by Lang Whitaker

ATLANTA — As the confetti rained down on the Philips Arena floor, signifying the end of the 2012 NBA Finals and the first NBA title for the Hawks organization in over 50 years, Hawks forward Josh Smith stood at midcourt and sobbed tears of joy.

Smith, who just four years ago ranked 47th in the SLAMonline.com rankings of the NBA’s best 50 players, had not only led the Hawks to the Finals, he’d also won the Finals MVP award, a significant achievement for a player who had struggled to unearth a competitive contract offer just a few years earlier.

“That low SLAMonline ranking was really the turning point in my career,” Smith said after the game, following a raucous locker room celebration in which the Hawks celebrated by spraying Coca-Cola around their locker room instead of champagne.

“I knew I was a top ten player in this League, but at that point, when I was still just 22 years old, I was only beginning to scratch the surface of my potential.”

Since averaging 17.2 ppg and 8.2 rpg in ’07-08, only his fourth NBA season, Smith has averaged a double-double in every season, making the Eastern Conference All-Star team each year as well. And in these Finals against LeBron James and his Clippers, Smith left no doubt that he was the best player on the court.

Known mostly for his dunking ability early in his career, Smith’s long summers of working out in Houston with Calvin Murphy finally began paying off four years ago in the 2008-09 season, as Smith consistently knocked down jumpers from the wing, which forced defenders to close out on him and allowed Smith to drive more frequently for thunderous highlight reel jams.

Under new Hawks coach John Wooden, who was stunningly lured out of retirement by the bottomless pockets of Hawks owner Rupert Murdoch, Smith was also utilized more in the post than he had been under former coach Mike Woodson.

“Josh is a fine young man…” Wooden began, before drifting off to sleep amid the postgame merriment.

While Smith’s offense was impressive, his defense was equally as important to the Hawks, who often relied on Smith’s preternatural shot blocking ability to atone for defensive lapses by power forward Al Horford and center Dwight Howard, who returned home to Atlanta in the dispersal draft after the Orlando Magic were contracted for a general lack of relevance.

“Josh makes me look even better than I am,” noted Hawks point guard Ricky Rubio, who was selected second overall in the 2009 Draft after the Hawks traded up using the rights to Euroleague MVP Josh Childress. “I just throw it near the rim and he slams it home.”

As Smith was presented with the MVP trophy by NBA Commissioner Mark Cuban, it was not only a crowning moment for the Hawks franchise, but for Smith himself as well. From 47th to top 10…and hardly anyone saw it coming.

Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.