Player to Watch: Josh Smith
Forget the out-of-this-world athleticism. Forget the alley-oops (difficult, I know), forget the jumping out of the gym and forget the slam dunks that make you think "You know, I wouldn't necessarily give a T-Rex the edge in a fight with this guy." Forget the worrisome shot selection and coach clashes and the immature behavior. Forget all that for a second and get used to a new set of ideals.
Josh Smith is turning into a pretty great basketball player. And he's only 23.
Smith turned in a career high for field goal percentage last year at 49 percent, and while his other numbers were down across the board, those numbers included his turnovers. All of this is in support of a trend that began two seasons ago, continued last year and hopefully will flourish this season for Hawks fans. This team is becoming less about excitement, potential and athleticism, and more about savvy, smart basketball and winning. Smith is a part of that evolution.
J-Smoove still occupies a certain mythology in the league. He's young, jumps higher than the Gods dare us to, walks like a man, dunks like a god. But slowly, in ways that seem nearly imperceptible, Smith is evolving as a player. He has spoken this year about focusing on his game away from the arc. He's learning to play more consistent defense, learning to adapt, learning to become more of a player and less of a stat stuffer. But he still has a long way to go.
You can start wherever you'd like. Shot selection is as good a place as any. Smith too often demonstrates remarkably poor decision making, performing the rare combination of a poorly executed shot as a result of a poor decision to shoot in the midst of a poor determination of the play, far too early in the shot clock. Part of this can be attributed to youth and still learning to be patient with the offense. Some of it is simply the way Smith is. The distance between Smith and some of the league's more ridiculed shot selectors isn't gaping. It's not next door, but you can see that house from his roof.
At the same time, he's still hitting shots better than ever. His 3-point percentage was the second highest it has been since 2005-06, even while trimming his attempts to the lowest they've been since his rookie season. Learning when to take those perimeter shots and hitting a higher percentage won't make his numbers that much higher, but it will make his game, and the Hawks, stronger.
Meanwhile, Smith's maturity continues to be questioned. Mike Woodson has yet to be considered for coach of the year, often dangling on the precipice of the job void while hanging on thanks to an ownership situation that makes health care reform look easy to solve. Smith has been a particularly sensative situation for Woodson, as the two often clash, and you have to wonder if this move from stat-stuffing displaysman to limited component and solid all-around player is thanks to Woodson's influence, for better or worse.
But if Smith is going to find that perfect nexus that everyone wants him to find, where he combines hyper-athletic feats of wonder with basketball skill to create a dominant force, he's going to have to get along with his coach. Hey may not agree with everything Woodson does, but Smith has more to gain by succumbing to the molding than bucking against it.
This year, as every year, is an opportunity for Smith to make that jump to elite. And we're sorry if we keep saying it over and over again, but there's nowhere else to go. Josh Smith is too good, too talented, too awesome to give up, and too flawed, too mercurial, too inconsistent not to criticize. Our frustration stems not from what Smith isn't doing for us, but the longing for the fulfillment of what he teases every time he steps on the floor. Everyone wants Smith to be everything he can be. We're just not sure what that is yet.
But it does make Josh Smith the talisman of the Atlanta Hawks.