SVG: Playing to his strengths will be key for Josh Smith

Stan Van Gundy says Josh Smith, like all players, has to play to his strengths.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

In between the phone calls and the interviews as Stan Van Gundy continues the process of filling out his front office and coaching staffs, he’s making the rounds to visit players and build relationships.

Last week took him to Atlanta, where he had a long and insightful exchange with Josh Smith.

Smith bore an outsized share of blame for the 29-win 2013-14 Pistons season, but Van Gundy is convinced that if the 28-year-old veteran of 10 NBA season is put in a position to succeed, that’s what he’ll do – and help the Pistons find success in the process.

And Van Gundy has an idea where that starts. From everything he’s said since taking over as Pistons president of basketball operations and coach three weeks ago, it’s not likely we’ll see much if any of Smith playing alongside both Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe in the future, assuming Monroe returns as a restricted free agent – as Van Gundy has said is his preference and intention.

That means Smith rarely will play at small forward, which contributed to his career-high 265 3-point attempts last season. Van Gundy remembers well the Smith of four years earlier when Orlando and Atlanta met for the second straight season in the playoffs.

“When we played them in the second round of the playoffs and they had a very good team, I believe he only shot seven threes the entire season,” Van Gundy said. “He played to his strengths. That’s a big key, not just for Josh but for everybody.

“You have certain things you can do and for whatever reason, players always want to try to do a little bit more. Well, sometimes expanding your game isn’t better. Sometimes shrinking your game is a little bit better and really get to the things you do well. Those are conversations we’ll have, not only with Josh. You want to play to your greatness and there is certainly greatness in Josh Smith.”

Those were the things Van Gundy’s scouting reports for Atlanta during those playoffs series would detail – Smith’s ability to pass, take the ball off the defense boards and lead the break and, especially, his potent scoring ability from 15 feet and in.

“Josh Smith, put in the right spots, is an outstanding player. You put Josh down on the right block, in the low post or even on a short isolation – 12 feet, 15 feet from the basket – he can get to the rim. He’s outstanding. He’s not only a very willing passer, but an outstanding passer. I think it’s the best part of Josh’s game. Probably the most overlooked part of his game is his ability to create for teammates. He can also really rebound the ball and block shots. I think he’s great when he takes the ball off the boards and then can lead the break. He’s got great ballhandling ability. He makes good decisions.

“I think Josh has got a lot of talent, but I do think that at times he can get away from his strengths and start playing to his weaknesses.”

That’s where Van Gundy puts the onus on himself and his coaching staff to devise a system that allows his players, Smith included, to play to the strengths as they perceive them.

“May, June and July, I’m more of a front-office guy,” he said. “In August, I start transitioning to being a coach and, as we get into that, then we really give a lot of thought to guys’ strengths and weaknesses and we’re putting a lot of time into evaluating that right now. Then we start building a system to fit those guys.

“I’ve always believed that. I’m not a guy who comes in with an offensive system and we try to fit guys to it. I think it goes the other way. ‘Here’s who we’ve got. Let’s put them in the right spots where they can be productive.’ We’ll have high expectations for players, but it’s very hard to expect them to perform at a high level if they’re not in positions they can play to their strengths.”

After that, it will be on Smith to tailor the versatility of his gifts to the puzzle Van Gundy puts together. From their conversations so far, Van Gundy senses Smith will eagerly embrace the system the coaches devise.

“If you want to be great – and I think Josh wants to be great; I think he’s been disappointed that he hasn’t been an All-Star even though he’s been close – well, if you want a different result, you’ve got to do things a little differently.”