He entered the NBA in 2004 having already been tabbed by Jay Bilas as a potential bust. He worked his first five professional seasons having been labeled a coach-killer. To his credit, Josh Smith is close to shedding old labels and affixing a new one.
He has had better numbers in seasons past, but never he has played better. He’s averaging 14.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.2 blocked shots and 3.7 assists against 2.1 turnovers. (The latter two are career bests by some distance.) He has made 51 percent of his shots. (Also an apex.) And if you see those stats and they don’t quite say, “All-Star” to you … well, hear this endorsement from the coach Smith was supposed to have slain.
“I think he’s close,” Mike Woodson said. “If we continue to hang in there and win, we could have three guys. Al Horford is close [and Joe Johnson is a lock]. That would be unbelievable, especially for Smoove [Smith]. You see all the hard work he has put in, and there’s still room for improvement.”
Well, yes. Smith, 24, has been in the NBA twice as long as Horford, who is only six months and 29 days younger. To see Smith in Year 6 is to forget the addled days of 2004-2005, when he didn’t know the first thing about playing and those overmatched Hawks were losing 69 games.
Woodson: “He was 18 years old, and he’d never really been coached. That was a major jump. He had to learn everything. He probably caught more hell than any player I’ve ever coached, but I couldn’t be more proud of any player I’ve ever had.”
Told that Woodson, with whom he has had publicized dust-ups, has become his chief advocate, Smith seemed moved. “It’s like he and I have overcome stuff,” he said. Then this: “Everybody always blew it out of proportion.”
That’s true. Each man has a temper. Woodson can laugh when describing Smith’s early struggles: “He got hold of me!” But it’s significant that the only pro coach Smith has known no longer couches every assessment in the conditional.
Said Smith, smiling: “A while ago, he’d say [to reporters], ‘He’s still got some learning to do.’ ”
We all kept wondering what Smith would be when/if he ever grew up. We’re getting our answer. Twenty points and 15 rebounds against Phoenix on Friday, when his fourth-quarter work kept the Hawks close enough for Jamal Crawford to win it at the horn. Fifteen points and 11 rebounds against the Celtics a week before that. Twenty-two points, nine rebounds, six blocks and seven assists in the November blowout of Denver.
He has made five turnovers in a game only once this season. He hasn’t fouled out. (OK, so there was one ejection.) He has hoisted only three three-point shots in 39 games. (He tried 87 last season, 152 in 2006-2007.) Put simply, we no longer cringe when Smith gets the ball. He knows what not to do.
Woodson: “He’s managing games; that’s the sign of maturity.”
Smith: “It’s something that comes with playing. You see it with rookies who went to college: They come in playing on excitement. [And Smith, we must note, came to the NBA straight from Oak Hill Academy.] They don’t understand how to win. I know the time and score now, even if it’s the first quarter.”
About the All-Star thing: Woodson and Smith think there’s a chance he could make it, but realistically it’s a long shot. (Were he — or Horford, for that matter — averaging a double-double, that would be different.) But just being in the conversation marks a breakthrough for J-Smoove, who has gone from being as unsteady as a pup tent to standing as an absolute pillar of the team that sits atop the NBA South.
He’d love to be introduced as an All-Star in Dallas on Valentine’s Day. “It would mean a lot,” he said, “coming from where I was at 18 to coming into my own.” But if doesn’t happen this February, there’s always next year and the next. For all the playing Josh Smith has done, he’s still on the first half of his NBA career. The years ahead should be Smoover sailing.