When Josh Smith was a boy, he would tag along when his father, Pete, drove his 18-wheeler up and down the northern corridor from his base in Smyrna, Ga., sometimes for weeks at a time. As the youngest boy of five kids, it was an opportunity for Josh to spend quality time with his dad, and he treasured it. Still, he soon determined that this truck-driving stuff wasn't so hard, and he let his dad know. So one day Pete found a big, empty cornfield, stepped onto the running board and told his 11-year-old son, "You say you can drive the truck, let's see it." And Josh did. "Pretty good, too," recalls Pete.
Another time, when he was about five, Josh announced he could swim, despite never having had a lesson. His mother, Paulette, didn't pay him any mind until, looking out the window one afternoon, she saw Josh jump into the family pool. Sure that her son was about to drown, Paulette, sprinted across the yard and leaped in after him, fully clothed. But no rescue was necessary; Josh was already swimming.
A similar phenomenon occurred in sports. Josh took up track and immediately became an elite sprinter. He began playing basketball in the fifth grade—after years of showing no interest—and was soon one of the Atlanta area's top talents. "Once you tell him he can't do something, he's going to try to prove you wrong," explains Pete. "He's always been that way."
So imagine how hard it was for Josh—now all grown up at 24 and producing All-Star numbers as a power forward for the Hawks, who are paying him $58 million—to finally admit that no matter how hard he tries, he can't shoot three-pointers.
Well, it's not that he can't. It's just that he isn't very good at it, though not for lack of trying. Drafted as a 19-year-old out of Oak Hill Academy in 2004, Smith launched with abandon after his rookie season. Three years ago he attempted 152 threes and made only 38 (25.0%). In the next two seasons he hoisted 99 and 87 (hitting 25.3% and 29.9%, respectively). Naturally, this frustrated Atlanta coach Mike Woodson to no end. Woodson's view: You're 6'9"; you've won an NBA Slam Dunk Contest; no one can stop you at the rim. So why the hell are you shooting threes? Smith's counter: Because I can hit them. Really, I can.
And so it went until this fall, when Smith showed up at training camp and, unprompted, announced he was done with three-balls—just like that, cold turkey. Teammates took a wait-and-see attitude. Hawks fans were downright skeptical. On a poll on one blog, Peachtree Hoops, 32% of the 175 respondents, when asked whether Smith's claim to halt three-point bombing was either A) a good thing or B) a bad thing, went with C) "He says he is going to quit. He is not going to quit."
Yet, as guard Joe Johnson says, "he's been a man of his word." Through Sunday, Smith had attempted only six threes, and most have been of the desperation-heave variety.
Instead, Smith is looking to make plays (his assist average is up to 4.2 from 2.5 last season), driving to the hoop (1.3 more attempts at the rim per game, according to Hoopdata.com) and crashing the offensive boards (2.7, up from 1.9). When he does spot up for jumpers now, he stays inside 19 feet, where he's more accurate (not to mention closer to the hoop closer for a rebound or shot-fake and drive).
It may seem like a minor change, but the effect has been profound. At week's end Smith was averaging 15.9 points and shooting 51.4%, the highest of his career, emerging as an increasingly valuable player on a team that has overtaken the Celtics for the third spot in the Eastern Conference. When he's on the floor, the Hawks, who were 42--23 through Sunday, are a whopping 15.2 points better per 100 possessions than when he's not. (With the All-Star Johnson, by comparison, the team is only 8.6 points better). Of course this increased proficiency is not due solely to his shooting discretion—as Woodson puts it, Smith is "starting to understand time, score and situation better," and he should make the All-Defensive team this year—but it's an important factor. "It's done wonders for us because it's keeping him around the basket, where he's more effective," says Johnson. "I think he's figured it out."
Yet when Smith talks about shooting threes, he sounds an awful lot like a recovering addict. "I just don't put myself in that situation where I'm tempted to do it, because I probably will," he said while sitting in his hotel room during a recent road trip. "If I find myself dangling around the perimeter, I'll move in a couple of steps." Making it even tougher is that most of his friends don't understand why he's on the wagon. "They tell me to shoot them because they know I can, they've seen me do it...." Smith trails off, stares through the TV, then continues. "I'm O.K., though. I just feel like it's not a need right now."