In their off-season communication, Stan Van Gundy and Josh Smith have focused more on big-picture stuff: team culture, leadership, chemistry. It was lighter on the specifics, but Smith heard enough to tailor his summer workout regimen.
“I’m ready to play whatever position is asked of me,” said Smith, noticeably thicker in the chest and shoulders, in his first day back at the Pistons practice facility on Tuesday. “But I’m going to play a lot of (power forward) and that was my main focus on being able to get more in the weight room and put some more muscle on my body to be able to withstand that physicality in the paint. I played that position so much, so long in the league that I know how big you have to be in order to be able, night in and night out, to withstand that impact and that physical nature inside the paint.”
Van Gundy is known for innovative lineup combinations and has said he’ll experiment liberally in the preseason with everything from playing small with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, perhaps, at small forward to playing big with the staple of last season’s starting lineup – the frontcourt of Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. But he’s said consistently since his mid-May hiring that he doesn’t anticipate playing big, with Smith at small forward, for long stretches.
Smith also saw the way Van Gundy teams played in Orlando, in the same division as the Atlanta team that was home for the first nine seasons of his career, and noticed the shooters – Jodie Meeks, D.J. Augustin, Caron Butler and Cartier Martin – added to the Pistons roster over the summer.
“I know that he believes in his system,” Smith said. “That was one of our rival teams when I was in Atlanta. We saw them quite often. So that’s what I see – he believes in his system. He’s a really good, demonstrative coach. He knows what it takes to be successful in this league. It’s a proven fact with his body of work. When you’re able to be a part of a coach like that, you want to buy into his philosophies because you know they’ve worked.”
It’s a fair bet that Van Gundy envisions Smith’s passing skills as a major component of his offense. Smith knows the influx of shooters means the lane will be less congested this season than last, so he anticipates getting the ball at his sweet spots – the elbows and mid-post areas – with room to operate and ready to exploit holes left by help defenders.
“Being able to play in the mid-range and attacking,” Smith said of his likeliest role. “If somebody comes over to help out, I’ll be able to find the open man and I’m very confident that those players are going to knock shots down because they’ve proven it their whole careers.”
“He’s not only a very willing passer, but an outstanding passer,” Van Gundy says of Smith, who joined Caldwell-Pope at the same Atlanta gym focusing on upper-body weight work every other day over the summer. “I think it’s the best part of Josh’s game. Probably the most overlooked part of his game – his ability to create for teammates.”
After averaging 4.0 and 4.3 assists in his last two seasons with Atlanta, Smith’s average dropped to 3.3 last season. It wasn’t because he was any less willing a passer. This season, a few more of those kick-outs will find 40 percent 3-point shooters on the receiving end.
“People will have to concentrate a lot on the perimeter,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to pack the paint and dare us to shoot like they did last year because we have a lot of guys who can really stretch the floor and shoot the basketball. Bringing those guys in and having (Caldwell-Pope) with another year under his belt, being able to see the game slow down a little bit for him, and we have Jonas Jerebko as a stretch player. It should be fun to see it and how this thing is going to evolve.”
Smith knows – and Van Gundy emphasized it to him, just in case – that a positive start to that evolutionary process is critical to the season ahead. It might not necessarily be reflected in wins and losses out of the gate, but the establishment of a winning culture – and the eradication of whatever negative energy lingers – is foremost on Smith’s mind.
“We understand each other,” he said of his early interactions with Van Gundy. “I know he knows how focused I am as a player in order to become the leader that he wants me to be. I’m just trying to come in and set the example early and show everybody we have to put in work to get productive outcomes for a good season. We just want our main focus and concern to gel early because there are some new faces on the team now and we want to create that camaraderie early on.”