor and Knights predecessor Chloe Briggs, who broke Cheryl Miller’s 41-year-old record of 3,446 career points last February. Briggs finished her prep career with 3,458 points and graduated as Ontario Christian’s all-time assists leader with 951. A two-time Southern Section player of the year and John Wooden Award winner, she is now in her freshman season at the University of Washington. Her sister Kailee is a senior captain on the Knights’ current squad.

“Chloe left me a nice going-away present,” Tumambing jokes. “She was influential in Kaleena’s decision to come here because they know each other through club. They play the same position and Kaleena looks up to her. Chloe sends her videos and texts her advice all the time.”

“She told me it’s going to be hard, but I have to be the leader,” adds Smith, who lives in Perris, about 35 miles from campus, and was home-schooled before attending Ontario Christian. “Chloe is a real inspiration to me. I’m proud of her and I want to follow in her footsteps coming from a small school.”

Smith chose Ontario Christian for several reasons, one being that it is a Christian school where she intends, in her own words, “to grow my faith in God.”

“This is the best fit for me,” Smith states. “There are less distractions. I was considering a few other schools like Windward and Rosary Academy, but we fully committed here last January.”

Generously listed at 5 foot 6 on the team’s MaxPreps roster, Smith appears shorter in person, but her size is hardly a detriment as she makes up for her lack of height with fierce determination and uncanny anticipation.

Ontario Christian coach Matt Tumambing, left, and freshman star Kaleena Smith pose for a photo at the school's gym.

Ontario Christian coach Matt Tumambing believes Knights freshman sensation Kaleena Smith could become the best girls’ basketball player in Southland history.

(Steve Galluzzo / For The Times)

“I first saw her at a clinic we held for seventh- and eighth-graders and one thing I noticed right away is that her basketball IQ was years beyond her age,” says Tumambing, who piloted the Knights into the Open Division playoffs last season after three straight section finals appearances in lower divisions. “She’s locked in all the time. Every drill she goes 100%. She wants to win every possession.”

Thanks in large part to their young star the Knights (14-3) are ranked No. 5 in the Southland by The Times and sixth in the latest CIF-SS poll. They beat No. 3 Mater Dei 60-58 on December 21 and eight days later defeated No. 7 Moreno Valley in the championship game of the Knight Time Classic, paced by Smith’s 33 points and six assists. On Saturday, she poured in 36 points in
a 91-50 blowout of No. 11 Village Christian in the Matt Denning Nike Hoops Classic at Mater Dei.

“We met over the summer and Kaleena has been a great addition to our team,” senior guard Dejah Saldivar says. “She reminds me a lot of Chloe the way she handles the ball and gets other players involved. She’s quiet at first, but once you get to know her she’s very nice on and off the court.”

Smith posted a triple-double in breaking the school single-game scoring record, needing only three quarters to score 55 points — including 11 three-pointers — while contributing 10 assists and 10 steals in a 136-29 victory over Woodcrest Christian on Dec. 15.

“Her teammates aren’t the least bit jealous of the attention she gets,” Tumambing says. “I was going to sit her in the second half of that game, but her teammates told me she needs to break it.”

There is no telling how many records Smith will hold by the time she graduates, but for now she is a young lady with singular focus — getting better. She shoots 1,000 shots a day and spent the summer working on her midrange game to become a three-way scorer. Her daily routine is akin to that of a professional athlete, including a morning weightlifting class as well as strength and conditioning sessions.

“Chloe was taller at 6 feet, but Kaleena gets to the rim better and is a better shooter,” Tumambing says. “She has the ability to score at any level, whether it be under the basket, at the free-throw line or from 40 feet away. She controls the pace of the game and knows how to manipulate the defense. She could be the best to ever do it on the girls side. I really believe that.”

In addition to her scoring prowess, Smith is her team’s best on-ball defender and plays with such a high intensity that her coach has to keep her from getting too fired up.

Freshman guard Kaleena Smith of Ontario Christian shoots a jumper during a game earlier this season.

Ontario Christian’s Kaleena Smith is capable of scoring at all three levels on the court, including three-point range.

(Craig Weston)

“She never gets beat and is always in the right place,” Tumambing says. “I’ll try to conserve her energy, but I’m 100% putting her on the other team’s best player with the game on the line. She’s been in foul trouble three times, but she hasn’t fouled out yet. She knows when and how to take herself out of risky situations.”

One reason her defense is elite: She has been playing with and against boys since she was 8 on a club team her dad coached. “I was used to it right away,” Smith says. “Boys are dogs and I’m a dog. They don’t let you go by them.”

Smith was born into a family of basketball junkies. Her father and mother both played the sport in college and she tries to be a good example for her four hoops-loving younger siblings.

“I was 3 when I first picked up a basketball and had a mini-hoop that my parents and grandparents gave me,” she recalls. “I used to dribble a basketball around the house and I loved watching Kobe, LeBron and old clips of Michael Jordan.”

“The family genes are crazy,” Tumambing says.

Smith, who wears No. 11, also plays for California Storm’s most elite travel squad, Team Taurasi, coached by her father Aundre, also a varsity assistant at Ontario Christian.

“My dad has high expectations for me and when I’m not performing well he’ll pull me aside and say, ‘Let’s go!’ My whole circle is like that,” Smith says. “I don’t see it as pressure. There’s a lot on your plate when you’re the point guard. I like getting up and down the court fast and playing free, but I’m also good at running set plays.”

“Special K” and the Knights are relishing the underdog role this winter in pursuit of the Ambassador League title and beyond that a section championship they came within a game of winning with their past superstar, who gracefully passed the torch to the present one.

“I don’t think about where I’ll end up going,” Smith says of college. “Every offer I get is a blessing from God. Being able to play the game I love gives me joy and right now life is great.”

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