Interview: Josh Smith… ready, willing, able to return to NBA

Josh Smith is waiting for a call from an NBA team.

After growing up in Atlanta and being drafted by the Atlanta Hawks years later, Josh Smith still calls the city home.

Smith, who had the famous moniker of “J-Smoove,” is best known now as “Dad.” He has three children and another child on the way. He goes to all of their events, works out at a local Atlanta gym and maintains a close relationship with his father Pete.

Considering Smith has played 13 years in the NBA for five teams and a season in China, it’s hard to fathom he’s only 32-years old. He is younger than LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. Yet Smith, who posts career averages of 14.5 points and 7.4 rebounds, has appeared in just three NBA games since 2016.

“I live in Atlanta. I was born and raised, so it’s kind of hard to leave,” Smith told Amico Hoops during a phone interview. “I’ve been working out, keeping my body healthy and ready, so if someone decides to call on me, I’ll be ready to go right away.”

In 2004, after originally committing to Indiana University, Smith went straight to the NBA out of high school. His unique, versatile talent is ironically what today’s NBA has geared toward, and led to the success of players such as Draymond Green. He was, in essence, light years ahead of his time. The natural ability was a gift and blended with his hard work, it created a basketball prodigy.

“We started working on certain skill levels, and he picked it up real easy and damn there he go he made the NBA,” his father, Pete Smith, told Amico Hoops. “That was something that we weren’t planning for, but it just happened.”

At just 18 years of age, the hometown Hawks chose the 6-foot-9 Smith with the 17th overall pick in the 2004 NBA draft.

“At first, I didn’t want to get drafted by my city, because I have been here all my life,” Smith said.

Still, it ended up being one of the best possible things to happen to Smith then. He was able to grab dinner at his mother’s house, be near his siblings and friends and his father would even drive him to games.

“Being at home,” Pete Smith said. “You know that way we wouldn’t have to split the family up … it turned out to be a blessing because we spent nine great years with the Hawks.”

HOLDING COURT

On the floor, Smith played for a team that would eventually have success it hadn’t had in years. He became the youngest player in NBA history to reach 500 blocks, then 1,000 blocks and record 10 blocks in a game. At one point Smith was seen as one of the best defenders in the NBA, while his offensive impact was becoming a force with which to be reckoned. During his nine years in Atlanta, he never missed more than 16 games in a season, he was always healthy and reliable.

While his individual reputation was growing, the Hawks made the playoffs  six years in a row from 2008-13 during his tenure. Led by Smith, Joe Johnson, Jamal Crawford, Al Horford and Jeff Teague, the Hawks made the second round of the playoffs multiple times. However, even with such a formidable team, they couldn’t take the next step.

“I feel like we didn’t get the opportunity to reach our full potential,” Smith said. “I kinda feel like it was a premature decision to break up the team.”

The team was not only cohesive on the court, but like brothers off of it. Smith says he still talks to many of the players including Johnson, Horford and Marvin Williams to this day. Johnson and Zaza Pachulia are still his neighbors in Atlanta.

MOVING ON

Unfortunately, the departure of Johnson, in the long run, helped the organization, but in the short term, hindered the Smith- and Horford-led Hawks. Two seasons after the trade of Johnson that dismantled the once-promising core of the Hawks, Smith also departed from the only city that he had ever known. He signed a $54 million contract with the Detroit Pistons at the age of 26. There, he joined a promising young core with a dominant frontcourt of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe.

Joe Dumars was more so my guy than anybody else when I came into free agency,” Smith said of the former Pistons general manager.

In a similar fashion, the Pistons didn’t get to see the roster all the way through, just like the Hawks. Smith cited how he was playing the small forward position for the Pistons. During his nine years in Atlanta, he was a power forward, and with Drummond and Monroe, there was no way to have him play anywhere else except small forward.

Regardless, he would only play a year and a half in a Pistons uniform as a new head coach and head of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy abruptly released Smith 28 games into the 2014 season. Considering his near-$15 million-a-year salary and the fact he was averaging 13 points and seven rebounds per game, this came as a huge shock to the NBA world. One of the things Smith pointed out was the fact Dumars was the one who brought him to Detroit. The season he was released was the season Dumars was replaced by Van Gundy.

“Me and Stan Van Gundy had a sitdown,” Smith said. “He basically was telling me about how he was going into a younger direction with the organization. It was going to be like a semi-rebuilding process and he didn’t want me to go through that process with the young guys.

“He said he tried to trade me to a couple teams. He said he didn’t like the offers so he just decided to waive me.”

The release had its positives. He still makes over $5 million annually because the Pistons stretched his contract until 2020. In addition, he was able to handpick his next landing spot, as opposed to if Van Gundy had traded him. He landed with the Houston Rockets, where he again thrived, playing in their final 55 regular-season games, and making his first trip to the Western Conference finals.

He averaged more than 13 points a game in the playoffs and found himself being the Rockets legitimate third option behind James Harden and Dwight Howard.

“That was a great organization to play for,” Smith said. “That was an organization that lets you be yourself… It was a great experience for me to be a part of that organization the fans were amazing.”

Unfortunately, the Rockets and Smith couldn’t come to an agreement after the season. Therefore, he took his talents to Los Angeles to play for the Clippers, a decision he regrets.

“I should of never went out there,” Smith said, laughing.

He wishes he had stayed in Houston, but for some reason, the Rockets would not budge when it came time to talk money. As Smith explains, he was only offered the minimum, and after such a successful season it was a tough pill to swallow.

“In the beginning of free agency, they offered LaMarcus Aldridge the max,” Smith said. “I was just trying to get like $2 more million on top of what the veteran’s minimum is.”

MOVING ON, AGAIN

More bad news for Smith was on the horizon, he just didn’t know it. Trying out a new situation and living in beautiful Los Angeles would have a lot more cons than pros. Because of the contract being for only one season, Smith was not with his family and kids, something that was foreign to him.

Being an active dad and a good husband was put on hold and sacrificed in order to play for the Clippers.

But Smith didn’t think the sacrifices were mutual. Leaving his family behind just to average 14 minutes per game and play in just 32 games before getting traded was an unfortunate turn of events.

“I’m talking to (Clippers coach) Doc Rivers… he’s selling me all this fool’s gold,” Smith said.

When asked to elaborate on the “fool’s gold,” Smith shared what Rivers said to him before he signed with the Clippers — “first big off the bench playing 20-25 minutes a game.”

Unfortunately for Smith, that didn’t happen. This led to a trade back to Houston, but it just wasn’t the same. He had spent the year without his family, and not been getting a lot of playing time in Los Angeles. He wasn’t himself and didn’t receive the same kind of opportunity upon his return to Houston. This would be the final season he would play in the NBA — before playing just three games last season after not appearing in any during 2016-17 .

MILLION-DOLLAR QUESTION

So what happened? How did such a talented player, a good husband and family man, and someone who has never been in trouble with the law get so lost in the shuffle? Smith was a good NBA player, at one point, maybe even a great NBA player, and in 2011, he averaged 18.8 points per game and 9.6 rebounds per game on a contending Eastern Conference team but didn’t get voted by the coaches into the All-Star Game.

Why was he never voted an All-Star?

“That’s a great question,” Smith said when asked why he was never an All-Star. “Me, personally, (I feel) I should have been an All-Star once or twice in my career,” he later stated.

In fact, Smith was so frustrated one time that he didn’t make the All-Star team, that he got advice from NBA-veteran and fellow All-Star snub, Mike Bibby.

“I was like super frustrated one time. I didn’t make it when I really believed in my heart I should’ve made it,” Smith shared. “Mike B. was like, ‘man, don’t even worry about that, that’s just politics. Just focus on doing the right things for your team,’” Smith recalled. “After that, I took those words and I absorbed them and I applied them to how I handled every All-Star kind of snub.”

Maybe the disconnect was that Smith wasn’t ever afraid to say something… he wore his emotions on his sleeves, and sometimes others can’t handle that.

“I say stuff that people don’t want to say,” Smith said. “I don’t have hidden feelings.”

ALL ABOUT TEAM

On the other hand, Smith was an extremely likable teammate and guy. The disconnect must have been coming from those who weren’t in the heat of battle with him.

“If you interview any of my teammates, they’ll tell you I’m probably one of their favorite teammates,” Smith said. “I’m all about team.”

He isn’t just saying this, one of his teammates, with whom he only played one season, agreed with that sentiment.

“He’s just grinding getting ready for his opportunity,” Memphis Grizzlies point guard Shelvin Mack, a former teammate whom worked out with Smith in the summer, told Amico Hoops after their season opener in Indianapolis. “I wish him nothing but the best.”

Smith is as real as it gets. He is old school; he doesn’t have a Twitter, he takes his family time extremely serious and describes himself as a very private person. However, The most old-school thing about him? He has the ultimate competitive drive. When reminded of celebrating a playoff series win with Larry Drew, the tone in his voice could be felt; the man just wants to win.

“I think every aspect of my life boils down to just wanting to win,” Smith said. “I just want to win. I want to win games, I want to win in life, I want to win at being the best dad ever, I’m working on being the best husband ever. I want to win.”

The former Slam Dunk Champion knows he still has a place in the NBA, and even if it can’t be a key contributor on the floor he is willing to be that guy off the floor. He is willing to accept a role as a mentor, something that’s becoming somewhat of a lost art in the NBA.

“They’re taking out the veterans,” Smith said. “You need at least a couple of them that’s been in the trenches.

“I guarantee you if it was like two good veterans on that Minnesota team, none of that would have ever came out in the media about how that practice (with Jimmy Butler) went or the practice would have never went that way.”

At 32, there are still plenty of teams that could use a Josh Smith. He is a capable veteran for just about any team in the league. In an on-court or an off-court role, he would succeed.

“You can never judge a book by its cover until you open up a book and read it yourself,” Smith said. “You’ll never understand a book if someone tells you what they read about the book

“It’s always different things that people pick up from the story or the book that they read.”

The former NBA All-Defensive second-team selection will be ready, and his agent, Wallace Prather, who he still talks to every day, deserves a phone call from an NBA team this season.

“I’m hungry… that has never left, Smith said. “Whenever I get that opportunity, that team is going to be very appreciative on how I handle it.”