clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Thompson's Gamble: Was Josh Smith a Success in Blue and Gray?

New, 74 comments
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Chances are that five years from now, you won't be able to tell me how Joshua Smith performed in his Georgetown debut.

"He definitely just fouled out, right?" you'll ask yourself. "Or was that one of those 20-10 games? Who were they even playing? Did they win?"

The answer -- as many of you still remember, and the rest of you could probably guess -- is complicated. In the 2013-14 season opener, played against Oregon on a military base in South Korea, Smith dropped a cool 24 points. He shot a blistering 10-of-13 from the field, but only 5-of-9 from the charity stripe. He dominated the paint on offense, but pulled down only four rebounds. He played 27 productive minutes, fouled out late and Georgetown lost the game.

So, Georgetown fans, what did you think of your new big man?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

We didn't know it at the time, but the game would serve as a frighteningly accurate indicator of Smith's play for the next two years. When he was academically eligible, in proper game shape, mentally disciplined on defense and not in foul trouble, the massive center was a force to be reckoned with. But the rarity of that perfect confluence meant that every game was a question mark, every possession a potential gamebreaker for Smith -- and, in turn, the Hoyas.

It might seem an oversimplification to distill an entire team's fortunes down to the effectiveness of one player, but a player with Smith's gravitational pull doesn't come around often. His massive frame and soft touch made him the unquestioned first option on every offensive possession. His slow feet made him a defensive liability against quick centers, so the Hoyas hung back in a zone as often as possible when he was on the court. Every opposing coach sent two, sometimes three defenders at him as soon as he touched the ball; every opposing big man sought to isolate him on defense and draw a foul as soon as they could.

All this wouldn't be nearly as notable if John Thompson III had a similar player to back up Smith, or if he were inclined to play a similar style anyway. That wasn't the case: As we all know, Thompson prefers a patient offense with versatile, relatively interchangeable wings and a skilled high-post passer at center. That this year's team was Thompson's deepest and arguably most athletic group ever -- perfectly suited to a fast-paced aerial attack -- made Smith's presence particularly anachronistic.

Can a team with such a pronounced split personality succeed? The season is over, and I'm still not sure.

*******

While the Joshington Monument was unquestionably the most influential player on the court, the depth of talent surrounding him was immense.

D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera is the rarest of college basketball players -- a perennial all-conference talent with both feet planted firmly on campus for the full four years. Statistics say that there's no such thing as "clutch" players, simply those who continue to perform at their previous high level during high-pressure situations. Still, it was hard to watch the Hoyas this year and not ascribe that quality to DSR. He took big shots, of course, befitting his status as the point guard and offensive alpha dog. But how many times do you remember him pulling down a huge defensive rebound among a sea of taller opponents, or coming up with a huge steal as the opponent geared up to take the lead? "Clutch" may not be statistically validated, but I certainly want DSR on the floor if the game is in the balance.

The trio of Jabril Trawick, Mikael Hopkins and Aaron Bowen was frequently frustrating on offense, but each was undeniably suffocating defender and fierce competitor. Bowen could guard any wing in the country. Trawick, once evocative of a pass-rushing outside linebacker who had wandered onto a basketball court, became a complete two-guard (three-point range and all!) by his senior year -- all while remaining, as ESPN's Eamonn Brennan put it, "the scariest dude in college basketball." It's sometimes hard to remember Hopkins' positive qualities given his penchant for missed layups and what-were-you-thinking fouls, but we really should note that he was the best man-to-man defender on the floor for much of his last two years.

And the freshmen! Being freshmen, they had predictable peaks and valleys, but Isaac Copeland looks like a future lottery pick, and L.J. Peak, Paul White and Tre Campbell all displayed offensive instincts to rival any rookie of the JTIII era.

It was this depth of talent that kept Georgetown from suffering any of the truly embarrassing losses its fans have come to dread each year. Each time the Hoyas found themselves in a struggle with an inferior opponent -- think Charlotte, Marquette, Creighton -- one or more of Thompson's nine (!) rotation players did just enough to deliver a win.

And when the team was firing on all cylinders, it was truly a sight to behold. With a few exceptions, Georgetown dismantled its low-major opponents without breaking a sweat, then gave some of the best teams in the country all they could handle and more. The Hoyas took Wisconsin and Kansas down to the wire and Villanova out behind the woodshed. They out-slugged Butler twice, including once at the wrestling cage that is Hinkle Fieldhouse. They routed St. John's smack in the middle of a stretch where the Johnnies looked otherwise deadly.

Still, Georgetown lost 11 games, and none were truly shocking. Apart from those at the hands of elite teams, each followed a predictable pattern: By means of an oversized Uber driver, friendly referees,

hack-a-Josh or some combination of the above, the opposing team took Smith out of the game. And when Baby Shaq became the Round Mound of Goddammit Dude You Can't Rebound From the Bench, the Hoyas became a totally different team.

*******

In an alternate universe, I'm not sure that second team is altogether worse than the first. Yes, it seems silly to argue that any coach would rather not have an unstoppable offensive weapon. But when you're in the 40-minute battle of wits that is college basketball, armed with a balanced team of savvy veterans and budding stars, does a part-time, wholly unpredictable trump card really win out?

Maybe it does. Maybe a team without Joshua Smith resembles the spring 2014 Hoyas: shallow, undersized and entirely dependent on the play of its star point guard. Maybe Smith's arrival saved the Hilltop from witnessing -- gulp -- a true "rebuilding" year.

But maybe without the mercurial giant in the picture, Bradley Hayes develops into a legitimate rotation player. Maybe Mikael Hopkins develops an offensive game. Maybe Isaac Copeland and Paul White realize their full potential early in the season, a reluctant Thompson allows his high-flying Hoyas to become Showtime East and each member of the absurdly deep squad contributes to a Final Four run.

Chances are, you're reacting in one of two ways: 1) by scoffing at the idea of Georgetown being that good, or 2) by describing to me exactly what your aunt would be, given a certain anatomical what-if. And you're right! It's all irrelevant in the grand scheme, because that's not what happened. But when you're evaluating this season, it's impossible to ignore that Georgetown's most dangerous weapon had a giant "if" clause attached to him every time he took the court. I tend to think that the uncertainty was worth it, that his sheer physical dominance while on the court justified the risk of a totally bipolar gameplan throwing the rest of the team off. But I'm not sure.

Faced with a potentially transformative opportunity in Smith's transfer, Thompson took a high-stakes gamble. I'm comfortable saying his gamble didn't fail. But I don't know that it succeeded, either, and that middle ground is where the Hoyas' season finally landed - with an understandable loss to a good team that nonetheless left us with the unshakeable feeling that this team was capable of much, much more.