Top 50: Josh Smith, no. 27

by October 05, 2013

by Tracy Weissenberg / @basketballista

Electric. Versatile. Polarizing. Never been an All-Star. Exactly how good is Josh Smith?

• Since Smith’s rookie season in ‘04-05, his averages of 15 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks have been matched by only one other player: Tim Duncan.
• From 13 wins in his rookie season, the Hawks won 53 games in ’09-10, and have made six straight playoff appearances.
• Smith is 37th on the all-time blocks list with 1,440. At age 24, he became the youngest player to reach 1,000 career blocks. He also led the Hawks in blocks per game in each of his nine seasons.
• Smith finished second to Dwight Howard in Defensive Player of the Year voting in ‘09-10, yet he was named to the All-Defensive Second-Team. It was his only career appearance on the NBA’s All-Defensive teams.
• The career 28 percent three-point shooter, often criticized for taking too many shots outside his range, attempted a career-high 201 threes last season. While he shot 30.3 percent from beyond the arc, he finished the year with a 46.5 overall field-goal percentage.
• The decline in Smith’s free-throw percentage has been somewhat baffling. He shot a career-low 51.7 percent from the line last season.
• Last season, Smith was the only player to average at least 17 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 1.5 blocks.

Smith is a rare NBA talent, a 6-8 super athlete who commands both ends of the floor. He shouldered the majority of the Hawks’ woes as a 19-year-old hometown rookie in 2004, and probably never received enough of the credit for pacing the team’s rise.

On and off the court, Smith sometimes gets criticized for his lack of polish. He doesn’t always make the right play, but he is far from the only player to have an affinity for bad shots. He is counted on to clean up mistakes around the basket, which enabled the perennially undersized Hawks to play decent defense. His protection of the rim was due to great instincts, but also necessity, since he never played with a true center during his time in Atlanta.

If you closely watch him play, there are many times when Smith makes the game look so easy it masks his ability. He flies down the floor, passing like a point guard and dunking like a center. Change positions? He’s willing. Guard 3s or 4s or 5s? He’s done it. Smith played iso basketball with Joe Johnson as the focal point and adapted to the motion offense under Larry Drew. He has played through shuffled rosters, trade talk, a lot of scrutiny and a little praise.

As he leaves the only basketball home he has ever known in Atlanta, it looks like a change of scenery will do him good. He will share the floor with Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, two big men who can shoulder some of the defensive responsibility. The new backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Chauncey Billups should be able to make the offense come easier to the potent frontcourt.

If Smith plays within himself, he should see more open shots, including mid-range opportunities. The help on defense will give him fresher legs, and a potential offensive spark. If he starts the season with a consistent mid-range game, he should have a great scoring year with the inevitable dunks, lay-ins and putbacks he is known for.

Detroit had an underrated offseason, setting the franchise up to right the ship after missing the postseason for four straight years. Smith, the marquee acquisition, was somewhat of a bargain at four years, $54 million. At 27 years old, and in the midst of his prime, Smith is bringing nine seasons of experience, and 52 career Playoff games.

With a new coach, team and system, I expect Smith to wholeheartedly buy into the Pistons’ vision. He has proven able to learn new roles and adapt, and has never been enamored with or consumed by his own stat lines. Between Mo Cheeks, player development coach Rasheed Wallace—who won a title in Detroit in 2004—and a revamped starting lineup, the Pistons look poised to develop into a contender. I think Smith will use this opportunity to assert himself as a leader (a role he toyed with in Atlanta), and not just go along for the ride.

Ranked no. 27, Smith has his flaws, but he is immensely talented and a great off-season acquisition. When it’s all said and done, I don’t think Pistons fans will like him. I think they will love him.

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SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2013
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Monta Ellis Mavs SG 5
49 Luol Deng Bulls SF 10
48 Ricky Rubio TWolves PG 14
47 Greg Monroe Pistons PF 12
46 Kawhi Leonard Spurs SF 9
45 Mike Conley Grizzlies PG 13
44 Al Jefferson Bobcats C 9
43 David Lee Warriors PF 11
42 Jrue Holiday Pelicans PG 12
41 Anthony Davis Pelicans PF 10
40 Joe Johnson Nets SG 4
39 Serge Ibaka Thunder PF 9
38 Kevin Garnett Nets PF 8
37 Rudy Gay Raptors SF 8
36 Paul Pierce Nets SF 7
35 Ty Lawson Nuggets PG 11
34 Pau Gasol Lakers PF 7
33 Al Horford Hawks C 8
32 Andre Iguodala Warriors SF 6
31 Brook Lopez Nets C 7
30 Zach Randolph Grizzlies PF 6
29 DeMarcus Cousins Kings C 6
28 Damian Lillard Blazers PG 10
27 Josh Smith Hawks SF 5

Rankings are based on expected contribution in ’13-14—to players’ team, the League and the game.