As a player who came into the NBA with few discernible skills aside from leaping, dunking, and impeccable timing while blocking shots, Josh Smith has put himself into the conversation as one of the premier defensive forces and most unique all-around talents in the League
From the time he burst onto the scene as a high school phenom at Oak Hill Academy (VA), Smith has always been a threat to send ill-advised layups into the fifth row. But the 24-year-old Atlanta Hawks star has learned how to play the pro game at two positions (small forward and power forward), and has since become a defender who can wreak havoc on an opposing scorer by doing more than just swatting a shot or two per night.
Going into his seventh season, Smith is ready to challenge for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Smith placed second in the DPOY voting last season behind Dwight Howard in a landslide, Howard’s second straight honor. And while Dwight could easily put together a string of 4-5 trophies in a row recognizing him as the game’s top defender, Smith is improving at such a high rate that he can very well snatch the award from right under Howard’s nose.
Aside from putting up All-Star caliber numbers (15.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 4.2 apg, 1.6 spg, 2.1 bpg) and helping guide the Hawks to the second round of the playoffs, Smith also became the youngest player in NBA history to reach 1,000 career blocks. He was also the shortest player at 6-foot-9 to rank in the top 10 in blocks (2.1 bpg) and top 10 in steals (1.6 spg). In terms of defensive WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player), Smith created 15.3 wins for the Hawks on his defensive talents alone, the highest number in the League for a power forward. Howard registered 19.2 defensive WARP as a center.
But in order for Smith to be considered anything more than a spectacular weakside shot-blocker and thief, he’s going to have to make Atlanta better defensively as a whole. The Hawks ranked 14th last season in defensive efficiency — Smith ranked 4th individually in defensive win shares — and tied for 13th in Defensive Plays Rate (charges, steals, blocks).
Defense wins in the NBA, and the Hawks will be a better defensive team this year thanks in part to replacing aging PG Mike Bibby with youngster Jeff Teague (ideally cutting down on opposing dribble-penetration) and acquiring rugged vet Etan Thomas to help Al Horford and Smith defend the paint. Smith will be the lynchpin of that defense, both in guarding his position and making the highlight reels every night, two key components in winning the support of DPOY voters.
With consistent play on the court and smart decision-making, I expect big things from J-Smoove this season as he makes a run for the DPOY award. Smith has an extremely high ceiling and a chance to become the League’s best one-on-one defender (Howard is only average in this area) while carrying Atlanta on his back defensively. Oh, and not to mention he’s left-handed with a 7-foot wingspan, which gives him an advantage in blocking and altering the shots of right-handed players.
Who are your favorites for 2011 Defensive Player of the Year?