Josh Smith and the painful mystery of faith

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You want him to get it. So badly. But in wanting him to get it, you’re missing how much he’s doing. If you focus on what he’s doing, you’re missing how much he doesn’t get it. And all the while you’re not sure if he’s just oblivious to what goes on around him, to the reasons for people “hating” on his mid-range, or if he’s hyper-aware and deliberately messing with critics and a franchise that continues to hold onto him despite his wishes otherwise. He’s fierce, he’s confusing, he’s frustrating, he’s incredible.

He’s Josh Smith.

From Lang Whitaker at The Classical:

Even though I’ve known Josh Smith since the night he was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks, I am not sure I will ever completely know Josh Smith. If Allen Iverson was The Answer, perhaps Josh Smith is The Question, at least among NBA fans. What kind of player is he? What kind of player should he be? What kind of player will he become?

I’m not the only one: NBA fans in general don’t seem to know what to make of Josh. Even though everyone knows long jumpers aren’t his forte, he still occasionally lofts them at the rim, eliciting loud criticisms from Hawks fans. (At least when those shots carom off.) Fans see Josh flash a sour face when a call goes against him or the Hawks, and don’t seem quite to get his perceived obstinacy. These are the two biggest criticisms regularly lodged against Smith, and though both are mostly outdated this point, Smith seems to still be paying for past mistakes.

Back in 2008, I interviewed Josh for SLAM, and I asked him how he feels about fans criticizing his game or his attitude. “I really can’t talk about all that,” Josh said, “because people don’t know me. You know me, you see me in the locker room, you see how I act, you see me in person. So everyone who’s trying to take down my character, I don’t have nothing to say, because they haven’t seen me face to face or they haven’t sat down and had a conversation with me.

via The Josh Smith Question | The Classical.

Here are a few things we know about Smith in the context of the modern NBA.

  • He’s having a monster season, posting a career high in points and rebounds per 36. His percentages are down with his usage up. He’s able to take over a game and when engaged, there is no matchup for him. His post moves against small opponents are devastating, his driving game against larger power forwards a total mismatch. There are about ten players league wide who can effectively check him one-on-one when he decides to be aggressive.
  • He doesn’t decide to be aggressive. Synergy Sports tell us that Smith elects for a jumpshot 48 percent of the time, versus post-ups and scores at the basket which account for 49 percent of his possessions. And the weirder trend is that Smith has actually moved more in that direction over the past three seasons, despite his percentages getting worse.  Here’s what the percentage of Smith’s shots at each point on the floor are over the past three seasons.

source:

And here’s what his actual shooting percentages look like over that same time span:

source:

So he shot a record high percentage last year, that still wasn’t very good (red means bad), and yet he has responded by… shooting even more mid-range jump shots! /facepalm.

But then you see the kind of percentages in the paint, and rebounding, and the assists, and the steals, and the blocks, and the key plays. Smith is a perennial defensive player of the year candidate. He’s an absolute monster and arguably the biggest reason year in and year out that the Hawks aren’t just a playoff team, but a middle-seed one. Their underwhelming assortment of talent and style aside, they’ve been a really good team for the past five seasons. They just have.

And yet Smith is not an All-Star. He’s religiously passed up over what he feels are “political” reasons. Even that, though, is baffling. Smith isn’t outspoken, he doesn’t trash his teammates nor his coaches on a consistent basis. He’s not a sterling example of friendliness, but who cares? The man can ball at the highest level.

Smith has had a rocky relationship with the Hawks, though not an explosive one. He was signed to an offer sheet by Memphis after no one else extended him an offer in restricted free agency a few years ago, because they all assumed the Hawks would match. The Grizzlies had some cap room to spare and threw out a figure. The Hawks matched, getting Smith back at a discount. He’s asked for a trade consistently since then, to no avail. And with the way most people consider his game, mentally unstable in decision-making offensively, complete without being comprehensive, I keep coming back to the same question.

What do you want to bet in New York, Los Angeles, or Boston Josh Smith is an All-Star? I’m not arguing that it’s an issue of market. Atlanta is a huge market and a perennial playoff team. But you have to think that on a team that welcomed him in as a star, with top level talent and conceivably a top level coach, that Smith would “get it.” That those jumpshots would become either out of the pick and roll or more attacks at the rim. To put it another way, is Josh Smith being held back in his prime?

We’re left to wonder about this as the Hawks steam towards another inevitable first or second round exit, another “good year, not great” for a team that is “good, not great.” We’ll continue to wonder if Josh Smith is capable of being greatness, or if it’s the spirit that defines his game that renders him just on the cusp of immortality, and if in another set of circumstances, another life, if that spirit might form something altogether greater.

Medically risky prospects bring intrigue to 2017 NBA draft

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
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ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla dubbed Indiana forward O.G. Anunoby, who was slipping through the first round, a “sexy blogger pick.”

While I appreciate the compliment, Fraschilla was also right about another point: Those analyzing the draft for websites clearly valued Anunoby more than NBA teams. Fraschilla cited Anunoby’s limited offense, but it’s hard to get past Anunoby’s knee injury as a primary reason he fell to the Raptors at No. 23.

The 76ers adjusted us to the idea of picking an injured player high in the draft, with Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid in recent years. Even though Ben Simmons was healthy when picked, a later injury that cost him his entire rookie year conditioned us to the idea that sometimes top rookies don’t begin their pro careers ready to play.

But the 2017 NBA draft pushed back against that as a new norm. Most of the biggest tumblers on my board had injury concerns, from where I ranked them to where the went:

  • 12. O.G. Anunoby, SF, Indiana – No. 23, Raptors
  • 13. Harry Giles, PF, Duke – No. 20, Kings
  • 18. Isaiah Hartenstein, PF, Zalgiris – No. 43, Rockets
  • 19. Ike Anigbogu, C, UCLA – No. 47, Pacers

Anunoby had the aforementioned knee injury that even he, trying to paint himself in the most favorable light, said would cause him to miss some of the upcoming season. The strength of his game is a defensive versatility that would be undermined by a decline in athleticism.

Giles looked like a potential No. 1 pick in high school until three knee surgeries in three years derailed him. He was limited at Duke as a freshman, though reportedly acquitted himself in pre-draft workouts.

Hartenstein’s and Anigbogu’s medical issues were less widely know, but teams were apparently concerned.

Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress:

https://twitter.com/DraftExpress/status/878094857037676544

https://twitter.com/DraftExpress/status/878099339012210688

The 7-foot-1 Hartenstein is big enough to put a heavy load on his back. Just 19, he has nice vision as a passer and a developing outside shot that could allow him to spend more time on the perimeter and better take advantage of his passing.

Anigbogu was the youngest player drafted. He’s big and strong and mobile and throws his body around like a wrecking ball. He must develop better awareness and maybe even some ball skills, but there’s a path toward productivity.

Will these players blossom as hoped?

As I wrote when ranking Anunoby and Giles 12th and 13th before the draft, “I’m somewhat shooting in the dark” and “I’m mostly guessing here.”

This is the disconnect between the public perception of these players’ draft stocks and where they’re actually selected. We don’t have access to their medical records like teams do. We’re operating with far less information.

Still, it’s not as if teams always know how to interpret medical testing. Even with more information, this is hard.

I’m confident Anunoby, Giles, Hartenstein and Anigbogu would have gotten drafted higher with clean bills of health. So, this is an opportunity for the teams that drafted them. If the players stay healthy, they provide excellent value.

It’s obviously also a risk. If the player can’t get healthy, his value could quickly approach nil.

There are no certainties in the draft, but these four players present especially wide ranges of outcomes, which makes them among the more exciting picks to track in the years ahead.

Vlade Divac: Kings would have drafted De’Aaron Fox No. 1

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
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I sense a pattern.

Like Celtics president Danny Ainge saying Boston would’ve drafted No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum No. 1 if it kept the top pick, Kings president Vlade Divac said Sacramento would’ve taken No. 5 pick De'Aaron Fox No. 1 if it had the top pick.

Divac, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“Screaming,” Divac said about the reaction in the room to Fox falling in their lap. “It was a guy that we all loved and in some way, if we had the number 1 pick, he would’ve been our guy.”
“De’Aaron is our future,” Divac added.

The Kings are getting a lot of credit for drafting well. Maybe it’s a good thing they didn’t get the No. 1 pick, because it would have been foolish to pass on Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball (and others) for Fox. (The real punchline: Sacramento couldn’t have won the lottery due to Divac’s dumb salary dump with the 76ers giving Philadelphia the ability to swap picks.)

I don’t believe the Kings would’ve actually taken Fox No. 1. This sounds like Divac embellishing, which can be no big deal. It also puts outsized expectations on Fox, for better or worse.

Danny Ainge: Celtics would have drafted Jayson Tatum No. 1

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After trading down from No. 1 to No. 3 in the draft, Celtics president Danny Ainge said Boston would probably still get the player it would’ve picked No. 1.

The Celtics selected Jayson Tatum No. 3. Would they have taken him if they held the No. 1 pick?

Ainge, via CSN New England:

Yes, we would have picked him with the first pick. But the draft was very even, we felt, at the top all the way through maybe five or six. And it was very difficult. There was a lot of players we liked in this draft.

I believe that the Celtics saw the top several picks as similar. I also believe, but don’t know, that they would’ve drafted Markelle Fultz if they kept the top pick.

I’m also curious, considering how the process unfolded, whether Ainge had Tatum or Josh Jackson in mind when making his initial statement. Regardless of whether he was thinking Jackson, Tatum or both, Ainge couldn’t reasonably back out of his claim now.

For what it’s worth, I would have seen Jackson (No. 3 on my board) as a reach at No. 1. I see Taytum (No. 9 on my board) as a reach at No. 3, let alone No. 1.

Warriors break record by paying $3.5 million for draft rights to Jordan Bell

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The Thunder paid the Hawks $3 million for the draft rights to No. 31 pick Tibor Pleiss in 2010. Last year, the Nets paid $3 million just to move up 13 spots in the second round to get Isaiah Whitehead.

The Warriors surpassed that amount, previously the record for spending on a draft pick, to buy the No. 38 pick from the Bulls and get Jordan Bell last night.

Marcus Thompson of The Mercury News:

Golden State also bought the No. 38 pick last year to get a player I rated as first-round caliber, Patrick McCaw, whose rights cost “just” $2.4 million. McCaw had a promising rookie year and even contributed in the NBA Finals.

Bell – whose draft rights drew the maximum-allowable $3.5 million – could achieve similar success. I rated him No. 31 but in the same tier as other first-round-caliber prospects. He’s a versatile defender, capable of protecting the rim and switching onto guards. He’s obviously not nearly the same level, but Bell is in the Draymond Green mold defensively. Bell’s offense doesn’t come close to Green’s, though. Bell could fill a role sooner than later when Golden State needs a defensive-minded sub.

The Warriors have generated massive revenue during their dominant run the last few years. Now, they’re putting some of that money back into the on-court product. Success breeds success – especially when the owners don’t just pocket the profits.