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Appreciating Josh Smith

Josh Smith is still searching for the respect he deserves.

Rarely do we see a talent like Josh Smith in the NBA. Sure, there are ultra-talented uber athletes on most every NBA team, but few have the athleticism that possesses Smith, and furthermore, even fewer have the speed, size, and court vision that makes Smith the hottest ticket in Atlanta. It’s not Smooth Joe, it’s not Top Tier Teague, and it certainly isn’t, even when healthy, Big Al Horford. People don’t pump out the cash to see a methodical 6’6″ wing shoot an 18-foot fadeaway at the end of every shot clock or see the once-upon-a-time great Tracy McGrady come in for 10 minutes, do nothing, and then sit back down. No, they pay up for the excitement, for the slams and jams. In Atlanta, they go to basketball games for three reasons: diehard fanship, business connections, and/or highlight reel plays. Josh Smith is you’re supplier of the last of the three, and he has been for quite some time. He’s more than just you’re one-trick pony, vicious dunker, though. He’s an all-star, and I don’t care what the league has to say about it.

There is no player more intriguing on the team, and few players in the league for that matter, than Smith. He’ll make you boo, then he’ll make you cheer. He’ll chuck up one of the well-documented long balls that everyone complains about, and you’ll start booing, unless it goes in whereas in that case you just kind of clap lightly because it’s relatively rare. You’ll boo for the jumpers, but cheer for the slams. He’ll come streaking down the sidelines on a break, and you know the lob is coming. It’s called the Highlight Factory for a reason, and sure Dominique’s play in the Omni certainly had something to do with the Hawks adopting the stadium nickname, but the reason the legend lives on is because of the 2005-slam dunk champion, Josh Smith. He’s exciting and edgy. He wears his emotions on his sleeve. When things aren’t going his way, he’ll whine, he’ll yell, he’ll throw a fit. He’s interesting. Joe Johnson will just sit there and nod his head. He’ll move on and keep the same poker face all night. Johnson’s sense of professionalism is something to be admired, but Smith’s occasional adolescent tantrums and heart-filled play lead to a home crowd that can be dangerous, especially in the playoffs. Johnson’s professionalism, however, does not.

Take last season’s Bulls-Hawks series as an example, particularly Game Four. The Hawks were blazing under the direction of Smith, who tallied 23 points, 16 boards, and eight assists. The man played his heart out, and the crowd rewarded him accordingly. Philips hadn’t been louder since the 2008 Boston series where a young Smith and a determined Johnson forced the eventual champion Celtics to seven games. In Game Four, Smith used his bevy of post moves and his innate athleticism to overpower Derrick Rose’s full-fledged attack. He overcame his nagging attitude, didn’t throw tantrums, but instead threw his body… everywhere, and at the ball. He chased balls harder than ever before and he didn’t take that 20-footer that he oh-so-often falls in love with. He was unselfish, finding teammates left and right and getting his own at the same time. It was an all-time Hawks performance, that in recent lore, is up there with Nique’s 47 against Bird, Blaylock’s 36 against Jordan, and Johnson’s 35 in Game Four of the 2008 Boston series. When we see him play like that, we expect it on a nightly basis, failing to realize how incredibly hard it is to maintain such a high level of activity and intensity.

It’s time to accept Josh Smith for what he is. We constantly beg for more, beg for better, but what if this is it? Are 15, nine, and four not good enough? Sure he could be better, he could be more consistent and play with more heart at times. If he played every game like it was Game Four against Chicago, he’d be in the MVP discussion. Even though he isn’t and he never will be, he’s a monster athlete and a hell of a basketball player. We complain about a lack of efficiency at times and a head that just isn’t all the way screwed on, but we forget he’s only 26 years old and has a few more years to really figure things out if he’s shooting for a Hall-of-Fame career. If he isn’t, that’s fine. The fact that he’s played as well as he has is a testament to his hard work and development since entering the league as a recently high school graduated, lanky and unskilled kid.

What isn’t fine, though, is not acknowledging this player as an all star. This is a guy who saw that his role on the team would be more effective if he was able to run a bit more. What did he do? He lost 25 pounds this summer in order to get faster and have a higher lift. This is a guy that has stepped up in the absence of arguably the team’s best player and has delivered night after night, keeping a Hawks team in contention that, frankly when looking at the roster, has no business being there. Him and Johnson deserve all-star bids.

I’m not discrediting Luol Deng here, but that pick was all about reputation. Deng is seen as a hard working, I’ll do the nitty-gritty work for the team guy, a Dukie. Smith is often portrayed, unfairly I might add, as a selfish player with a low basketball IQ. He is neither of the above. Deng has been great thus far this season, at least when healthy. But you’re telling me a guy that has missed a week or two of play and that won’t put nearly as many butts in the seats was chosen over Smith, the youngest player ever to reach 1000 blocks? It doesn’t make sense to me, and it never will. What else does Josh Smith have to do to get the respect he deserves (which is at least an all star appearance)? The fans in Atlanta often don’t appreciate him– we boo every time he shoots outside of 10 feet. Clearly the coaches who select the all-star bench don’t appreciate him either.

That’s a damn shame.

                                                   

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