The Josh Smith Question

The Atlanta Hawks forward is somewhere between very good and great. Still.
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You don't know me.

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A little over a week ago, in Atlanta, the Hawks squeaked out an overtime win against the Cleveland Cavaliers, 103-102. Following the game, the Hawk who was in the headlines was Joe Johnson. On this night, after starting 2-12 from the floor, Johnson had hit a game-tying three with no time on the clock, and in overtime sank a step-back jumper that put the Hawks ahead for good.

Johnson’s teammate Josh Smith didn't receive nearly as much attention, despite finishing with a patently ridiculous line: 51 minutes, 32 points, 17 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 blocks, 1 turnover. It was another in a string of terrific performances from Smith. This season Smith has been the Hawks’ most valuable player, yet he remains in shadow: of the All-Star team, of Johnson, of Johnson’s spectacular contract.

Admittedly, statistics aren’t the most effective way to judge the impact Smith has on games, particularly because defensively he affects so many shots as a terrific help defender coming over to contest. But as of today, Smith is 6th in the NBA in minutes played, 8th in total rebounds, 12th in steals, 5th in blocks, and according to Basketball-Reference.com, Josh was 3rd in Defensive Rating and 2nd in Defensive Win Shares. In games with Al Horford and Johnson both out injured, Josh has averaged 21.8 points per game.

Yet Smith was not named to the NBA All-Star Game, not even as a replacement player for his teammate Johnson. (Instead, Smith’s high school teammate Rajon Rondo was selected.) Smith’s omission by the Eastern Conference coaches was egregious enough that it drove Chris Webber to tweet: “Josh smith. Call 911.You got robbed. No mask no gloves- its fingerprints- all over the place call first 48-no call Atlanta CSI- Call the FBI.”

Instead, Smith was mostly sanguine about it. “You’ve got to factor in there is a lot of politics involved in the All-Star selection,” Smith said to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Once you get that it’s really about politics, then nothing really surprises you. I call it ‘Nothing But Associates,’ NBA. It’s all who you know.”

Even though I’ve known Josh Smith since the night he was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks, I am not sure I will ever completely know Josh Smith. If Allen Iverson was The Answer, perhaps Josh Smith is The Question, at least among NBA fans. What kind of player is he? What kind of player should he be? What kind of player will he become?

I’m not the only one: NBA fans in general don’t seem to know what to make of Josh. Even though everyone knows long jumpers aren’t his forte, he still occasionally lofts them at the rim, eliciting loud criticisms from Hawks fans. (At least when those shots carom off.) Fans see Josh flash a sour face when a call goes against him or the Hawks, and don’t seem quite to get his perceived obstinacy. These are the two biggest criticisms regularly lodged against Smith, and though both are mostly outdated this point, Smith seems to still be paying for past mistakes.

Back in 2008, I interviewed Josh for SLAM, and I asked him how he feels about fans criticizing his game or his attitude. “I really can’t talk about all that,” Josh said, “because people don’t know me. You know me, you see me in the locker room, you see how I act, you see me in person. So everyone who’s trying to take down my character, I don’t have nothing to say, because they haven’t seen me face to face or they haven’t sat down and had a conversation with me.

“I don’t understand how all of a sudden it’s, ‘Dude had an attitude problem,’ when, you know, I want to win. I want to win and I show it, and I’m as hard on myself as anyone else is on me. I’m one of my own hardest critics.”

Despite being a Hawk his entire career, Josh has spent his NBA career in a sort of limbo. With Al Horford commanding the post and Joe Johnson dribbling around the perimeter, Josh Smith has mostly been left to fend for himself somewhere in between the two. He has hunted and pecked, looking for a place on the floor to call his own, without ever finding a real home. All along, there have been signs of tinkering, as if Josh is still trying to ascertain the best version of Josh that he can be. In 2008-09, Josh attempted 87 three-pointers, making 26. In 2009-10, Smith played in 81 games and attempted just 7 three-pointers, most of them of the desperation variety. Then the next season he attempted an average of two per game, and connected on about 33 percent. This season he’s shooting about 1.5 per game, at about the same percentage.

***

We can’t consider Josh’s present without thinking about his future. In the midst of this terrific run in March, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Smith wanted to be traded in search of “a fresh start with a franchise where he can better reach his potential on and off the court.”

This underlines the idea of Smith as a work in progress. And even though he’s in his eighth NBA season, he’s still just 26 years old—he will turn 27 in December. And right around the time of Smith’s All-Star snub and the trade rumors, an interesting thing happened: With Johnson missing games due to a bad knee and Horford out for the season, a completely different Smith emerged, one I don’t recall seeing previously in my years watching the Hawks. Josh was operating out of the post with his back to the basket, going one on one from the wings, getting to the free throw line with regularity. He had 24 points and 19 rebounds in a win over the Bucks, then 30 and 12 a day later in a win against Oklahoma City. 28 and 6 against Sacramento. 33 and 13 against Denver.

A couple weeks ago, at Denver, Smith put a move on Nenê that was simply brilliant. He faked left, spun right, and nearly broke Nenê’s ankles. It was such a good move that I’ve thought about it ever since. I can’t remember ever seeing Josh use it before, which makes me wonder what other developments Josh has yet to debut.

The more I’ve watched Josh Smith the last few weeks, the more I’ve thought about Joe Johnson. They may not be dependent upon one another, but they have learned to coexist, and at times be dazzlingly complimentary. The two became teammates in the summer of 2005, have played together for the last seven years, and at this point it’s hard—if not impossible—to separate their games from each other. Seeing Josh play, and thrive, without Joe was a bit like Little Steven releasing a solo album that rocketed to the top of the charts. We were watching Josh take giant steps toward becoming whatever that thing is we all hoped he would one day become.

What happens to Josh Smith when Joe Johnson and Al Horford return? If last night was any indication, Johnson takes the big shots, and Josh returns to his role as a superb supporting player. Perhaps one day Josh will go to another franchise and be a franchise player. Or maybe he stays in Atlanta as Johnson’s wingman, forever in flux, forever unconsidered, never quite what he could be and always exactly what and who he is.


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