Friday, March 22, 2013
Updated: April 3, 5:22 PM ET
This is Josh Smith
By Ramona Shelburne
It is one of those perfect California afternoons by the beach where the sunlight hits the water just right, the breeze knows when to pick up a little to cool you off and the biggest decision you have to make is what to order for lunch.
After being squarely in the national spotlight leading up to the NBA trade deadline in late February, the life of Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith is back to normal.
He didn't get traded, even though in a few months he will become one of the most sought-after free agents on the market. He is still with the Hawks as they gear up for a playoff run that will likely go unnoticed unless they put a scare into a team like the Miami Heat in the second round.
He can walk through the lobby of this luxury hotel in Marina Del Rey without being recognized. He can have lunch a couple of blocks from Staples Center before a game against the Los Angeles Lakers without being disturbed.
If you're an NBA fan you recognize his rather common name and his versatile game.
But after that, how much do you really know about him?
Yes, he fills up the stat sheet better than just about anyone not named LeBron James.
And yes, he did say he thinks of himself as a "max [contract] player." But that's not the whole story.
"Each interview is delicate. What you say or how you say it, at the end of the day they're not putting that recorder and letting the whole world listen to it," Smith said.
He's calm, not defensive, about the quote that hangs over him and has been used to explain why the Hawks would consider trading a homegrown talent who could help them recruit Dwight Howard, an Atlanta native and also the best man at Smith's wedding, this offseason.
"The question was asked to me, 'Do I feel like I'm a max player?'" Smith continued. "And I gave him an honest answer. I said, 'Yes I do.' And the reason why I say this, is because if you don't know your worth, who will? I can't set my standards low. If you set them low, that's how people are going to view you. Like when you sell a house, you don't sell the house for $2 million. You put the $5 million sticker on there
and then you work it out. You negotiate."
He speaks slowly, but with a confidence that suggests he's thought all this through and made his peace with it. It wasn't pleasant to hear the reaction, but it also wasn't personal. Things rarely are for a player who, despite his preps-to-pros pedigree and status as a borderline All-Star, is still a bit of an unknown nationally.
"I think he's a little misunderstood to people that don't really know about him," said Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, who played two seasons with Smith in Atlanta. "If you don't know him you think he needs to grow up, but he's actually very mature. He's a great teammate, we had great conversations, he has your back.
"But if you ask his teammates and the people that see him every day, they love him."
Despite the trade chatter and his impending free agency, Atlanta means a lot to Smith. He sponsors AAU and high school teams all over the city, paid for the living expenses for the family of Rajaan Bennett -- a star football player from his high school who was murdered before he could play at Vanderbilt University -- and hosts a Thanksgiving dinner every year for My Sister's House, a shelter for women and families affected by domestic abuse.
"Sometimes I feel like my tithe to the church is being able to give back to my community," he said. "I grew up in poverty. I wasn't a rich kid. My dad drove trucks, 18-wheelers.
"My mom had callouses on her hands from doing hair and using the curling irons. My dad used to unload the truck himself just to try and get extra money to buy me shoes. I had one pair of shoes, this pair of navy blue Converse he bought me. And I had to wear them with all my outfits at school and then turn around and play basketball in 'em.
"So you know, I learned to appreciate the little things."
Which is why the quote about being a "max player" is more about respect than money. Appreciating the little things the 27-year-old Smith does on the court.
"I believe I can be that," Smith said, when asked if he can develop into the type of scorer who is generally awarded a max contract. "But my thought process is, 'As the team succeeds, I succeed.' If we're a hell of a team, and we're playing well, individual accolades trickle down.
"There's definitely still room for me to grow. I work on having more consistency with my jump shot. But every night it's not going to go in for you. But if you look at the intangibles, each and every night I play my all. I can pass the basketball well or I can sit on it and take the challenge on the defensive end. I still can block shots and get out and run."
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Smith gets fired up as he explains himself. His voice grows a little louder. He sits up in his chair and looks me in the eye, making sure his words are resonating.
You get the sense he appreciates being asked the question. But also that he's long since resigned himself to the idea that his play must speak for him. He can guard five positions and drop 30 points. But he knows his jump shot needs to become more consistent, and that he settles for it too often.
Smith is filling it up again this season, with 17.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.8 blocks per game, but his player efficiency rating has dipped, from a career-best 21.14 last season to 17.53 this season. His 3-point attempts have also risen to a career high as he and the Hawks try to adjust to life without Joe Johnson's scoring and spacing on the perimeter.
"I like passing the basketball," he said. "I like to reward people for good work. Every kid wants their mom to take them for ice cream when they do good. People want to get rewarded. And if they don't get rewarded, it can become, not a selfish thing, but like 'I'm going to take this shot because I haven't got any looks,' and then everybody else does the same thing."
He's been like this from as far back as he can remember. From the days he and Howard starred on the Atlanta Celtics AAU team, to his time sharing the court with Rajon Rondo at Oak Hill Academy, this is the type of basketball he believes in. And it's the type of situation he'll be looking for when he hits free agency this summer.
"Winning. That's all I care about," Smith said. "I want to have an opportunity to have a legitimate shot at getting a ring. I've been successful in high school, AAU, I want to have a legitimate shot at winning a title."
That place still might be Atlanta. After all, the Hawks valued him highly enough not to pull the trigger on any of the trades they entertained before the deadline. More than a dozen teams inquired about Smith but no offer came in that met Hawks general manager Danny Ferry's goal of returning a good young player while still maintaining all the flexibility he created last summer by trading Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams.
"I think our situation was unique in terms of still being competitive but also having cap space and flexibility going forward," Ferry said. "We looked at all of our options at the end of June up until the trade deadline.
"Josh and I have had a positive and honest relationship from Day 1. He's been professional this season despite a lot of change and obviously a lot of distractions. I've enjoyed working with him."
Smith says he didn't take what happened at the deadline personally. He is still open to a return to the Hawks but is also looking forward to free agency and the recruiting process, which he hasn't truly gotten to experience.
Before he decided to forgo college and enter his name in the 2004 NBA draft, his heart was set on Georgia. After coach Jim Harrick was hit with NCAA violations, he met with Indiana coach Mike Davis and was sold on the Hoosiers.
In 2008 he signed an offer sheet with the Memphis Grizzlies as a restricted free agent. The Hawks matched and that was that.
"I went to Philadelphia and sat down with the Clippers for dinner because I was already out here in Los Angeles [where he now lives during the offseason] for an adidas photo shoot," Smith said. "So this is going to be exciting for me to travel to different cities, and sit down and talk to executives and GMs."
He's pretty clear about what he wants to see and hear. Because he's also very clear about what's important to him.
|The Hawks ask Josh Smith to juggle a lot of roles.|
"The first time we made the playoffs [in 2008], we played the Celtics," Smith said. "It was a seven-game series and the three games we had at home, it was unbelievable. You could feel the building shaking. You could feel the intensity, it was loud.
"I want that feeling."
That kind of atmosphere has been rare in the nine seasons Smith has played for the Hawks. Atlanta has never been known as a great sports town. The Atlanta Braves made the playoffs 10 consecutive years, from 1995 to 2005, often playing to a half-empty ballpark. The Hawks are 26th in the league in home attendance.
"The only time where I can honestly say it was rocking was that first series against the Celtics," Smith said wistfully about the first-round matchup. "For those moments, that excitement should just be there."
To create that kind of excitement and hype, a team first has to win and give its fans something to be excited about. Smith gets that. Atlanta is his hometown. And if the Hawks aren't creating buzz, well, some of that falls on his shoulders, as well.
"Winning changes everything," Smith said. "And the person changes everything."
Smith, of course, could be one of the people who changes things for Atlanta and the Hawks. Ferry has created some $33 million in salary-cap space to pursue at least one of the top free agents on the market this summer and re-sign Smith. Howard, Smith's close friend, will be one of those max players to hit the market this summer.
"Is Dwight serious about [Atlanta]? That's the question," Smith said. "Everybody would probably want to have him on the team.
"But Dwight is global now. That's in his mindset. He's addicted to it now. He's addicted to being global and international. That was the whole reason he wanted to leave Orlando is he wanted to have that big market.
"I'm not going to say it's farfetched [for Atlanta to lure Howard], but it is going to be kind of difficult to be able to persuade him."
It's a complicated situation to process. It's also in the future. A lot can still happen between now and then. It's best to focus on the present, on what he can control, and then let his game do the talking.
"I think we'll prove a lot of people wrong," said Smith, whose Hawks are still right where they usually are this time of year, in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings. "I love playing in the postseason. That's what we play for. It's a different type of feeling, it's a different type of adrenaline rush. I love those moments."
It's what he's looking forward to now.
It's what he's looking for in the future.
It was a seven-game series and the three games we had at home, it was unbelievable. You could feel the building shaking. You could feel the intensity, it was loud. I want that feeling.
-- Josh Smith on the Hawks' 2008 first-round series vs. the Celtics