Top 50: Josh Smith, no. 40
The definitive ranking of the NBA’s best players.
by DeMarco Williams
Like everyone else, we cherish our homegrown talent in the A. We want them for ourselves, sure. But even more so, we want them to shine whenever they’re thrust onto the national stage.
Dwight Howard. Jamal Lewis. T.I. That’s all us right there. And though the last two have had questionable runs of it lately, when they were at the tops of their game, hardly anybody in their respective fields could touch’em.
Joshua Smith was born in A-town and attended McEachern High before abandoning us for Oak Hill Academy his senior year. By then we’d seen plenty of the guy. Besides, he and Dwight would still represent for the hometown over the summer as members of the AAU behemoth, the Atlanta Celtics.
Newspapers spoke of Smith highly. Guess that’s pretty easy, seeing as how the dude could leap tall forwards in a single bound. And folks who actually saw him play were even more enamored. The kid had gifts Noah Webster couldn’t put words to. Speed. Strength. Springs. Some would call him a freak. The Incredible Hulk would have probably been more fitting.
We wanted the world to see it all too. But something held back our excitement. Smith’s skills were a bit, err, unrefined. He had potential through the roof, but getting it all to come together in a 21st Scottie Pippen package was something else. Josh was that book report you had in 8th grade. You knew you killed it with the syntax and structure, but when moms asked you to read it aloud, you paused.
When the Atlanta Hawks chose to draft the all-galaxy talent back in ‘04, the capital of the South froze in similar fashion. First off, was the city ready to share Josh Smith with the world? Second, how would everyone else react to the young man’s unorthodox shot selection and gazelle-like way on the hardwood?
Thankfully, the Hawks weren’t really good enough for the world to see. The first three seasons of Smith’s career, Atlanta was in doldrums. A win here, a four-game losing streak there. The squad, which earned 69 victories over those seasons, was the farthest thing from ESPN and TNT programmers’ minds.
But then a funny thing happened: the Hawks got decent. And I don’t care how much you detest a franchise, if it gives Boston all it can handle or dismantles Miami in the playoffs, you gotta show it some love.
Alas, the national cameras were finally on No. 5. (Sure, he got some attention over a couple of spectacular slam dunk contents, but the postseason brings a different caliber of lens.) With Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley’s full attention, how would J-Smooth react? Was he going to force 15-footers like he was prone to do? Would he drive uncontrollably to the hole and lose the ball? Or would he patiently work his defender, shake one way and send the poor chap the other?
In the span of 10 minutes, he wound up doing all three.
Chris Webber can’t understand that. We do.
Last season, Smith averaged nearly 16 points, seven rebounds and one and a half blocks. Solid numbers but clear downgrades from the 17 and eight the previous year. We can’t explain the drop-off. The Hawks front office had cut him a serious check. Teammates Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby were taking off some serious offensive load. It was just one of those things.
All we’re certain of is that when Smith is on his game, he’s one of the 10 most-exciting presences in the League. Period. No Hawk has dunked as thunderously since ‘Nique. No Hawk has sent gasps across the gym with one of his swats since, well, ever. The instant all of the intangibles should come together, it would be scarier than The Descent.
And to that end, Atlanta is super thankful for Al Horford, a re-signed Zaza Pachulia and Joe Smith. All of these bigs play a small role in Josh Smith’s upcoming season. Each time one of these cats takes a charge or an elbow to the back, that’s one less charge or elbow for Smith. Listen, the 23-year-old needs all his functions. (Yeah, 23. We know. Frightening.) But seriously, no man can do all that we need of Josh if he’s banged up.
The smarter shots, better free-throw average and longer fuse will come. Have to. The world may not believe it, but we in the 404 most certainly do. But after a ’09-10 campaign where the ever-evolving Josh Smith has his hands in every statistical cookie jar on the nightly, here’s hoping the masses will have room for a slice of humble pie. When Kenny and Ernie do come around, the city of Atlanta will be standing off to the side, nodding its collective head, saying, “We told ya the kid was special. Next year’s he’s going to be No. 25 on this list.”
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’09-10 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jake Appleman, Brett Ballantini, Russ Bengtson, Toney Blare, Shannon Booher, Myles Brown, Franklyn Calle, Gregory Dole, Emry DowningHall, Jonathan Evans, Adam Fleischer, Jeff Fox, Sherman Johnson, Aaron Kaplowitz, John Krolik, Holly MacKenzie, Ryne Nelson, Chris O’Leary, Ben Osborne, Alan Paul, Susan Price, Sam Rubenstein, Khalid Salaam, Kye Stephenson, Adam Sweeney, Vincent Thomas, Tzvi Twersky, Justin Walsh, Joey Whelan, Eric Woodyard, and Nima Zarrabi.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.