Jason Smith has found a myriad of ways to make himself useful this season.
Before Smith filled in as Washington’s backup center, he was the Wizards’ union representative who became the living embodiment of an ‘FAQ’ for teammates during the new collective bargaining agreement negotiations. Then there’s his role as in-game peace maker: When Smith sees a teammate about to lose his cool at an official, he will walk over and station his seven-foot body in front of his guy with the intention of shielding him from a technical foul.
He’s the first to stand and applaud a player’s performance, even if he hasn’t yet stripped off his own warmups. And he’s the last to accept credit for his own work.
Part of this explains why, on Friday night, when John Wall enjoyed a career night with 20 assists in a 112-107 win against the Chicago Bulls, he saved his highest praise for Smith, who was in the starting lineup — in place of Markieff Morris — for the first time in over a year and tied a season-high with 17 points.
Smith is “probably one of the true professional teammates I’ve ever had,” Wall said.
Although Smith’s contributions to the Wizards can seem anecdotal (good guys deserve a spot in the locker room, but are they worth a three-year, $16 million deal?), his work on the court has been just as valuable. He has remained relevant in the Wizards’ offensive system by developing into a floor-stretching center who can knock down threes.
“Really just working on it,” Smith said, explaining his career-high 16 three-pointers this season. “The coaches have confidence in me in shooting that. I know I don’t want to try and force it but if I’m open, go ahead and shoot it.”
In his previous eight years in the league, Smith averaged at most 1.6 three-point shots per 36 minutes, which happened in his second season, and never attempted more than 42 in a single season. But during the Wizards’ win over Chicago, Smith made 3 of 6 from beyond the arc and brought his season total to 16 for 30. Early in the game, as Smith played with the starters, he was not shy, taking four shots within the opening five minutes, which trailed only Bradley Beal’s five attempts in quantity.
“He was trying to lead the league in scoring in that first half, right?” Coach Scott Brooks joked. “He was good. You know what, he plays the right way. I know everybody says that, but he plays the right way. He gives you great effort, he runs our offense, he plays with great energy offensively, and defensively he gets in our pick-and-roll coverage. He contests shots.
“He’s one of the few guys that can go from in the paint, to contesting or blocking a three-point shot with his length, and his activity, and his athleticism. I thought John and Brad did a great job of finding him for open looks. When you have a lot of shooters on the floor, you’re going to have opportunities to pick your poison, and he was the guy that John was finding throughout that first half.”
Smith’s offensive renaissance was a conscious decision to round out his game ahead of his ninth season. So he practiced three-point shooting.
“Evolve or die,” Smith said. “The way the game’s going, it’s not pounded inside anymore. It’s run and gun, shooting outside shots.”
After he agreed to his free-agent deal with the Wizards, Smith developed a bond with player development coach David Adkins and staffers. They spent the days and days inside the Verizon Center practice facility, and from those summer sessions, a shooting confidence bloomed.
“I just put in the work with the coaches here,” Smith said. “I think Dave Adkins has been great. He’s been with me since I signed, trying to get workouts going. He’s really helped me on having confidence shooting the ball from outside.”
Although when Morris returns to the starting lineup, Smith may not be a lock for rotational minutes. He’s dealt with the surprise playing assignments ever since Ian Mahinmi got healthy and took over the backup center minutes. However, even if he’s on the bench, the resourceful Smith still earns respect from his teammates.
“He could play games then go to his hometown in Denver and get no minutes and doesn’t complain and will be the first guy there clapping, enjoying his teammates and encouraging guys to play on,” Wall said of Smith. “So it’s great for him to play well. He brings a lot of energy to our team. He’s just one of those guys that you always want to find minutes for but sometimes it’s hard.”