For as long as I’ve been alive, the Atlanta Hawks have never had a superstar.
Not even once.
Mookie and Dikembe were almost close, but they played in Jordan’s era so it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Jason Terry and Shareef Abdur-Rahim were fine players, but nowhere in the vicinity of stardom. Joe Johnson was great, but a star, a superstar? Not quite.
None of those guys were real centerpieces, and that’s because transcendence is rare. The last transcendent basketball player in Atlanta? Dominique Wilkins. He hasn’t slipped on a Hawks jersey since early 1994.
It’s the harsh reality of being a Hawks fan. They’ve never made an Eastern Conference Finals since moving to Atlanta in 1968, they’ve had two superstars in the last 50-plus years (‘Nique and Pistol Pete), and aside from those two eras, they’ve fluttered helplessly between mediocrity and the cellar of the NBA. There should be nothing on this planet giving a Hawks fan hope for something more. But there is. There’s one thing, and it’s the development of Josh Smith.
Smith was born and raised in Georgia, and aside from a brief high school stint at Oak Hill Academy (a prep school known for basketball in Virginia), has lived his entire life in or around Atlanta. He entered the league as an 18 year old, drafted 17th overall by the Hawks in 2004. He is the only remaining player on the Hawks’ current roster to have suffered through Atlanta’s pitiful 13-69 season. He’s seen the lowest lows of this franchise, and unfortunately enough, the highest highs.
For the last seven years of his career, Smith has played second fiddle to Joe Johnson, Atlanta’s recently traded six-time all star. With Johnson out of the picture for this upcoming season, the reins to Atlanta’s offense will be handed to Smith.
Smith has an opportunity in front of him that could vault his Hawks legacy into the same stratosphere as Nique’s. The Hawks haven’t been this close to a real star in two decades, and the desire for one to take this franchise to at least a contending level is more present than ever.
Smith can make the leap. He has all the tools to do so at his disposal: freakish athleticism, a never-ending motor, brute strength, and impressive speed. Combine all of those natural gifts with his underrated passing, his ever improving post game, and his ridiculous shot-blocking and defensive abilities, he’s borderline there already. The next level is in sight; he just has to take his game to a more efficient place, one where ridiculous jump shots die a slow and painful death. Seriously, if Smith’s post game continues to grow and he better utilizes the possessions he currently spends launching 20-footers, then we’re looking a top 10-15 player in the league.
The crazy thing is that while Smith is approaching this status, he’s not even the best player on this team right now. That would be Al Horford, and Josh could learn a lot from him. Horford is good because he uses all of his strengths to his advantage. He’ll never be a superstar, he just doesn’t have that in his personality and style of play, but he’s efficient, plays strong defense, runs well in transition, and knows the limits of his game. Smith is a monster in transition and plays strong defense as well, but his efficiency is sporadic and if he knew the limits of his game he’d spend more time cutting off the ball and driving on overmatched defenders than he would chucking jumpers. It’s been the only knock on him for a while, and now it’s the only thing holding him back from reaching his ridiculously high ceiling.
He and the rest of the world wonder why us Hawks fans can’t just be happy with what we have: a great player who takes some stupid shots. And the reason is this: those stupid shots are preventing him from doing what he does best, and thus preventing him from becoming the best player that he can be. We want Josh Smith to become more than just the face of this franchise, to become more than Dikembe was, more than Joe was. We all want him to become the transcendent player that he can be for this team, and he’s on the verge of doing so.
This season is his chance to make that happen with Atlanta. He’s in the last year of his contract and the city is collectively praying that Danny Ferry has some remaining magic that he can use to re-sign Smith and cement his status as a hometown hero.
In his first year as the featured player of this offense, Smith can decide his own fate. Will he be lumped with Mookie, Dikembe, and Joe as halfway-stars that never launched the Hawks to the level of prominence demanded? Or will he be heralded as much as Dominique Wilkins, the saving grace of a franchise and city so hungry for a superstar they couldn’t even see straight?