Josh Smith Feature Story
Josh Smith's shot-blocking skill is earning him a reputation in the paint.
By Jon Cooper
Philips Arena wasn't a fun place at the start of the second quarter on Feb. 4.
Philadelphia led 32-14 and, with the exception of P.A. announcer Ryan Cameron, who is paid to be boisterous, the atmosphere was flat.
Josh Smith decided it was time to pump things up.
Sixers forward Reggie Evans drove to the hole, determined to give the Sixers a 20-point lead, but Smith was even more determined, denying Evans, picking up the rebound, and outletting to Josh Childress, who converted a layup.
It was a shot of adrenaline that got the Hawks and the crowd back into the game. Smith would block five more shots in the quarter tying the franchise record for rejections in a quarter -- set by Wayne "Tree" Rollins back on Dec. 3, 1982 and tied by Antoine Carr on March 11, 1988 -- and in a half (eight, set by Rollins on March 29, 1983). The rejuvenated Hawks earned a 96-91 victory.
"I don't want to say it's being an intimidator. I just want to help my team control the paint," said the fourth-year forward recently, reflecting on the performance. "I don't want anybody coming in thinking that they have an easy layup when they come in there. I want to try and deflect as much as I can."
As the Hawks began the season's second half, "J-Smoove" had 154 blocks, more than three-times the number of his nearest teammate (Al Horford, who has 50) and his 3.21 blocks per game are second in the entire NBA behind only Denver's Marcus Camby (3.89). In 274 career games, Smith has 713 blocks (2.6 per game), only four away from moving into fourth place on the Hawks' career list. He is on pace for 262 blocks -- which would tie for the sixth-best season in franchise history, and put him in third place in team history, moving ahead of Jon Koncak (747 blocks) and behind only Rollins (2,283) and Dikembe Mutombo (1,094). Smith also is trying to become the first Hawk to lead the NBA in blocks per game since Theo Ratliff in 2002-03.
Not that Smith is counting. After all, he quietly carried a streak of 76 consecutive games with at least one block (the streak was snapped Dec. 19 at Philips Arena against Miami).
"I just try to be active all over the place on the defensive end," said Smith, of the streak that lasted more than an entire calendar year -- his previous blockless game had been Dec. 12, 2006 in Sacramento. "I'm just trying to be there for my teammates in the right position if they get beat or if I get beat. I try to contest everything. I'm just trying to play active on both ends of the court."
That activity has impressed coaches and teammates alike.
"I've never seen anybody run people down in transition the way that he does," said assistant coach Alton Lister. "He gets so many blocks when guys think they have lay-ups and he comes out of nowhere and blocks it. He also has the ability, that if he gets beat in the half-court, especially against guards, he can keep chasing them to the basket and still block it. So he blocks shots in a number of ways. He's a great weakside defender, in transition he can block it and then if he gets beat he still has the ability to run people down in the halfcourt and still block shots."
"He brings a lot on the defensive end," said All-Star guard Joe Johnson. "Guys get beat on the dribble and he's there to help us out of that and block shots. Especially on fast breaks, guys think they have a wide-open lay-up, he's so fast and long and so athletic, that he makes it tough. You go in there for a lay-up, and he really alters your shot."
"He has that ability down of coming off the help side and being able to block shots," marvelled rookie Al Horford. "I try to pick that up from him a little bit, but so many of the shots that he blocks, you don't see him there and the next thing you know the ball is in the stands. He does a really good job of that."
He does such a good job that it's easy to forget he's only 6-8.
"It's all about timing," said Lister, a seven-footer, who blocked 1,473 shots shots during his 16-year NBA career. "It's all about being patient and then going after the shot once it leaves the guy's hands. He very seldom gets fouls from blocking shots. He's got that down really well at a young age."
Smith displayed that discipline as a rookie, when, on Dec. 18th in Dallas, he became the youngest player in NBA history to block 10 shots in a game and only the third player ever to do so without committing a personal foul.
Lister is as impressed by Smith's control of his blocks as he is of his body-control.
"He controls them and we go the other way with the fast break," Lister pointed out. "He doesn't try to just slam them out of bounds."
That control is something of which he is quite conscious.
"It took me a while to learn how to do that but I've got the concept down," said Smith, who on Nov. 27 became the youngest player in NBA history to block 600 shots, passing Shaquille O'Neal. "It's cool to make statement blocks but I try to block it to our team where it's able to start fast breaks and easy buckets for us."
Smith, who turned 22 on Dec. 5, is a rising star in the NBA and seems certain to be named to the All-Defensive Team, an honor that many thought was due him last year. He isn't concerned about personal accolades. He'd rather get the Hawks back to .500 and to the postseason for the first time since 1999, which, in turn will get people talking.
"If we keep a .500 base people will get to recognizing us and see that we're playing hard and acknowledging the fact that we are a pretty good team," he said.
Opponents also will have to start acknowledging his presence in the paint.
"I don't see it, but people have told me that I have that effect," said Smith, who recorded his first career triple-double Jan. 23 at Denver (22 pts, 10 reb., 10 assists -- he added five blocks and three steals to boot).
"I like taking it on," he added. "People are not going to stop driving the lane because the lay-up is the easiest shot in basketball."
At least it used to be.
Jon Cooper is a freelance writer based in Atlanta