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Josh Smith: The Greatest Snub of All

Jan 29, 2010 – 11:43 AM
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In late twenties, Russian theorist Vladimir Propp boldly proclaimed that there were only seven kinds of stories. Actually, it wasn't that bold a proclamation; Propp was only talking about folktales, and if you try to use his constructs anywhere else, they fall apart quick fast. Still, the basic idea is a meaty one, the kind of thing that makes you want to take another at Gilgamesh, Beowulf ... or the 2010 NBA All-Stars.

For starters, you've got the perennials, folks like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony. These are also on each year's MVP shortlist, possible Hall of Famers, and the players synonymous with the NBA at this moment. Steve Nash, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Allen Iverson are legends on their way off into the sunset. Kevin Durant and Brandon Roy will be taking their place.

Paul Pierce and Pau Gasol are excellent players who benefit from being on powerhouse teams; Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are underrated stars who will finish their careers with a decent number of appearances, denied top billing in part because their teams aren't usually contending. Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo are young and exciting but with futures cloudy in the magic eight ball. Zach Randolph and Gerald Wallace have come knockin' before, and this time finally earned entry. The East needed another center, and Al Horford's been crucial to the Hawks.That's actually eight types, but you get the point.

Then there's Josh Smith, the spring-loaded Hawks forward who was conspicuously absent from yesterday's reserves. It's not just that Smith is deserving of a spot on the East squad -- he would have been a new kind of All-Star.

As has been discussed previously around these parts, Smith might be enjoying a better season than his high-scoring teammate Joe Johnson. Not to take anything away from Horford, but Smith is certainly outplaying the third-year big. He's a legitimate two-way threat who, while still as scintillating a finisher and shot-blocker as ever, has streamlined his game and improved his decision-making. No more passes to nowhere, three-pointers on a whim, or contorted attempts at orthodox post play. Atlanta's record isn't much better than it was at this point a year ago, when Smith seemed to have regressed (in all fairness, he was also nursing an ankle injury). But the Hawks are a team to be taken seriously this season, and a lot of that has to do with the presence of Smith.

What's so exceptional about a young player fulfilling his All-Star potential? For one, Smith isn't exactly young. He's been in the league since 2004, when the Hawks drafted him out of high school with the seventeenth pick. By then, teenage picks were given every opportunity to get minutes; long gone was the philosophy of bringing them along slowly. So while Smith is only 24 years old, his five and a half seasons make him a vet.

And Smith's 2009-10 isn't just a case of a breakout season in which a promising talent gets praised for "putting it all together" or "turning a corner." There's a reason he's only making a little over $10 million this season: When Smith hit the market as a restricted free agent in 2008, too many teams saw a player whose upside was counterbalanced by bad habits and rumors of petulance. What's more, Smith didn't just hit the pros merely in need of fine-tuning. He was a raw athlete whose game consisted mostly of raising hell, so indicative of the trend to draft with potential in mind, that Jay Bilas swore to all manner of gods that Smith would be the biggest bust of the whole class.

High school picks panned out more frequently than their college-seasoned peers. But they tended to be boom-or-bust propositions. The unusual cases have been those like Smith, or J.R. Smith, taken one pick later by New Orleans: Egregiously gifted players, who although they made big plays and had memorable nights, remained inconsistent, incomplete, and frequently immature. Travis Outlaw (especially today) and sometimes Andray Blatche are other poster children for this group.

Then this season, Josh Smith – previously known mostly as the 2005 dunk contest champ and a shot-blocking terror – inaugurated a new cliché. After six seasons of fumbling around, showing flashes, and frequently serving as his own worst enemy, Smith finally got himself together. While J.R. continues to pout and fume in Denver, and Outlaw remains as baffling as ever, J-Smoov proved that preps-to-pros stars don't have to be either overnight successes or pampered projects; that it's possible to grow up in public and learn adulthood on the fly even if it takes a while; and that a player who came into the NBA with few discernible skills aside from leaping (and timing swats) can refine himself into a potential Defensive Player of the Year. Maybe that should read "can be refined," since Smith has also learned to accept coaching, worked out his relationship with Mike Woodson, and has no right to the "Loose Nukes" I tried to bestow upon him last season.

Call Smith the prodigal son, the long road to the Promised Land, or proof that sometimes, that proverbial light bulb can chase away some especially thick dusk. It's exactly the kind of transformation that should be rewarded with a trip to the All-Star Game, and evidence of hard work that flies in the face of Smith's reputation as a gifted athlete who got by on physical ability. He's surpassed Iguodala, every bit the athlete as Smith but supposedly blessed with superior basketball IQ and the soul of a golden fossil -- and the fatter paycheck to show for it. We just don't see many All-Stars who fit the Josh Smith Paradigm; it's a change of direction, or resolution of opposites, that's rare among athletes. Hell, the league should also want Smith in the ASG for making it look good at player development.

Smith doesn't need an All-Star trip to make his season worthwhile, or his career arc significant. But not only does it seem like the next scene in the screenplay. If we're serious about recognizing players willing to apply themselves and serve the forces of good, putting Josh Smith in the All-Star Game is the right thing to do.
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