With summer dragging on and on and on before the NBA tips off, we’ve decided to initiate a multipart series that will be the definitive look at the best players in the NBA today.

Over lunch at the Outback Steakhouse (word to Steve Irwin), your crack SLAMonline.com staff sat down and ranked the 50 best players in the NBA today. We realize that’s kind of ambiguous, but that’s how basketball is and that’s how we like it. Basically, though, we tried to list the 50 guys we think have the most value to their teams, right now, at this moment. This doesn’t mean they’ll never be traded, and it doesn’t mean they’re due tremendous contract extensions, but it does mean — since value is king in the NBA — that over the next month or so we’ll run down the 50 guys that we think are the 50 best players, right here, right now.

Before long it’ll be time for our annual NBA team previews. Right now it’s time for some law and order…

47. Josh Smith
by Lang Whitaker

The DVD showed up here at the SLAM offices in an unmarked envelope. We weren’t sure who it was from or how it got here, but I dutifully opened it and slipped it into my laptop. This is what was on there — Josh Smith in high school (playing AAU ball) and pretty much dominating action, with threes, dunks, whatever. That was when I became a believer.

His first year and half in the NBA were a series of dunks and ridiculous defensive plays (remember the night he had 10 blocked shots against Dallas?). At 6-9, he played everything from small forward to shooting guard, and it was almost as though his main objective was to humiliate as many people as possible. Like this.

And then, after the debacle at last season’s dunk contest, something clicked. J-Smoove suddenly went from trying to dunk on everyone to shooting (and making) jumpers, passing the ball to the open man, playing much more of an all-around game. Look at his splits from games in November compared to his games in April…

NOV: 14 games, 37.5 pct FG, 3.4 FTA pg, 5 rpg, 1.1 apg, 2.2 bpg, 9.0 ppg
APR:  11 games, 42.2 pct FG, 5.0 FTA pg, 7.6 rpg, 4.2 apg, 3.4 bpg, 17.6 ppg

If ever a player was created expressly for YouTube, it was Josh Smith. To his credit, however, J-Smoove has realized that dunks are not everything (even for a magazine called SLAM). He’s becoming a complete basketball player, and he’s doing it much faster than anyone realized he ever would.

Oh, and he doesn’t turn 21 until the end of December.