Josh Smith has not known what it’s like to blend in considering he was towering over his classmates even in elementary school.
Through much of his adolescence, he carried his outsize dimensions more like a burden than a blessing and sometimes was teased because even the biggest gym uniform was too small. But as Smith learned to exploit his height and heft on a basketball court — first with his AAU team, the Seattle Rotary, and then with Kentwood (Wash.) High, which he led to a state championship — he found himself blanketed in honors, a McDonald’s all-American coveted by college recruiters nationwide.
But size can be as fickle as fame when not managed properly. And as Smith’s weight ballooned during his first two seasons at UCLA, he was relegated to the bench, a 6-foot-10, 350-pound testament to squandered potential.
Nearly a year has gone by since Smith quit the Bruins and transferred to Georgetown. Friday in South Korea, he’ll make his return to college basketball when he suits up for the season opener against 19th-ranked Oregon.
Georgetown has offered Smith a second chance to assert himself as a force in college basketball. If he takes full advantage, Smith, in turn, offers Georgetown a partial remedy for the void left by Otto Porter Jr., who led the team in nearly every statistical category last season before bolting early for the NBA.
If the relationship flourishes, Smith may one day join the list of heralded Georgetown-schooled NBA centers such as Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and Roy Hibbert. Smith has met Ewing, Mutombo and Hibbert since enrolling on the Hilltop last January — he was allowed to practice but not compete under the NCAA’s transfer rules — and said he has taken their tips about hard work to heart.
“Part of the reason I wanted to come here is this was a good big-man school,” Smith said earlier this week. “I felt that with what I could do to help the team, we could become a better team. And I’ve been just listening to the coaching staff and players, trying to do everything they been asking me to.”
Signing Smith was not without risk, said Georgetown Coach John Thompson III, who recruited him in high school and more recently studied tape and spoke with those close to him to get a sense of Smith’s character.
“Without a doubt, just looking at his history, there is risk,” Thompson said. “A big risk — literally and figuratively. But at the end of the day, it’s worth taking that risk.”
The history that gives Thompson pause shows up in Smith’s UCLA statistics; they were less impressive with each year. His scoring average went from 10.9 points per game as a freshman to 5.2 six games into his junior season; his rebounding average regressed from 6.3 to 4.2 per game. As his fitness waned, he couldn’t stay on the court for an extended time and was cycled in for two- and three-minute bursts.
Still, former Virginia Tech coach turned ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg sees no downside in bringing Smith into the Hoyas fold.
“You’re talking about a kid with unlimited potential, good hands, great feet, great bounce,” Greenberg said. “When the ball is in his hands, he’s a special player. I watched him in practice at UCLA last summer, and I was amazed at his great footwork and explosiveness for a kid that size. It’s going to come down to how many minutes he can play consecutively. He’s a winning talent, but is he a winning player? What is his commitment to being a winning player?”
That, Thompson notes, is entirely in Smith’s control.
“He has all the physical tools to possibly be in that category” of top Georgetown centers, Thompson said. “But it takes a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication. He realizes that. He’s at the point now where it’s squarely on him.”
When Smith started playing AAU ball, in fifth or sixth grade, he was “a giant compared to other kids,” recalls Rotary Coach Daryll Hennings. In those early years, Smith played basketball because adults told him he should, and he was effective simply because of his size. He could see over other kids and developed a knack for passing, which played into his unselfish nature. Meantime, Hennings focused on his conditioning and self-esteem, finding ways to boost both when he’d finish last in running drills.
It wasn’t until his high school years that Smith realized he could actually be a special player, with a little work. He was among three standouts on the Rotary, along with Peyton Siva (the former Louisville guard now with the Detroit Pistons) and Tony Wroten, currently with the Philadelphia 76ers.
“He started getting a little notoriety,” Hennings said. “Instead of walking around with his head down, he started being proud of being a big guy.”
It all seemed to click his senior year, said his former high school coach, Michael Angelidis, who had grown accustomed to Smith’s fun-loving nature spilling onto the court at age 15 and 16. He was a child in a man’s body, and both his play and work ethic were inconsistent. But his gifts were obvious, and they weren’t strictly physical or necessarily taught. “Somehow the ball seemed to land in his hands,” Angelidis said, crediting Smith with carrying the team to the state title.
“Different kids mature at different ages,” Angelidis said. “When Josh is at his best, he really is a force to be reckoned with. He can be devastating.”
Neither Hennings nor Angelidis knows exactly where Smith got off track at UCLA. A Sports Illustrated expose later chronicled a lack of discipline in the program, divisions among players and scant supervision off the court. But both sensed their former player was unhappy as the weight piled on.
Smith had not visited the District before last December, when he and his mother attended Georgetown’s game against American at Verizon Center as he mulled his transfer options. He knew about the Hoyas’ basketball history but ended up being equally taken with the coaching staff and the university. What sold his mother on his enrolling at a school 2,800 miles away, Smith said, was John Thompson Jr.
“She really liked his personality, seeing it was a family-oriented group,” said Smith, who has made marked strides with his conditioning these last months, according to Thompson and his teammates. “The coaches don’t just care about what’s on the court; they care about you off the court.”