When the playoffs ended last season, Josh Smith was ready to say goodbye to Atlanta. The excitement he felt by the Hawks’ postseason success (beating Orlando, throwing a scare into Chicago) was tempered by the anger of once again being the lightning rod for criticism, seemingly every time something went wrong.
The extreme ups and downs of his career with the Hawks had worn on him, just as it had worn on so many who watched him. As Smith put it, “When you’ve been in one place for a while, it crosses your mind: Maybe I want to get lost. Punch the GPS a few times.
“I’ve been here a long time. I’ve never lashed out at the organization. All I ask for sometimes is, when I raise my hand, maybe somebody can help me up, so I’m not always the person who’s trying to [defend me from criticism]. It would be nice if somebody else said, ‘This guy’s a pretty good player.’”
Smith said he never asked to be traded. But he would not have screamed if it had happened.
Yet, when the Hawks opened the gym following the NBA lockout, guess who was the first player to show up? Guess who lost 25 pounds this summer, changing his workouts, changing his diet, running in the Hollywood hills?
Guess who worked on his mid-range jumper — from 16 feet, not Neptune — and was determined to get faster and quicker so he could excel against the league’s small forwards, after seeing a lot of time at the 3-spot in the playoffs?
Josh Smith showed up to training camp a different guy. He weighs 225, the lightest he has been since turning pro in 2004. After only a few days of drills, coach Larry Drew said, “He’s getting off his feet a lot quicker, getting to the rim and exploding, even more than he has in the past.
“I’m seeing and hearing a passion I haven’t seen before.”
I know. It’s early. But maybe this year is different.
Smith knows he deserves criticism at times. He acknowledged during the playoffs, “I know sometimes I take shots I shouldn’t. But I’m not the only one in here who takes bad shots. I just get talked about more than anybody else.”
He makes a valid point. But his mistakes are magnified because his extreme athletic ability reminds us of potential. Also because he can be both the best and worst player on the court at any given moment.
Smith likes playing for Drew. There are far fewer public battles than there were with Mike Woodson.
“It was a great change,” Smith said. “Nothing against Woody but Larry Drew’s a better fit for me. Totally different. Larry knows how to handle a person like a man. If he has something to say to you, he’ll bring you into the office and have it out with you in there instead of playing it out in front of everybody.”
One exception came after Game 2 in the second round against Chicago. Drew publicly criticized Smith for taking too many jump shots and not moving his feet. Smith wasn’t happy. A few nights later, after a stellar performance in Game 4 against the Bulls (23 points, 16 rebounds, eight assists), Smith referenced public criticism, saying, “The media is trying to T.O. me.”
This is what Smith believes gets lost amid all of that drama: He wants to win.
“When we won that first game [against Chicago], just knowing that we were that close to being in the Eastern Conference finals, I felt more passionate than ever,” he said. “I felt we had an opportunity to do something special.
“I’ve been in the league a while. My main concern now is winning. I want to win, no matter what the cost is. I want to be one of the elite teams in this league. My window isn’t closing, but it’s slowly going down. Before I get out of here, I want to accomplish some things.”
We’ll see where this goes.
Smith is saying and doing all the right things. If he’s is serious, the Hawks will benefit. If not, it might be time to punch the GPS.
By Jeff Schultz