Hawks Owner Calls Josh Smith 'Closest Thing to LeBron'
But let us introduce the world to LeBron South. You might not know much about him since the Hawks play in the NBA outpost of Atlanta. Even though they're located just down the road from the Turner studios, they rarely get on TNT during the regular season.
On Tuesday night, their Game 2 of an East first-round series was relegated to NBA TV. That network also is based in Atlanta, but you get the point.
For those who missed it, it was a scintillating show by Hawks forward Josh Smith. He had a near triple-double with 21 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists in the 96-86 win over Milwaukee for a 2-0 series lead.
"He's the closest thing to LeBron in the league,'' Hawks owner Michael Gearon Jr. said in an interview after the game with FanHouse. "I'm not saying he's LeBron. But just look, he gets assists, he rebounds, he blocks shots. He's a game changer. ... Just look at his stats.''
While Gearon calls Cleveland's King James "the best I've ever seen,'' he doesn't know of another player in the NBA who fills up the box score like Smith. He had regular-season averages of 15.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.1 blocks and 1.6 assists and Tuesday finished second in the voting for NBA Defensive Player of the Year behind Orlando's Dwight Howard.
Smith had finished his interviews for the night and was greeting friends in a Philips Arena hallway. But when he was told the owner had just called him the NBA's "closest thing to LeBron,'' how could he not pause for a moment?
"It feels good, especially coming from the owner,'' Smith said. "To be noticed like a guy that's a future Hall of Famer, and I thought already was one before he got in the league, is special.''
But does Smith agree with Gearon's statement?
"I'll let everybody make their own comments,'' he said. "I don't give myself comparisons to a person. I just go out and play and I'll let people take it from there.''
For those who don't get NBA TV, highlights of Smith's play Tuesday will show up on plenty of other networks. Game 4 on Saturday in Milwaukee will be on ESPN.
The series opener featured a solid all-around performance by Smith, with 12 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and four blocks. But Tuesday he was mesmerizing.
Smith threw down a bevy of dunks to ignite the sellout crowd of 18,938, He played solid defense, and the Hawks' stat crew must have been snoozing with the claim he had just two blocks. He also didn't get any credit in the box score for altering several Milwaukee attempts as the visitors shot just 41.1 percent.
"He's one of those players that can control the game,'' said Bucks guard John Salmons. "His athleticism is as good as anybody's in the league. You've always got to worry about him when taking the ball to the basket. He's a good rebounder, catches some lobs, he's running the floor, gets offensive rebounds, does a lot of dirty work.''
Salmons was speaking as if he's Smith's agent rather than his foe. But, just in case Smith's representation is taking note of the owner calling him the NBA's "closest thing to LeBron,'' he's not a free agent until 2013.
Before Smith signed a five-year, $58 million offer sheet with Memphis that was matched by the Hawks in August 2008, there were reports of friction between Smith and Atlanta coach Mike Woodson, who becomes a free agent himself after the season. But those days seem long gone, and sources told FanHouse on Tuesday it should be a mere formality that Woodson receives an offer from the Hawks for a new contract after the playoffs are over.
As for Smith being the most pivotal player on the Hawks, that's apparently nothing new. Gearon remembers talking with players in December 2007, four months before Atlanta would make its first playoff appearance in nine years and take eventual champion Boston to seven games in the first round.
"It was the only time in my lifetime I've ever sat down with players alone and just sort of talked about stuff, and everyone back then was like, 'Josh is the key (to the team),' " Gearon said of Smith, a six-year veteran who is 24 but was just 21 entering the month those comments were made. "Even then, people were like, 'He's the key.' He does different things. The intensity rises for the whole team. It was interesting to hear that even back then.''
Gearon said he doesn't mean to take anything away from Hawks All-Star guard Joe Johnson, who had a game-high 27 points against Milwaukee and averaged a team-high 21.3 points during the regular season. And one presumes he also doesn't mean to take anything away from Atlanta's other All-Star from last February, center Al Horford, when Gearon says Smith "deserved to be on the All-Star team as much as anybody on our team.''
There's no disagreement from Horford.
"When Josh plays like that, we're at our best'' Horford said after Tuesday's game. "We're going to go as far (in the playoffs) as Josh Smith takes us.''
That comment about a teammate sounds downright Lebronesque. And, while we're at it, let's bring up another comparison between the two.
Both are hometown heroes. James is from Akron, Ohio, just down the road from Cleveland. And Smith is from the Atlanta suburb of College Park, Ga.
"I just try to bring as much energy as possible,'' Smith said when told of Horford calling him the key to the team. "I don't want to put any added pressure on. I'm already playing at home, being from here, and I get a lot of criticism from my family and everybody else. So I don't try to put any added pressure on me. I just go out and play as hard possible.''
This, though, is when any comparisons to James might have to stop. One doesn't think those in the King's court have too much critical to say about him.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson