Sitting inside a hotel conference room isn’t the ideal spot for R & R, but someone has to do it. Soon enough, the selfless Smith will find another seat.
After the extended break, Smith, whose marked improvement as the second-unit center has followed the trajectory of the ascendant Wizards, will likely see a reduction of minutes as the team looks to further integrate Ian Mahinmi.
“What he’s done the last two or three months is what he’s done his entire career and he’s been terrific,” Coach Scott Brooks said of Smith. “But if you have a good team, everybody’s going to have to sacrifice. It’s not just Jason, starters are going to have to sacrifice.”
Last July when the Wizards reached an agreement with Smith on a three-year deal, the intention was to bolster the frontcourt depth behind Mahinmi — the team’s biggest free agent acquisition. However, Mahinmi missed 50 games because of various knee ailments and Smith stepped up, initially as an emergency fill-in but over the months he has cemented himself as a serviceable backup to starter Marcin Gortat.
“With me I just go out there,” Smith said, simplifying his role, “and play hard.
“Play good defense. Communicate on defense and try to be in the right spots on defense.”
Through November, Smith’s production mirrored the dismal start of the second unit. No bench player could be trusted to play long minutes and Smith averaged only 12.5 minutes over the first full month. Smith’s jumper was errant (34.8 percent shooting) and his rim protection was suspect (1.6 defensive rebounds and 0.5 blocks per game). This season-opening slump has passed, and now Brooks can look back and make light of those spiraling times.
“He didn’t shoot the ball well that first month, I was really starting to question Ernie [Grunfeld],” Brooks joked.
Since Dec. 1, Smith has rediscovered his stroke — even stretching out for opportunistic corner three-pointers where he’s shooting 43.8 percent. Also, Smith has contributed 6.2 points and 3.8 total rebounds in 14 minutes per night. Over that same stretch, the Wizards (33-21) have the best record in the Eastern Conference.
“He’s been on fire,” Brooks said.
Now, the team needs Mahinmi to catch some of those flames. Mahinmi returned to action Feb. 8 and has appeared in the past three games, playing no more than 15 minutes, 13 seconds. Since his return, Mahinmi has seen some minutes on the floor with Smith. When paired together, Smith floats to the interchangeable four position while Mahinmi anchors as the center.
“He’s still trying to get into the motion and still working into the plays and that’s going to happen,” Smith said. “We want to give him a sense of structure and get him rolling into the plays. If we think about how we were at the beginning of the season, we were kind of the same way. We were trying to figure out the plays, we were trying to figure out the defensive calls. So we understand where Ian is at. We just got to help him the best we can and that’s a big part on me too because we play the same position.”
Although adjusting to the minutes restriction while trying to find a playing rhythm has been “tough,” Mahinmi said, he still believes the team will play it safe during Washington’s final game before break against the Indiana Pacers. Once the games resume Feb. 24, however, things should change.
“It’s about winning the game and moving to the next game, that’s what all the good teams have done and we want to be a good team in this league,” Brooks said. “So if Jason does get squeezed off some minutes, he’s a team guy. He’s never going to complain, but I like how he’s playing.”
So much to like that Brooks may have a problem keeping Smith off the floor.
“My job is to find him a role because he makes shots, he blocks shots, he gets in our defensive coverage, he’s athletic,” Brooks continued. “He’s done some good things for us the last two or three months, he deserves to stay in.”