by Doobie Okon

I wanted Josh Smith.

All due respect to Elton Brand, which is a ton of such respect, but Josh Smith was the prized free agent that the 76ers should have signed in the summer of 2008. There were a few instances when it seemed like Philly was making a real push for the Hawks‘ restricted star then but those talks fizzled and GM Ed Stefanski proceeded to sign the 30-year-old Brand, coming off a bad Achilles injury, to a five-year, $80 million deal.

No slight to EB. I was excited when he inked his contract since he had always been one of my favorite players, but I was wary of his physical condition. And so far, in spite of the injuries, he’s proven to be a great veteran leader on a young team and actually provided a full, very serviceable season for the Sixers last year, posting 15 points and 8 boards in the most games, 81, and minutes per, 34.7, he’s played since ’06-07.

But I wanted Josh Smith.

Back in 2008, J-Smoove was only friggin’ 22 years old but coming off his fourth year in the League. He had already established himself as an elite defender with an exciting, yet flawed offensive game. People weren’t sure what to make of Smith in the coming years, whether he was going to surge into the top tier of NBA stars or remain at the struggling-to-make-an-All-Star game level.

What was certain was that he was going to receive an extremely fruitful deal from some team and I thought it was definitely worth the risk for the Sixers. Maybe if they had offered him the right dollars, Atlanta wouldn’t have matched. He had Brand by seven years, a much healthier body, and a prime ahead of him, instead of behind.

Three years later, you could say there definitely is some debate as to where Josh ranks amongst the stars. Still with his hometown team, there may some doubts to his game but none of which regards his durability and defense.

In ’08-09, the former Oak Hill star played in 69 games, the least of his career. He consistently ranks around the top 20 in rebounds, yet many would say that he should record more boards, especially with the way he can maneuver and leap around the basket.

But most other elite rebounding PFs (Kevin Love, Z-Bo, Blake, Pau, KG, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMarcus Cousins…) have Smith by an inch or two and about 15-25 pounds. Josh also spends plenty of his minutes on the perimeter guarding some of the League’s best scorers, pulling him away from the paint which allows Al Horford to get his as well.

Indeed, Smoove does rely on his jumper too much and has been criticized for shot selection throughout his career, but he has drastically improved his shooting over the last three seasons, posting a 49.1 percent mark, compared to his first four in which he shot 44.4 percent.

Funny enough, Smith went from attempting only seven three-balls in ’09-10 (and converting none of them) to jacking up the most, 154, of his career last year and actually connecting on nearly a third of them with 51 treys. Oh, and for good measure, he just happened to record his best free-throw clip as well at 72.5 percent.

Sure, you could argue his numbers from either viewpoint that he’s steadily improving or that he’s reached his maximum potential, at least scoring wise. I feel like too many pundits and fans focus on Smoove’s offensive flaws rather than his delightful, high-octane style that is unmatched by anyone else on the floor. Though last season did seem like the first in which the experts actually were a little outraged that Smith was denied his first All-Star appearance, despite his good-but-not-great stats (16.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg).

Because you have to look at a player like Josh Smith in a vacuum, away from the numbers. Often there is speculation as to whether the Hawks should try to trade Smith before his contract is up, but many say it’ll be hard for Atlanta to get equal or better value in return. This stands as a result of Josh Smith’s extremely unique skill-set, one that really goes beyond the stat sheet.

Think of it this way: What are the two most exciting things that can happen on a basketball court? Because you could make a case that Josh Smith is the best in the world at both of them.

On the offensive side, obviously… well, let’s just put it this way. At the ripe old age of 19, in his rookie season, Smith owned the field in the 2005 Slam Dunk contest. I remember this was the first time I was really exposed to Josh Smith and I have been a fan ever since. In the way that Ken Griffey used to hit his home runs so smooth and pretty, that’s what Josh Smith does to his monster dunks.

And on the defensive side…there’s nothing like someone’s shot getting stuffed. Of course, not every block is highlight-reel material just like there are some very normal dunks through the course of the game.

But Josh does both in such an exciting fashion that he’s a seat filler. And surrounding these two great abilities is a well-rounded basketball game that’s sorely underrated at times by the rest of the League. But Atlanta knows what they have.

For one thing, he could be known as just a flashy dunker and a sneaky, trailing transitional blocker. But he stops shots at an alarming rate. He’s already amounted 1,190 blocks, only 38 behind the mighty Dwight Howard and good for 53rd all-time. In February 2010, he recorded his 1,000th block quicker than any other player reached their 900th!

Along with his Southeast counterpart, Josh will probably end up near the top 10 all-time in another seven or eight years. Currently Robert Parish is 10th with 2,361 blocks, so the Atlanta star is already more than half way there. And in addition to the stuffs, Smith also provides great perimeter, one-on-one and help defense, He could probably win a DPOY trophy some day and might have already picked one up had it not been for that monster over in Orlando.

And Josh isn’t Fred Jones or Gerald Green—he has an offensive game aside from the nasty slams. If last year’s shooting marks are any indication, Smoove has seriously been working on his touch. With Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford, Smith isn’t really relied on to be a 20/10 guy like other PFs around the League need to do for their team. But given the opportunity, he could be that guy.

And come the summer of 2013, barring a sooner trade, that five-year contract is finished and Josh Smith is right back up on the market. Brand and Andre iguodala will both be off the books, so could the Sixers make another push? He will be just 27, and I can only imagine him growing even more as a player in the next few years.

Whatever happens, this guy needs an all-star nod already. Until then, I’ll happily continue watching the highlight reels on SportsCenter Top 10s throughout his career.

And in 2013, I’ll probably still want Josh Smith.

SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2011
RankPlayerTeamPositionPos. Rank
50Luol DengBullsSF8
49Andrew BogutBucksC7
48Ray AllenCelticsSG9
47Marc GasolGrizzliesC6
46David WestHornetsPF15
45Kevin MartinRocketsSG8
44Andrew BynumLakersC5
43Brandon JenningsBucksPG11
42Lamar OdomLakersPF14
41Gerald WallaceBlazersSF7
40Brook LopezNetsC4
39Joakim NoahBullsC3
38Carlos BoozerBullsPF13
37Kevin GarnettCelticsPF12
36Eric GordonClippersSG7
35Tony ParkerSpursPG10
34Andre Iguodala76ersSG6
33Al JeffersonJazzPF11
32Al HorfordHawksC2
31Stephen CurryWarriorsPG9
30Tim DuncanSpursPF10
29Josh SmithHawksPF9

Notes
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’11-12 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Maurice Bobb, Shannon Booher, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Jon Jaques, Eldon Khorshidi, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Quinn Peterson, Dave Schnur, Abe Schwadron, Dan Shapiro, Irv Soonachan, Todd Spehr, Tzvi Twersky, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Ben York.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.