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Thursday, October 24, 2013
Can Josh Smith finally make good?

By Eamonn Brennan

It was a boon to Georgetown fans, a surprise to pretty much everyone else, and a frustratingly timed breaking news alert for a college hoops writer who had just huddled inside a small rock venue in search of chill vibes: On Wednesday night, Georgetown announced that the NCAA had cleared UCLA transfer Josh Smith to play immediately, beginning with the Hoyas' season opener against Oregon in Seoul, South Korea.

"Surprise" doesn't really go far enough. Simply put, there was almost no precedent for Smith -- who played six games in 2012-13, his final season at UCLA -- to earn immediate eligibility. Smith didn't fit within any traditional legislative relief (or "hardship waiver" archetype. The Kent, Wash., native wasn't transferring to be closer to home, or care for an ill family member. The NCAA has restricted players or wiped entire seasons of eligibility off the board for far less -- long-lost preseason participation has frequently been enough to do the trick. And while the situation at UCLA in Ben Howland's final year was no doubt less than conducive to Smith's development, he didn't leave after his coach was fired, or in the wake of some NCAA sanctions. He left after the first six games of his junior campaign.

ESPN's Jeff Goodman reported Wednesday that the waiver was granted thanks to a combination of "NCAA's fear" and "weight issues/Howland treatment." Why would a player who played in six regular-season games not lose at least a semester of eligibility -- or at least have to wait an extra few months -- as pretty much every other similar transfer has? Because the NCAA is scared of criticism? Because he has struggled with his weight? Because his former coach discarded him? I'm sympathetic to all of that -- and I think college players should be able to transfer with far fewer restrictions and wait times than currently exist — but that doesn't make the ruling consistent with any past precedent. What about every kid in the past five years with a legitimate appeal who was denied on technicality? Is the NCAA really that rattled?

Anyway, any furor over the decision doesn't matter now. Frankly, it might never matter -- not unless Smith has an even bigger surprise in store.

The ballad of Josh Smith has been the same lyrics, sung to the same tune, since as far back as 2007, when Smith was a promising but slightly oversized high school sophomore. He has always wowed scouts with his actual basketball skills: soft hands, quick feet, good touch around the rim. The only issue was his weight. It never came down. Indeed, under Howland, it went up, and even when Smith made it clear to the media he understood why he had to get in shape once and for all, he still never really made progress. At some point, UCLA just stopped updating his player profile dimensions.

Thus far, Georgetown has listed Smith at 350 pounds. He has two years remaining. John Thompson III has said Smith needs to "maintain a high level of commitment on and off the court," and if he does, Thompson will have a place for him. Not only do the Hoyas need another big body, period. Thompson is also far more flexible with his offensive system -- to the point that he is openly bristling against it being called the "Princeton offense" -- than many assume. If Smith is a viable addition to the Hoyas' frontcourt, Thompson would love to run sets through a post scorer with the kind of ball skills Smith has to offer. He has done so in the past: In 2011-12, center Henry Sims led the Hoyas in assist rate (27.3 percent); in 2009-10, 6-foot-11 forward Greg Monroe performed the same function.

The template is there. The opportunity is ripe. But until Smith answers the core question of his basketball career -- but can he stay on the floor? -- the impact of another inexplicable NCAA decision will be solely reserved for the theoretical.