ATLANTA — Josh Smith can still come across as nothing more than a big kid.
He bounces around the court with an obvious love for the game, wowing teammates and opponents with the depth of his skills.
That’s the good Josh.
Then there’s those times when he throws up a head-scratching shot, or petulantly whines to officials about a call that doesn’t go his way.
That’s the bad Josh.
These days, the former shows up a lot more than the latter for the Atlanta Hawks.
Make no mistake, J-Smoove has grown up.
“Is there some things he still needs to work on? Absolutely. He’ll be the first to admit that,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said. “But he’s really starting to understand the type of player that he can become.”
Smith’s maturity couldn’t have come at a better time in Atlanta, which was dealt a huge blow in January when All-Star center Al Horford ripped a pectoral muscle and underwent surgery that kept him for the rest of the regular season (and at least the first round of the playoffs).
Into the void stepped Smith, a player who’s always been treated with equal parts awe and contempt in the city where he was born, raised and has spent his entire career. No one ever doubted his talent, but there’s always been a sense that he never quite lived up to his enormous potential.
Now, it’s hard to imagine where the Hawks might be if Smith hadn’t taken his game to a new level. They certainly wouldn’t have put up the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference, gaining home-court advantage for an opening-round series against Boston.
Game 1 is Sunday.
“When he’s competing and playing at a high level,” Drew said, “he’s as good as anybody in this league.”
Smith averaged a career-best 18.8 points a game, led the Hawks in rebounding (9.6) and did his usual stellar job at the defensive end.
“This was definitely a year where I was productive,” Smith said. “Basically, it was just showing everybody what I always had in my game.”