The Peabody Award-winning player profile series approaches its epic conclusion. Previous entries have profiled Georgetown's walk-ons, Moses Ayegba, Jabril Trawick, Aaron Bowen, Mikael Hopkins, D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Bradley Hayes, Stephen Domingo, and Reggie Cameron. Woodward and Bernstein can eat it.
Georgetown's nickname Big Man U evokes big names from glory gone by, especially on defense, where Hoya posts have been ferocious and intimidating. How does the newly eligible Josh Smith fit into that tradition?
UCLA career stats: 19.0 min. pg, 9.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 56.5 FG%, 59.4 FT%
Last season, Georgetown compiled its best defense of the JT3 era, per KenPom's efficiency ratings. That's a remarkable achievement, all the more so considering recent teams also have featured legendary rim protector Roy Hibbert and other big men who have gone onto the NBA. What's more, Georgetown's only true centers, Moses Ayegba and Bradley Hayes, combined to average under 10 minutes per game. Without an anchor in the middle, the Hoyas achieved brilliance thanks to a variety of factors: precise rotations, collective commitment, Jabril Trawick's physicality, Mikael Hopkins' mobility, Otto Porter's all-around brilliance, and so much more.
Smith watched this team from the sidelines, sitting out the second semester after his transfer from UCLA. Smith's tenure in Westwood had ended so unhappily that it's easy to forget how promising he once was. Blessed with a massive frame and soft hands, Smith had used those gifts to his advantage during his first season, averaging 10.9 points, 6.3 rebounds per game, and a block per game. He was a beast on the offensive glass, effective at drawing fouls, and a decent rim protector, given his size. Weight remained an issue, as Smith inched above 300 pounds, but his combination of size and skill portended a future in the NBA.
Instead, things headed the wrong direction: Smith's production dropped as his weight rose. As a sophomore, Smith was unable to stay on the court for even half the game, maintaining decent production but not enough to lead a UCLA squad that failed to make the NCAA tournament. The few glimpses we saw of Smith last season were no better: he was only getting heavier, and his playing time was cut by a deep recruiting class. At one particular low point, Smith air-balled a layup so spectacularly that it made the sports blog rounds. Tales of Smith's poor eating habits were legion, and, to those who claimed that he had wasted natural talent, Smith conceded, "You're right." Just six games into his junior season, Smith withdrew from UCLA, deciding to attend Georgetown in time for spring semester.
Smith's troubles did not occur in a vacuum. Nine months before Smith left Westwood, Sports Illustrated published a scathing investigative report on the UCLA program under Ben Howland. According to the piece, while Howland once led the Bruins to three straight Final Fours, the hard-working, structured culture of those teams had devolved into a two-class program. Star players were afforded liberties--in their observance of team rules, treatment of teammates, and after-hours activities--while Howland was abusive toward weak players and staff. The parade of outgoing Bruin transfers that started during Smith's freshman and sophomore years continued into his third season, when Tyler Lamb beat Smith out the door by days. At the end of a middling season, Howland was fired.
A toxic environment didn't force Smith into bad eating or exercise habits, and his under-performance at UCLA is at least in part his fault. Even if Howland antagonized everyone from La Jolla to Leo Carillo and...up to...Pismo, Smith was his own enemy, worst or otherwise. Nevertheless, even Bruin fans called UCLA "screwed up" and Georgetown, by comparison, "sane and healthy."
Coming when it did, arriving on the Hilltop must have been particularly refreshing for Smith. After an embarrassing home loss to Pitt to start the semester, the Hoyas rattled off 13 wins in 14 games, overachieving with a depleted roster and eventually winning the Big East regular season title. As Smith joined Greg Whittington and Tyler Adams in street clothes, his enthusiasm for his teammates' success was evident. After a troubled few years at UCLA in which, by his admission, his natural talent was far greater than his commitment and self-discipline, Smith seemed to have found an opportunity to start anew at Georgetown.
Heading into the off-season, questions large and small about Smith loomed. Some questions, like whether Smith or Howland was primarily at fault for what happened at UCLA, seemed pointless; the only thing that really mattered was whether Smith could maximize his abilities while at Georgetown. But what guarantee was there that Smith's poor habits would improve? This Georgetown bunch seemed dedicated to hard work, but it wasn't too difficult to think of talented Hoyas under JT3 who didn't exactly place a premium on physical conditioning. How would Smith, with a unique ability to bully opponents in the post, mesh into Georgetown's offense, where bigs frequently were stationed in the high post and where the ball was distributed freely? And given that Smith transferred mid-year after playing six games of his junior season, when would Smith be eligible, and for how long?
Smith began to answer some of the most fundamental questions during Kenner League play. He used his trademark soft hands, solid footwork, and overpowering size to score effectively in the post. His passing showed promise, though he tended to commit turnovers by forcing the ball into tight spaces. His weight and conditioning remained an issue, as did his eligibility, which had not been resolved by the NCAA.
The NCAA finally answered the question of Smith's status last week, when it cleared Smith to play all of this season and next. This obviously was the most favorable result for Smith and Georgetown. Smith's immediate eligibility will help Georgetown during a difficult non-conference slate, but also will avoid a potentially painful mid-season integration of Smith into the lineup. He will provide Georgetown with effective low-post scoring, something fellow bigs Nate Lubick and Mikael Hopkins contribute less reliably. He also is a beast on the glass, which will come in handy when Georgetown goes with smaller lineups. He draws fouls at a very high rate, though that is more useful for getting opponents in foul trouble than it is for actually scoring points: Smith is a mediocre free-throw shooter, particularly once fatigue sets in.
Smith is in better shape than when he arrived at Georgetown. Reports have Smith down somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 pounds, and, assuming proper diet and conditioning, his weight should continue to drop as more rigorous game play starts. JT3 has noted that Smith's stamina also has improved, a factor that is at least as important as his weight.
Even with improved conditioning, we shouldn't expect much more than 25 minutes per night from Smith, and he won't suddenly run like a deer. Georgetown may have to play zone when he's in the game, both to reduce opponents' ability to tire Smith by making him cover pick-and-rolls and perimeter-oriented big men, and to maximize Smith's effectiveness on the defensive glass. His size makes him foul-prone, though Georgetown's relative depth in the front court should ameliorate some of that risk.
The sky's the limit. Smith makes a commitment to his conditioning, shows off passing ability that JT3 has praised, and is the unstoppable force in the post and on the boards Hoya fans expect. He is able to play more than half the game and is the team's primary offensive focus while he's on the floor. He scores at will and puts pressure on the opposing defense's front court. Having drawn the defense's complete attention, Smith frees up space for his teammates. Lubick and Hopkins find easier opportunities around the basket, and Georgetown's perimeter players, including youngsters Stephen Domingo and Reggie Cameron, find easy perimeter looks. Defensively, Smith effectively clogs the lane and buys into Georgetown's defensive culture. He averages 12 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 block. (Ed. note: Smith's performance in a scrimmage in George Mason may be a Best-Case Scenario preview, per ESPN's Jeff Goodman.) Smith projects to be picked in the NBA Draft but realizes that he can do even better by returning to Georgetown, where he'll anchor a deep, veteran squad next season.
UCLA 2.0. Turns out that Howland was only part of the problem, and Smith's bad habits return. He is listless and out-of-shape on the court, where he proves a poor fit. Off the court, Smith's conditioning regresses, and he starts to pack on the pounds again. He eventually falls out of the Georgetown rotation, leaving the Hoyas without much-needed low-post scoring.
It's easy to be optimistic in the preseason, when every team is undefeated and every player has only been tested by his own teammates. Delusion is all the more rampant with Smith, whose talent and occasional productivity are so enticing. But every assessment of Smith seems to be punctuated, figuratively if not literally, by a question mark. Can he commit himself to a regimen to improve his conditioning? Does he care to do so? Can Georgetown bring out the best in Smith, or is UCLA redux inevitable? What terror can an in-shape Smith wreak on opponents? What terror could an out-of-shape Smith wreak on his own locker room?
Only Smith can answer those questions. His first opportunity to do so is just four days away. (!!!)