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Smith, team showing similar improvement
by Marc Narducci / February 5, 2008

Josh Smith - Icon Sports MediaThere are few people who can fill up so many areas of the stat sheet like Atlanta Hawks fourth-year forward Josh Smith.

An example of his freakish versatility came in the Hawks recent 96-91 win over the Philadelphia 76ers when Smith had 19 points, nine blocked shots, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals.

While not named to the all-star team, Smith appears on course to one day be selected. His game has grown each season. After averaging 9.7 points per game as a rookie, Smith has seen his scoring average rise each year. He averaged 11.3 points in his second year, 16.3 last season and is now averaging 18.1. This season Smith is also averaging 8 rebounds 3.3 blocked shots, 2.0 steals and 3.7 assists.

“What is scary is that he’s only 22,” said Sixers swingman Andre Iguodala. “He can do so many things to help his team win.”

The Hawks win total has also steadily gone up. They won just 13 games during Smith’s rookie season in 2004-2005, followed by 26 the next season and 30 last year. The win over Philadelphia improved Atlanta’s record to 20-24. (Last year after 44 games the Hawks were 17-27).

When Smith first entered the NBA after making the leap directly from high school, he thought he knew what he was getting into. Little did he realize the complexities of the league, that it takes much more than athletic talent to not only survive, but to thrive.

“I am a whole lot more comfortable,” said the 22-year-old Smith. “Being able to dribble, start a break, and dribble the ball without worrying about it falling off my hands or bouncing off my foot has given me a lot of confidence.” Then pausing, he added, “ I didn’t have that confidence my first couple of years.”

One part of his game that still must improve is his handle. Smith is averaging 3.3 turnovers a game and at times tries to force the issue. Smith entered the league as raw as any player, an athletic marvel who didn’t have a grasp on what it took to compete on a nightly basis.

“When we got Josh out of high school he couldn’t dribble, couldn’t pass, couldn’t shoot and had no idea what to do defensively on the basketball or off of it,” Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. “So you had to teach him every phase of the game at this level.”

That lack of fundamentals caused Smith to experience long stretches of inconsistency early in his career.
Now his improvement has been startling. “You’ve got to give him credit because he put in the time to get to this point in his career,” Woodson said. “And it’s starting to show, but he has a long way to go.”

Smith realizes that last statement is true but he also knows that he has come a long way to get to this point.
“I think my growth in this league is progressing well,” Smith said.

So do others.

“He does a lot of things and is a very talented player who will be around for a while,” said Philadelphia coach Maurice Cheeks. “He is learning the game still, but players with a lot of energy and is just a good player.”
Despite Smith’s improvement, Woodson feels there is so much more he can accomplish.

“I think if he wants to be an all-star player, he still has a ways to go to make that jump,” Woodson said. “But he has been great for our basketball team in terms of what he is doing on the floor in all areas of the game.” Smith is also looking at his first extended season in his four-year career. Despite the Hawks’ 20-24 record following the win over Philadelphia, Atlanta is very much in the race for a playoff berth in the watered down Eastern Conference. “Our team is learning what it takes to win,’ Smith said.

Even though he should be a senior in college, Smith is looked on as one of the leaders of a team: “It would be very disappointing if we don’t make the playoffs,” Woodson said.

The fourth-year Hawks coach has equally high expectation for Smith.

“He has to make guys better,” Woodson said of Smith. “As you grow as a team, you can have all the individual talent you want but it has to be put together and each guy has to feed off each other.”

The Hawks seem to be feeding off players such as two-time all-star Joe Johnson and Smith. Now Smith feels that the Hawks are ready to take that next step, although he realizes how difficult that can be.

“It’s kind of hard because even though you are young, you have years in the league, but there are older guys who been to the playoffs and know what it takes to win,” Smith said. “What you have to do is play hard every night and if you do, then you put yourself in a situation where you have a chance to win.”

A true gauge of Smith’s progress will be determined during the off-season at the bargaining table.

Smith admitted that he was disappointed not to reach a contract extension by the Oct. 31 deadline with the Hawks. “I would say it was a disappointment (of not getting the extension) but I understand this is a business and I just have to try to show my all-around game,” Smith said. “If I think about not being signed then I think it would affect my game.”

Smith has shown that he hasn’t been distracted by his contract situation. And now as he continues to mature and improve, the ante could be going up when negotiations take place this summer.

Marc Narducci covers the NBA for the Philadelphia Inquirer and is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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