NBA PM: Bounce-Back Year for Josh Smith?

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Bounce-Back Year for Josh Smith?

It wasn’t long ago that Josh Smith was viewed as a borderline All-Star, someone who filled the stat sheet but seemed to be snubbed every year when the East and West teams were assembled. He was the face of the franchise for the Atlanta Hawks, making his presence felt on both ends of the floor and filling a highlight reel with ease.

Now, Smith is viewed much differently around the NBA. League insiders have characterized him as inefficient and selfish, and his tendency to settle for long-range jumpers drives coaches and fans crazy. He has also been labeled as overpaid, since the Detroit Pistons signed him to a four-year, $56 million deal last summer that made him the team’s highest-paid player. The Pistons went 29-53 last year and Smith received plenty of blame for the team’s disappointing season. Critics have said that his style of play isn’t conducive to winning, which is never how a player wants to be perceived in the NBA.

In year one of his new contract, it’s true that Smith struggled. He averaged 16.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.4 steals. His efficiency rating was 14.1, which was below the NBA’s average of 15. The numbers weren’t awful, but they were significantly worse than what Smith averaged in his last few seasons with the Hawks, and Detroit was understandably frustrated since they expected growth – not regression – after giving him a big payday. Worst of all were Smith’s shooting percentages: a career-low 41.9 percent from the field and 26.4 from three-point range (yet Smith still felt compelled to attempt a career-high 3.4 threes per game despite his shooting struggles).

With a dip in production, a huge contract and the belief that a Smith-led team couldn’t win, many wondered what would happen to the 28-year-old this summer.

How would Stan Van Gundy, Detroit’s new head coach and president of basketball operations, deal with Smith? Would Detroit trade him to another team (like the Sacramento Kings, who were rumored to have interest) even though his value was at an all-time low? Would Van Gundy bench Smith and play him as a reserve power forward behind Greg Monroe (assuming he returns) rather than letting him play small forward, where he tends to settle for bad shots?

Well, Smith and Van Gundy have talked and it appears that the plan is for Smith to try to salvage his career by bulking up, playing more power forward, buying into Van Gundy’s system and emerging as a veteran leader on the young team. Smith spent the offseason working out in Atlanta with teammate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and he is visibly bigger in his chest and arms, which is a good sign since it shows he’s taking his training seriously and preparing for a move to the low-post.

“I’m ready to play whatever position is asked of me,” Smith told Keith Langlois of “But I’m going to play a lot of [power forward] and that was my main focus on being able to get more in the weight room and put some more muscle on my body to be able to withstand that physicality in the paint. I played that position so much, so long in the league that I know how big you have to be in order to be able, night in and night out, to withstand that impact and that physical nature inside the paint.”

Smith and Van Gundy have talked a number of times this offseason. Van Gundy has been in communication with Smith to shoot down trade rumors that have surfaced, but he has also reached out to discuss how he will utilize Smith in the upcoming season. He loves Smith’s versatility and in addition to having Smith score and defend, he wants the forward to emerge as a playmaker for Detroit.

“He’s not only a very willing passer, but an outstanding passer,” Van Gundy said of Smith. “I think it’s the best part of Josh’s game. Probably the most overlooked part of his game – his ability to create for teammates.”

Smith is fine taking on that point-forward role, especially now that he has better shooters surrounding him since the Pistons added Jodie Meeks, D.J. Augustin and Caron Butler over the summer. They’re also expecting to see Caldwell-Pope take the next step in his development, which should give them another weapon on the perimeter as well.

“[My role is] being able to play in the mid-range and attacking,” Smith added. “If somebody comes over to help out, I’ll be able to find the open man and I’m very confident that those players are going to knock shots down because they’ve proven it their whole careers.”

Smith believes a move back to the four will really help him, and he’s saying all of the right things about getting his teammates involved and focusing on playing down low rather than roaming the perimeter.

“People will have to concentrate a lot on the perimeter,” Smith said. “It’s going to be hard to pack the paint and dare us to shoot like they did last year because we have a lot of guys who can really stretch the floor and shoot the basketball. Bringing those guys in and having [Caldwell-Pope] with another year under his belt, being able to see the game slow down a little bit for him, and we have Jonas Jerebko as a stretch player. It should be fun to see it and how this thing is going to evolve.”

Smith and Van Gundy have developed a solid relationship and the two are clearly on the same page entering the season.

“We understand each other,” Smith said of his interactions with Van Gundy. “I know he knows how focused I am as a player in order to become the leader that he wants me to be. I’m just trying to come in and set the example early and show everybody we have to put in work to get productive outcomes for a good season. We just want our main focus and concern to gel early because there are some new faces on the team now and we want to create that camaraderie early on.”

Smith faced Van Gundy a number of times in the past when the former was a member of the Hawks and the latter was coaching the Orlando Magic. Smith was impressed with Van Gundy’s coaching then, and he respects him even more now that he has gotten the chance to work with him.

“I know that he believes in his system,” Smith said of Van Gundy. “That was one of our rival teams when I was in Atlanta. We saw them quite often. So that’s what I see – he believes in his system. He’s a really good, demonstrative coach. He knows what it takes to be successful in this league. It’s a proven fact with his body of work. When you’re able to be a part of a coach like that, you want to buy into his philosophies because you know they’ve worked.”

Last season was an awful campaign for Smith, but this is his chance to get his career back on track and remind everyone what he’s capable of doing on the court. He is such a unique player with his athleticism, versatility and skill set, but he just needs to put it all together and make the most of his physical tools. Van Gundy will certainly help him, and this could be a huge bounce-back year for Smith.

The Pistons want to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, and Smith’s play will go a long way in determining if this team is postseason-bound or lottery-bound.

Reggie Jackson Wants to Start

Last season, Reggie Jackson emerged as a significant contributor for the Oklahoma City Thunder, filling the sixth man role that was previously occupied by scorers James Harden and Kevin Martin. Jackson averaged 13.1 points, 4.1 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.1 steals, coming off of the bench in 44 of 80 regular season games and 15 of 19 postseason games.

Now, entering his fourth season in the NBA, it sounds like the 24-year-old wants to be a starter for the Thunder. When asked if he’d be more comfortable coming off of the bench again next year, Jackson laughed and said no.

“Nah, I don’t think about ever coming off the bench for any team,” Jackson said with a laugh, in an interview with Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman. “If that’s the role I’m put in, that’s what I’m put in. But since the day I thought about playing in the NBA, I’ve always been a starter. Everything I’ve thought about, whether it be middle school, high school, kids leagues, I never envisioned coming off the bench. When you think about playing basketball, you see the first five guys get on the floor, and that’s something I’ve always prided myself on being. I want to be the best player I can be. I want to be the best player in the world. I don’t think those guys are necessarily coming off the bench. So I’ve never thought about that or even had that idea in the back of my mind.”

When asked why it is so important for a player to start versus come off of the bench, Jackson elaborated.

“For some people it’s important, to others it’s not,” Jackson said. “It’s very prideful for me. I feel like I’m very talented. I feel like I can lead a team. That’s just how I’ve been raised and that’s just how I’ve always felt. I want to be the guy in charge. I want to be the guy leading the team. The head of the snake. I guess that’s just how I’m encrypted DNA-wise. I played quarterback in high school. I had a year I was a receiver. But I was more comfortable playing quarterback. I’ve just always been good leading my team. That’s how I’ve always been, being vocal. And when the ball’s in my hand, I feel like I can make the right plays and just impact the team. I definitely want to finish the game. That is the most important. But I’ve never envisioned myself coming off the floor. I always felt like I’d start the game and finish and play every minute of every game if that’s what’s asked of me. That’s one of the goals I’ve had and I still have to this day.”

Jackson started alongside Russell Westbrook for four games in the postseason, and he’s hopeful that he and Westbrook can continue to play alongside one another in the starting five going forward.

“I think we did pretty well with it in that series, the last series for those four games,” Jackson said of starting alongside Westbrook. “Unfortunately we didn’t advance and get to continue to play together. But that’s for the coaching staff to think about if that’s what they want to do. But, yeah, I definitely want to be a starter in this league. We’re trying to figure it out.”