The Last Word with Lang Whitaker - A 'Smoove' Upgrade

Lang Whitaker is many things - executive editor of Slam Magazine, a contributor for NBA TV, a book author, and most importantly, a die-hard Hawks fan. After starting 2-for-2 in pushing the Hawks into the postseason, he's back for his third season in 2009-10 to share his thoughts on the team exclusively for Hawks.com. Check back every Thursday throughout the season to read his latest musings, and read him every day at www.SLAMonline.com

A 'Smoove' Upgrade
by Lang Whitaker

While watching last night’s Hawks/Sixers game, I had a strange flashback. Do you guys remember what it was like to watch Josh Smith when he was a rookie? He was terribly unpolished, but he played with such unbridled athleticism that it was breathtaking to watch. You never knew when he was going try and dunk over three guys, but maybe dribble off his foot in the process. Josh specialized in high-risk, high-reward basketball, which might at least partly explain why the Hawks won a combined 39 games in his first two seasons.

Then again, those Hawks teams were stripped to the bones, the earliest step in rebuilding a franchise that took five years to become what it is today. Coming into this season, there were plenty of concerns about how these Hawks were going to perform. How would they assimilate Jamal Crawford into the attack? Would Joe Johnson be able to stay healthy and post All-Star numbers once again? Would Al Horford get enough touches to be a threat in the post? When I was writing the Hawks team preview in SLAM, the one player I guessed would be crucial to the maturation of the Hawks was Marvin Williams.

I don’t recall much concern by anyone last fall over Josh Smith. After five seasons in the NBA with mostly incremental improvements, I don’t think Hawks fans had given up on Josh, but it’s probably safe to say we’d entered the territory where we weren’t expecting Josh to improve dramatically. Somehow, he has. And I, for one, definitely didn’t suspect there would be nights this season where Josh turned into Kenny Anderson like he did last night, threading one-handed, lefty no-look passes to players cutting through the lane.

Not gonna lie, there are still moments when Josh is dribbling the ball up the court where I find myself screaming “Pass it!” at the TV, or when he catches the ball along the perimeter and hesitates, and I worry he’s going to hoist a bad three-point attempt. And while Josh still forces a shot or two, he seems to have all at once heard our accumulated groans and warnings. Suddenly, Josh gets it: passing up long jumpers, moving the ball around the perimeter, setting screens and rolling to the rim, rebounding the ball like crazy. Josh’s split stats for February were simply brilliant: 18.6 ppg, 10 rebounds per game, 5.4 assists per game, 2.3 steals per game, 1.4 blocks per game. No other player in the NBA averaged numbers that diverse last month.

As easy as it is for is fans to find fault with a player, it’s not simple for a guy to adjust the way he’s played for years overnight. I’m glad Josh has found this groove. Because as a Hawks fan, it’s been almost unspeakably satisfying to watch Josh Smith abruptly figure it all out. And even though nobody saw this coming, it just might be Josh who ends up taking the Hawks higher than we’ve ever been before.

MAILING IT IN...
This week we hear from reader Paul, who writes...
Hey Lang,
Love your stuff on the Hawks site, man. I am concerned about the recent 4th quarter meltdowns and couldn't help but notice Jamal Crawford’s lack of production each time the Hawks blow a fourth quarter lead. Any chance he has hit a wall this season? He keeps assuring everyone that his shoulder is okay, but his shooting percentage is way down ever since he missed that game against Miami before the All-Star Break. Regardless, it probably wasn't the best timing for him to launch his 6th Man of the Year site. Have you seen it?
http://www.nba.com/hawks/TheDifference.html
Anyway... thanks man. Go Hawks.

First of all, thanks for writing in, Paul. And yep, I’ve seen the micro-site, although as a person who does have a vote in all of the NBA postseason awards, I was already pretty certain of how I was going to vote in that category.

You know, Jamal looked pretty good last night: 20 points in 27 minutes on just 12 shots. I think his production fluctuations are more about match-ups and the way the rest of the Hawks are playing than any sort of long-term residual injuries. What else is interesting is that if you look at Jamal’s month-by-month stats for his entire career, he’s always had a down February and March, and then huge Aprils.

Maybe he’s a little worn down right now, but who isn’t? He’s about to get to participate in the first Playoffs of his career, and if that doesn’t get him fired up, nothing will.

Lang Whitaker is the executive editor of SLAM magazine and writes throughout the week at SLAMonline.com. Follow him on twitter at @langwhitaker. Also, catch Lang every Tuesday night at 6:00 p.m. on NBA TV's "The Beat." He can be reached at lang@harris-pub.com.

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