Smoove Sailing From Here
Josh Smith deserves some recognition.
by Tracy Weissenberg
It has been a long way up since Josh Smith’s rookie season as a 19-year old on a 13-win team in 2004-05. He is the only remaining Hawk from that roster as he probably took too much of the brunt of the team’s struggles back in ’05 and probably gets too little credit for the success more than half a decade later.
On the court, Smith is a rare talent—electric and emotional—an elite shot blocker with a consistent ability to finish, pass and play above the rim.
“I try to be as versatile as possible; just try to be able to help my team out in different ways. I’m just having the opportunity to be able to exploit my talents and I’m definitely playing with a certain kind of confidence and freedom this year,” says Smith.
Some of this freedom can be attributed to the motion offense instituted by first year head coach Larry Drew, who was an assistant with the Hawks since 2004—Smith’s rookie season.
“One thing a lot of people don’t realize in this offense…we try to generate ball movement, body movement, and it’s a lot to learn. I would say him more than any other player on our team—not only did he learn his position, but he learned everybody else’s position. I can put him anywhere on the floor…and he has an understanding about what I’m looking for. And that’s very special to have a player like that,” says Drew.
Regarding Smith’s growth, Drew says, “Well he’s come a long ways from when he first got here. I remember seeing him, just thinking that it was gonna be some work in developing him. The organization was committed into his development. We saw the athleticism, but his growth as far as a player and as a young man is something that we had to really keep our finger on and over the years he has seemed to mature and grow more and more…from where he was when we first got him to where he is right now is like night and day. He understands now how good he can be, especially when he plays under control, when he plays the right way and when he allows us to coach him. He’s really improved in all of those areas and we’re on the same page at everything we do. We understand through the course of a season there’s gonna be some emotional moments but we’ve learned how to work through them and he has been just a phenomenal player for us.”
And because of those emotional moments—does Drew think that sometimes people perceive Smith’s on-court demeanor as how he is off the court?
“Yeah, I think because he is emotional on the court and that tells me that he really wants to win. I like a player that has emotion. What I’ve spoken to him about at the start of this season was learning how to channel those emotions in the right direction and learn how to do it—being one of the captains of the team—to where his teammates can fuel off of it,” says Drew.
Asked if he feels people recognize his contributions, especially in terms of the All-Star chatter, Smith says, “I just try to go out there and play. Whatever comments people are gonna make are definitely just gonna be their assessments. I can’t change the mind of anybody—critics or people who run with me. All I can do is just go out there and play and then let them judge from that.”
While his game is self explanatory, Smith as a person is a little more hidden. But people should get to know him. And they can start with the 2011 All-Star Game.
Asked whether Smith deservers an All-Star nod, Drew says, “I think so. I think he’s had a really good first half of the season. I think he’s a very, very exciting player especially when he’s out there flying all over the place. I certainly think his numbers say that he well deserves it.” This season, Smith is the only player in the NBA with at least 700 points, 350 rebounds, 150 assists and 60 steals.
The arbitrariness of the NBA makes it hard to determine why certain players are praised for intensity and emotion on the floor, while others are criticized for it. Or why a player like Josh Smith, runner up to Dwight Howard in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season, does not find a spot on NBA’s All-Defensive First Team.
All-star selections are also somewhat arbitrary, as the criteria of what warrants a spot on the team remains somewhat murky. This season, two forwards from the West head that debate as many believe Kevin Love and Blake Griffin have produced fantastic individual performances despite playing for losing teams.
What about a do-it-all forward on a winning team in the East? Smith’s skill set is malleable enough to give Atlanta whatever it needs at that moment in the game; and despite dunks that show up in nightly highlights, his total impact often can’t be gauged in the final box.
As for what it would mean to make the all-star team, he says, “It’s like kind of a big deal. But you know I really can’t think about that, I just got to go out there and keep doing whatever it takes to help my team win.”
The Hawks are currently on track for back-to-back 50-win seasons. They are on pace to make a fourth straight playoff appearance, as Atlanta—much like their starting power forward—often plays under the shadow of the past. It is interesting in an age of instant media how long it takes outdated perspectives—some of which were never really justified—to shift.
On the Hawks’ growth during his tenure, Smith says, “It was a long process; we had to build the team from ground up. I think I’m still the only one here from my rookie (season).”
And regarding the team’s current success, he says, “It’s big. You cherish moments like this, especially when you start from the bottom up. You definitely cherish these moments more than anything because you’ve been on the side where you’ve dealt with a losing record and you know how to appreciate a good season.”
While Smith has proven his dedication to doing his part in transforming the Hawks into a winning basketball club, it is time he is considered one of the focal points of the team’s success. And while the waters were a bit rough during the beginning of his career, Smith has always been steering towards the right direction.