Finally, Smith Is Comfortable

Cleveland's Joe Smith, with the Wizards' Darius Songaila, right, has had
Cleveland's Joe Smith, with the Wizards' Darius Songaila, right, has had "a pretty good and consistent career." (By David Liam Kyle -- Nbae Via Getty Images)
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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 2008

Cleveland Cavaliers forward Joe Smith sat in front of his locker room stall on Thursday night with his baseball cap pulled down to just above his eyebrows, extra large headphones wrapped around his neck and dozens of envelopes scattered around his feet.

The former Maryland star was preparing to play a playoff game for the first time in his "second home," but he appeared to be more flustered about filling out the ticket requests for his family and friends.

"It is kind of tough to say no," Smith said, lifting a stack of envelopes from the ground to fill 28 ticket requests.

Did he say "no"?

"No," said Smith, a native of Norfolk. "What makes it even more special is to share this experience with my family -- my uncles, my brothers, my sisters. Everybody that's able to come up and make the games, they're all basketball fanatics. This is something that's good for me to be able to share with them."

It's been almost 13 years since the Golden State Warriors used the No. 1 overall pick to pluck Smith, a skinny player with an ordinary name and an awesome jump shot. In the time since he left College Park as an all-American and national player of the year, Smith hasn't changed much physically, but he has frequently changed addresses -- from Golden State to Philadelphia, to Minnesota, to Detroit, back to Minnesota, to Milwaukee, Denver, back to Philadelphia, Chicago and now Cleveland.

Smith, 32, has moved around so much -- via five trades and four free agent signings -- that when he joined Cleveland during a three-team, 11-player deal at the trade deadline in February, it served as somewhat of a reunion. Smith played four seasons with Szczerbiak in Minnesota, and one each with Ben Wallace in Detroit and Damon Jones in Milwaukee.

"We all hope and wish, when you start, that you are going to be on the same team your entire career," Smith said with a shrug. "But it don't happen too often anymore."

Smith has established himself as a valued reserve for the Cavaliers, with his ability to rebound and spread the floor on offense. He averaged 8.1 points and five rebounds in 27 regular season games with Cleveland. After going scoreless in just nine minutes in Game 1, Smith has scored a combined 17 points with eight rebounds in the past two games.

"He's a very, very classy guy," Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown said. "He's a utility guy. He can do a number of things very, very good and sometimes excellent. So, he's been a big lift for us, on the floor, off the floor and in the locker room."

Smith has career averages of 11.9 points and 6.9 rebounds, but despite his longevity, he is aware that his production may not match what most expect from a former No. 1 pick. He has never made an all-star team, and he hasn't been a full-time starter in three years -- despite starting 35 games for the Bulls this season.

"People are going to have different opinions of [my career]," he said. "Being a number one pick, obviously, people have different expectations for guys like myself. But if you ask me, it's been a pretty good and consistent career."

Smith said he struggled with living up to the hype early in his career, but found a way to become a solid role player everywhere he has been. And he's done it without complaint. "He's kind of fit into a lot of different situations than most guys with his status, where coming out of college, you would have to adjust to him," Jones said.

His best season was 1996-97, when averaged 18.7 points and 8.5 rebounds for the Golden State Warriors, but he hasn't averaged as much as 15 points in any season since. He said he began to make the mental transition from having to be a franchise savior to another guy on the roster after he was traded from Golden State to Philadelphia, where he had to play alongside Allen Iverson. The next season, he signed with Minnesota and teamed with Kevin Garnett.

"Once I went to different teams and I experienced different roles on different teams, my role was to be a consistent player," he said. "I didn't want to put too much pressure on myself anymore. I just wanted to go out there, have fun playing the game."

Smith has been to the playoffs six times, but he has never been on a team that advanced out of the first round. The trade from Chicago has given him his best opportunity to advance -- his previous teams in Minnesota and Milwaukee never had home-court advantage in the first round -- and possibly win a championship. "That's what you hope for," Smith said. "To be put in position to do something special through a trade, was pretty good. A lot of people are on vacation right now."

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