by Peter Walsh / @goinginsquad

The ’12-13 season will be a career-defining one for the polarizing Josh Smith. With the departure of Joe Johnson, the born and raised ATLien is now the face of the franchise and has a chance to prove that he is worthy of a huge contract as he is set to enter free agency.

The 26-year-old is coming off the best season of his career, posting highs of 18.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per while while wreaking havoc defensively. Despite nightly dunk highlights and a shoe deal with adidas, Smith still managed to fly under the radar, being snubbed by both All-Star and All-Defensive Team voters.

Smith is arguably the best defender at his position but it’s his shot selection that causes Hawk fans to moan. A career 27 percent three-point shooter, Smith insists on continuing to launch from beyond the arc, taking 100-plus threes last season.

There is absolutely no reason for Smith to ever shoot from beyond the free-throw stripe, let alone the three-point line. There are too many times when Smith is running down court with blinders on thinking, “Fuck it, I’m pulling from 20 and no one is telling me differently.” It’s not Smith’s momentum swinging defensive moments that stick out in people’s minds, but rather the ill-timed airball threes that leave a lasting memory, leading critics to focus on the small negatives instead of the overwhelming positives.

Though his shot selection may never improve, he is still on the verge of becoming one of the top players in the League, and is close to making the claim as the best power forward in the East.

Now, I am not usually one to shove stats down people’s throats, but an exception must be made for Smith. Just look at his numbers from last season:

—2,329 minutes played (9th in the NBA)
—504 field goals (7th)
— 496 defensive rebounds (5th)
— 632 total rebounds (10th)
— 93 steals (18th)
— 115 blocks (8th)
— 1,239 points (10th)
— 25 double-doubles (5th)
— Along with Dwight Howard, the only player to have over 70 blocks and steals

And for all the advanced metrics heads out there:

— 95.9 Defensive Rating (5th)
— 4.9 Defensive Win Shares (1st)
— One of three players (Smith, Howard and Boogie Cousins) who had a 20 PER, 20% Defensive Rebound Rate, 3% Block Rate and 2% Steal Rate

When looking at those numbers, it’s a mystery as to why a 26-year-old with a 6-9, 225-pound frame blessed with otherworldly athleticism coming off the best year of his career with an increased role on a perennial Playoff team and entering his prime isn’t a shoo-in as a Top 20 player in the NBA.

What gives?

Smith, an Atlanta native playing for his hometown team—almost every ball player’s childhood dream—likely doesn’t even feel wanted by the organization. He plays in front of a home crowd that doesn’t give a damn that he is the most entertaining player to don a Hawks jersey since ‘Nique and has been at the center of trade talk seemingly since day one. Think about how that must weigh on his mental.

Yet Smith still comes out and gives his all, it’s a rare event when he takes a night off. Not only did he put together a stellar ’11-12 season, he took on more of a leadership role than the aforementioned Johnson.

Let’s not forget that after Al Horford went down with a pectoral tear that kept him on the pine for the remainder of the regular season, it was Smith, not Johnson, who stepped up and played tremendously for his squad. Smoove took control of the team, put up big numbers and wouldn’t let the Hawks fail when they were dealt a massive blow, carrying them to a Playoff berth.

Smith is often criticized for speaking his mind and openly questioning the Hawks’ front office—though he has reason to, they showed him absolutely no love in promoting him for an All-Star selection last season. But when it comes down to it and push came to shove, Smith puts the bickering on the back burner and focuses on winning.

With the amount of access given via social media outlets and blogs, players are no longer judged strictly based on their game. Their personalities are under such a microscope and Smith has fallen victim many a time to slow news days and brooding reporters. Smith not only faces the unfortunate situation of an apathetic home crowd, a part of the game that is sure to get any under competitor’s skin after a tough loss, but is also a transparent dude—the type of player pundits love to feast on.

Last season, numerous “sources” claimed that Smith requested a trade from the Hawks’ front office by the March deadline. J-Smoove never once made his trade requests public and based on his personality, wouldn’t it have made sense for him to at least budge a little bit when the media was drilling him with questions regarding a trade?

Over the last eight seasons, outsiders have wrongfully lambasted him, ignoring one of the greatest talents in the NBA for a story that will generate “hits.” With Danny Ferry now running the show, J-Smoove has a clean slate and a chance to seize the moment. The ‘12-13 season can go one of two ways for the talented power forward. He can either say enough is enough and give in to the trade rumors and go the route of Carmelo and Dwight or buckle down, continue to improve and become a dark horse MVP candidate.

Here’s hoping for the latter.


Where should Josh Smith rank in the SLAMonline Top 50?

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SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2012
RankPlayerTeamPositionPos. Rank
50Greg MonroePistonsC8
49Tyreke EvansKingsPG14
48Brandon JenningsBucksPG13
47Stephen CurryWarriorsPG12
46Ricky RubioTWolvesPG11
45Al JeffersonJazzPF14
44Anthony DavisHornetsPF13
43Serge IbakaThunderPF12
42Al HorfordHawksC7
41Ty LawsonNuggetsPG10
40Danny GrangerPacersSF6
39Tim DuncanSpursPF11
38John WallWizardsPG9
37Monta EllisBucksSG8
36Zach RandolphGrizzliesPF10
35Roy HibbertPacersC6
34Tyson ChandlerKnicksC5
33Eric GordonHornetsSG7
32Kevin GarnettCelticsPF9
31Manu GinobiliSpursSG6
30Amar’e StoudemireKnicksPF8
29Marc GasolGrizzliesC4
28DeMarcus CousinsKingsC3
27Paul PierceCelticsSF5
26Andre IguodalaNuggetsSG5
25Rudy GayGrizzliesSF4
24Josh SmithHawksPF7

Notes
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’12-13 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jake Appleman, Maurice Bobb, Rodger Bohn, Brendan Bowers, Franklyn Calle, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Adam Figman, Eldon Khorshidi, Eddie Maisonet III, Ryne Nelson, Ben Osborne, Allen Powell II, Sam Rubenstein, Jonathan Santiago, Abe Schwadron, Leo Sepkowitz, Dave Spahn, Ben Taylor, Tzvi Twersky, Peter Walsh, Tracy Weissenberg, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Dave Zirin.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.