Jason Smith having career-best season for Pelicans
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Pelicans.com, @Jim_Eichenhofer
During a recent 10-day span, New Orleans Pelicans starting center Jason Smith registered the three best rebounding games of his six-year NBA career, pulling down 14, 12 and 16 boards in games vs. Chicago, Oklahoma City and Detroit, respectively. Along with several other statistical categories, the 7-footer is averaging a career high in rebounding, grabbing 6.3 caroms per game. If you ask the Colorado State product to explain his recent uptick in boardwork, however, the 27-year-old has difficulty pinpointing exactly what’s behind it.
“I really couldn’t tell you,” the amiable Smith said. “From watching film, maybe it’s just being in the right spot at the right time. Other games, it’s from just doing your work early to make sure (opposing players) don’t get a rebound. When you do your work ahead of time, you get yourself in good rebounding position.”
The word “work” seems like a good place to start in describing what’s been a career year so far for New Orleans’ longest-tenured player, now in his fourth Big Easy campaign. After missing 31 games last season due to a painful torn labrum in his right shoulder, Smith spent extensive time in the Crescent City this summer gaining strength and rehabilitating from the injury. He was cleared for full contact just prior to training camp and elevated to the starting center spot late in preseason.
Despite his trademark, energetic style of play, Smith has appeared in all 22 regular season games, averaging double digits in points (10.4) for the first time as a pro. He’s also on a career-best pace in blocks (1.2) and minutes (28.8).
“He works at it,” Pelicans Coach Monty Williams said of Smith’s improved production. “He’s one of our hardest workers. He’s been in our system the longest, so he knows what to expect. He’s playing more minutes, so you get an opportunity to do more. He was diligent about his offseason rehab with his shoulder. He was in New Orleans all summer, working on his game and being as prepared as he could.”
In past years, Smith’s exhausting brand of basketball made it difficult for Williams to use him for extended minutes. With Anthony Davis (fractured left hand) and backup center Greg Stiemsma (knee) sidelined by injuries, Smith has had to adjust to a larger role. Smith has logged 40-plus minutes three times this season, after never having done so in his NBA career.
“He wasn’t a guy who could play (heavy) minutes before,” Williams said. “After about 15 minutes, Jason was shot. Now he’s playing 30, 35, sometimes 40 minutes, and he’s still been effective. A lot of it for him has been the offseason program, the things he’s done with (Assistant) Coach Carlos (Daniel). He’s more prepared for the grind.”
Smith: “I think it’s really been kind of a learning process for me, because I’ve played so hard in 17 or 20 minutes, that playing those 35 or 40 minutes is tough. Learning to stretch out that kind of energy is tough. But it’s also about learning how to take care of my body and get with Carlos, our strength coach, to be mindful of how I use my energy. If I know I can get to a rebound, go and get it. If I know there’s probably not a good chance I can get it, don’t waste energy – get back on defense and try to help the team that way.”
Smith also credits fellow frontcourt starters Al-Farouq Aminu and Ryan Anderson for splitting the workload in the paint against opposing bigs, particularly with Davis and Stiemsma out. Like Smith, Aminu has recently been an excellent rebounder, while Anderson is perennially underrated for his productiveness in the category. Aminu and Anderson are averaging 6.8 and 5.8 rebounds per game, respectively.
“(Anthony Davis) is such a big part of our team rebounding-wise, but Chief (Aminu) has been big for us,” Smith said. “He’s probably the best rebounding small forward in the NBA. He does a good job of helping us out down there. Ryan is an undersized big, but he rebounds very well. If (other teams are) worrying about Chief or Ryan going to the boards, then I have lanes to go in and get rebounds. We depend on those guys to give us big rebounding efforts. When we do get AD back and Greg back, it’s just going to help us that much more.”