Remember way back when the NBA allowed elite high school players to skip the pretense of being a "scholar-athlete" and peddle their wares to some lucky lottery team? Those were the days. Anyway, there were certain stereotypes about these preps-to-pros talents.
First, it was a given that these players were hyper-athletic. Generally, their fundamentals were lacking, especially when it came to shooting and passing. An alley-oop from halfcourt was as likely to be converted as a wide-open jump shot. Free throw shooting? Forget about it. Some, or even most, of these guys were fun to watch. Unless they were willing to buy into the advice of an accomplished coach, however, these over-talented, under-skilled prep talents were not going to help you win games. (Even though we're only referring to stereotypes, it should be noted that the Pantheon of prep talent--James, Bryant, Malone, Garnett--are exempt from such gross generalizations.)
Some of these stereotypes have been applied to Atlanta's Josh Smith at various times in his still-young career. Taken by the Hawks with the 17th pick of the 2004 draft, Smith skipped college, instead using the basketball factory known as the Oak Hill (Va.) Academy as a springboard into the NBA. Early in his career, he was known for his acrobatic dunks, shot-blocking ability and an erratic offensive game. In his rookie season, Smith won the Slam Dunk Competition during the All-Star break and made second-team All-Rookie.
In his first professional season, Smith wasn't a polished offensive player. He contributed mostly on follow-ups and dunks on fast breaks. Twenty percent of his shots were dunk attempts, yet he shot just .455 from the floor. According to 82games.com Smith posted a .277 eFG% on his jump shots. He attempted 23 three-pointers that season, and made only four.
That didn't deter Smith from developing his perimeter game--or attempting to. In his second season, dunks comprised just 10 percent of his shots. Sixty-two percent of his attempts came on jump shots, though his eFG% on jumpers was a lowly .363. Worse, Smith somehow fancied himself a three-point shooter. He took 110 shots from behind the arc in 2005-06, hitting a shade under 31 percent. Thus began a pattern of Smith undermining his own value through poor shot selection.
As Smith matured, the rest of his game developed. He's became a better rebounder and passer. The steals and blocks were always there and while Smith had a tendency to be caught out of position, there was little question he was a playmaker on the defensive end. The team around Smith improved and started winning. Smith, however, seemed to reach a plateau in his development because of his refusal to cut down on the three-point shots. He launched 152 of them in 2006-07, making exactly a quarter. He followed that up with seasons of 99 and 87 three-point attempts, not cracking the 30 percent success rate in either season.
He's what I wrote about Smith in Pro Basketball Prospectus 2009-10:
"In some respects, Josh Smith still has a lot of growing up to do. Yes, there are the off-court run-ins with Hawks coach Mike Woodson, but the consequences of that sort of hyper-emotionalism are pretty minor. More tangible is the continuing problem of Smith’s shot selection. Last season, his two-point percentage surpassed 50 percent, but it wasn’t because Smith finally learned to lay off his shaky jump shot. In fact, according to 82games.com, he shot a higher rate of jumpers last season than the year before. He made more of them, but that’s not to suggest he’s become an adequate perimeter shooter. In fact, his success rate on two-point jumpers ranked him dead last in the NBA among qualifying players. The worst part of Smith’s insistence on firing away from the cheap seats is that the Hawks have plenty of perimeter scoring. Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby are perimeter marksmen who can create their own offense outside of the lane. Marvin Williams has improved as a spot-up shooter from the corners.
"What Atlanta needs is for Smith to attack the basket even more often when facing up against larger power forwards and centers and to develop some go-to post moves when checked by smaller athletes. Some of the decline in Smith’s game last season (see block rate) can be chalked up to a sprained ankle which caused him to miss 12 games. Smith also needs further enhancement of his defensive discipline. Despite his astronomical career block and steal rates, NBAPET still pegs him as a below-average individual defender because he is so often caught out of position. Smith can be Atlanta’s franchise player. It should trouble him that in the Hawks’ best season in over a decade, NBAPET credited him with 11 percent of the team’s wins after he was at 23 percent and 22 percent the two previous seasons, respectively. The Hawks have learned to work around Smith’s shortcomings, but it’s time for him to recognize those weaknesses and play more to his strengths. Atlanta’s best shot at becoming a championship team is for Smith to become a championship player."
That brings us to Monday, when Smith and the Hawks paid their first visit of the season to the United Center in Chicago. By then, the Hawks had firmly established themselves as a contender in the Eastern Conference, mostly due to a nearly two-point improvement in Offensive Rating. Smith has been a huge part of that because he had corrected every flaw in his game pointed out in my scouting report before the season. It's been a remarkable turnaround.
His improvement actually began last season, when he shot a career-best .492 from the field. But Smith was still taking 1.3 three-pointers per game, while making less than 30 percent of them. He was forcing fewer shots, but still had not given up the idea of being a three-point bomber, and the rest of his game was down from previous seasons because of the injury. This season, the three-pointers are gone and the floor game has taken off. The two-point percentage is almost exactly the same. As a result, Smith is back in a leading role with the Hawks, getting credit for 20 percent of the Hawks' wins this season, according to NBAPET.
How rare is a sea change like this for a player? Pretty rare. There have been 2,013 NBA seasons in which a player has appeared in at least 50 games, averaged at least one three-point attempt per game, then followed that up with another season in which they appeared in at least 50 games. Just 154 of those players (7.7 percent) dropped their attempt rates by as much as 50 percent the following season. Only three players (Rodney McCray, Mark Davis and Dennis Hopson) have done a more thorough cleansing of their perimeter games. It does happen, however. For instance Luol Deng, who sat out Monday's game with a swollen left knee, went from one attempt per game in 2005-06 to just seven attempts in 82 games the following year. (He's ramped that back up to his old level this season, by the way.)
What was it that convinced Smith to change? It's a conundrum that faces a lot of talented young players. It's akin to the young power pitcher in baseball, who sacrifices control and movement to light up the radar gun. Smith had to learn to drop a few MPHs off his fastball in order to become a winning player. Smith claims it was just a matter of the Hawks not needing his three-point shooting, though that view glosses over the fact that this part of his game was hurting his team in past seasons.
"We're a deep ballclub this year," Smith said after Monday's game. "We have a lot of excellent three-point shooters and jump shooters. I (decided to) concentrate on staying inside the three-point line and making high-percentage shots."
Most of the credit for Smith's improvement this season has been given to the improved shot selection and that is a big part of it. But in lieu of taking fewer bad shots, Smith has beefed up the rest of his game, a fact that has been often overlooked.
Smith has posted career-best rebound percentages off both the offensive and defensive glass. This part of his game was in full display against the Bulls, as Smith took advantage of the absences of Deng and Joakim Noah to grab 18 rebounds, six of them on the offensive end. The Hawks had 22 offensive rebounds in the game.
"Smooth was tremendous again tonight," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said afterwards, using Smith's nickname. "Back-to-back games, the energy he brought tonight was unbelievable. He is going to the boards more than he ever has in the past."
When asked if he'd ever had a team dominate an opponent on the glass to that extent, Woodson said, "I can't recall it. We had everybody rebounding tonight, and we're going to need that the rest of the way. We're not a real big team so our starting five really has to concentrate on putting bodies on people and securing the basketball so we can get out and go the other way."
If Smith was overly excited about his rebound total, he didn't show while dressing in front of his locker.
"They were just bouncing my way today. There were a couple of long rebounds where we had the advantage and with Joakim not being out there, they don't really have a lot guys that can rebound except for Taj Gibson. We knew that we could be aggressive on the boards."
The other area of Smith's game that has stood out this season has been his assist rate, which is at 19.1 percent, almost three percent more than his previous career best. The Hawks move the ball very well as a team, always showing a willingness to defer to opponent teammates. Smith has been a big part of the Hawks' impressive on-court chemistry.
"It's kind of a byproduct of the way we share the basketball," Smith said about his assists. “I've always been a willing passer, and I have a lot of guys that can score the basketball. It's making me look good. I can't really take any credit for that."
In the latest NBAPET rankings, Smith checks in with 10.6 Wins Produced per 82 games, which is second on the Hawks behind Joe Johnson and just ahead of teammate Al Horford. His total is in the 92nd percentile of all NBA players and ranks fifth among power forwards, behind Dirk Nowitzki, Zach Randolph, Carlos Boozer and David West--all of whom play in the Western Conference. Yet, Smith missed out on making his first Eastern Conferene All-Star roster last month, a fact that is motivating his play now that the season is in the stretch run.
"I'm obviously playing with a chip on my shoulder," Smith said. "I feel like I've got a lot to prove. I know the importance of winning these last games, so I'm trying to focus on winning every single one of them."
Smith also thinks he has a shot a winning the Defensive Player of the Year Award, but realistically, Orlando's Dwight Howard has that honor more or less sewn up.
"The opportunity is presenting itself," Smith said. "If we keep winning and I keep doing the things we're doing defensively, I think I have a good shot."
But if he were to win DPY, would that make up for missing the All-Star game?
"No," a laughing Smith said.
Smith's improvement, along with a similar rise in efficiency from teammate Jamal Crawford, have been the primary reasons Atlanta has continued its climb up the NBA ladder. When Atlanta general manager Rick Sund spoke before the season of his team's chances to grow from within, he was talking about his roster as a group. However, you could make the same statement about Smith as an individual.
Smith is in his sixth NBA season and despite still being only 24 years old, he will have earned about $27 million as a professional basketball player by the time this season ends. That he's continued to improve his game is perhaps only natural because of normal development patters, but the way he's improved it--by recognizing what he can and can't do or, more importantly, what he should or shouldn't do is impressive. That's maturity.
The Hawks have one of the looser locker rooms I've been in this season, as the players banter with each from across the room, tell jokes to the locker room attendants and listen to Mike Bibby talk about getting 10 rebounds. Smith is right at the center of everything, literally and figuratively. With Johnson advancing in age and possibly leaving Atlanta as a free agent this summer, Smith will be looked to as the Hawks' franchise player. This Smith--the new, improved version--looks like he'll be able to carry the load.
You can go back and read my in-game comments and get future Tweets at twitter.com/@bbdoolittle.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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