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Great athletes seem to have distinctive names. Shaquille. LeBron. Magic. The only Smiths in the baseball Hall Of Fame are the exotically named Hilton and Ozzie. The lone Smith in the NBA Hall is Dean.
According to Google, the ordinarily named Josh Smith is not only a swingman for the Atlanta Hawks, he is also a fullback at the University of Alabama, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania; a blues singer/guitarist from Florida; a professional billiards player in Nevada (2004 winnings: $950).
Their names may be the same, but it's doubtful any of those Josh Smith's can do anything like Josh Smith of the Atlanta Hawks, the most exciting player in the NBA that you probably know nothing about.
In all three Hawks wins in December, Smith played a key role. Against Philly on Dec. 6, Smith finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds, and was the most active player on the floor, dunking everything, blocking shots, grabbing boards. "I was about ready to pull him and then he dunked the ball," Hawks coach Mike Woodson noted after the game. "I said, 'Well, what the hell, I better leave him in there.'" Just before Christmas, Smith blocked 10 shots at Dallas. Smith is the only starting two guard in the NBA to rank in the top 40 (Smith's 19th) in blocks per game.
Even more impressive than Smith's defense is his athleticism. He's shooting 51-percent from the floor this season, mostly because all he does is dunk. Reverses, tomahawks, alley-oops -- if the ball is near the rim, Smith will go get it and throw it down. In fact, Smith is exactly what the NBA needs to reinvigorate the Slam Dunk Contest. ("They haven't asked me, but I definitely want to be in it," Smith says.)
Smith grew up in Atlanta, and played on the Atlanta Celtics AAU team, alongside a murderer's row of current Kentucky center Randolph Morris and NBA Rookie of the Year candidate Dwight Howard. When the Hawks plucked Smith with the 17th pick in the first round, ESPN's college basketball analyst, Jay Bilas -- my co-worker Khalid swears Bilas looks like Bruce Wayne -- sat up straight and proclaimed that Smith was the player in the Draft "most likely to be a bust."
A few weeks after the Draft, Smith played for the Hawks' summer league team. "In our last game there," recalls Arthur Triche, the Hawks VP of Communications, "Josh had a play where he blocked somebody, got back to the other end of the floor and slammed it in. I was here through the end of Dominique's years, and I haven't seen anyone like this since. Especially a left-handed player? Please!"
Bust this, Bilas: after three months, Smith ranks seventh among NBA rookies in points per game (7.6 per) and fifth in rebounds (4.6 per). "I knew I was gonna get some stuff off early on," Smith says. "Now I'm focusing on my jump shot, working out with one of the coaches and staying after practice to get more confidence in it."
And then there's the name thing. Since Josh Smith sounds so plain, a good nickname is almost compulsory. Early on, Hawks play-by-play announcer Bob Neal tagged Smith "The Guilty Pleasure," which sounds more like a carb-laden dessert than a thrilling NBA player. Over the Philips Arena PA system, Smith is known as "J-Smoove," which would be terrific if he were a gangsta rapper.
Last week, I presented Smith with a list of possible nicknames submitted by SLAMonline readers, including Coming Attraction, The Insurgent (because he blows up), The Myth, The Escalator.
"I like The ATLien," Smith decided, referencing OutKast's seminal 1996 record, which dropped before they were popular. The name's a good fit. Like OutKast, Smith is from Atlanta, and has given Atlantans something to feel good about. Also like OutKast, Smith is about to explode across the national scene. On Friday night, Josh had his own highlight suite on SportsCenter, and last week he rated a feature story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
It's tough in print to describe Smith's exploits, but look at pics No. 3, 7, 10 or 12 here. The Hawks have needed a player like this for about a decade. The NBA could reap Josh's benefits on All-Star Weekend. And Josh himself is ready to give what was once the league's most talked-about event a shot of his signature athleticism. Provided, of course, he's even invited to take part.
"I don't even practice dunks," he laughs. "I guess I gotta start thinking about stuff. Right now I really don't have nothing planned. Although I did a between the legs dunk in high school."
"No, during a game."
Atlanta, we got us a keeper. Now, Stu Jackson and the NBA League Office, this one's on you. Should be a slam dunk.
Game Of The Week
Thanks to Will Duncan for e-mailing this in. It's a catapult game where you adjust the variables, from gravity to counterweight. It's almost too technical for me, but nerds out there will probably love it.
The Life Shoequatic Of The Week
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou disappointed me, but when I saw the movie I noticed the Team Zissou adidas the crew wore and wondered if they'd be available in stores. For now, the answer is no, but here's how you can make a difference.
Bloopers Of The Week
While we're talking movies, here's a list of the 15 biggest film screw-ups of 2004. Actually, this is a pretty cool site. I spent 10 minutes reading through the page with all the errors and trivia from Ocean's Eleven. As Linus (Matt Damon) says, it's as long as my...well, it's long.
Lang Whitaker is the online editor at SLAM magazine and writes daily at SLAMonline.com. He's still waiting for Josh Childress to realize he's in the NBA.