Well, my friends, the time has come
Raise the roof and have some fun
Throw away the work to be done
Let the music play on....
-Lionel Richie, 1984
We may Karamu and Fiesta forever, but our countdown of our Top 10 Hawks (and more) of the Decade has come to its end.
We've shared a lot of memories over the last couple of months, from the top events to top statistical efforts to finally our list of the Top 10 (and more) players of the decade.
What's that? Haven't seen them? Where have you been? They are all conveniently linked here:
Most have conquered the guessing game but allowed the illusion to continue (see #2 for some spirited "guessing" in the comments area) until today, the day we celebrate THHB's Number One Hawk of the Decade.
No player captured the imagination, passion, and conversation as this player did pretty much from the moment they drafted him. He has not made an All-Star game, has driven even the most ardent supporters crazy, and has become (for better or worse) the face of the franchise.
The Number One Hawk of the Decade is:
Going into the 2004 NBA Draft, the Hawks had hoped to be in position to draft their their local talent, a player revered for his athletic talent and ability on the court, and unlimited upside.
Unfortunately, the Hawks lost the lottery and their chance to land Dwight Howard.
Josh Smith was a typical huge upside pick due to his own fantastic athleticism but his stock began to drop before the draft upon the basis of how raw a talent he was and his reputation for taking plays off on the court.
As the draft wore on and Hawk fans bristled at the "safe" selection of Josh Childress over Andre Iguodala/Luol Deng, hope was strong in THHB HQ that then-GM Billy Knight would take a chance on Smith, who seemed likely to make it to the Hawks for their #17 pick.
As the picks came off the board it was time for the pick and Knight did indeed roll the dice on Josh, who would come into that training camp as a soft-talking, nineteen year old enigma. What can he do? Is he willing to learn? Will he be overwhelmed by the enormity of the NBA?
We remember our first conversation with Smith, on the day he was introduced (along with fellow draftees Childress, Donta Smith, and Royal Ivey), and we found him not to be full of bravado or self, not angry about being drafted out of the lottery, but very humble to be a Hawk, excited to be playing in the ATL, and ready to learn. There was consensus that being in the city of Atlanta, with Mike Woodson and Billy Knight watching over was maybe the best scenario for Smith finding his way to realize his vast potential.
Even if he didn't say it, he had plenty to prove against pundits such as ESPN's Jay Bilas, who declared after Smith's selection that he was "the most likely to be a bust" in that draft. No right hand, no post game, and so on and so on.
Immediately Smith went to work with then Hawks assistant Herb Brown on some of the NBA basics, the beginning of a long line of people Josh worked with (including, famously, a summertime with Hakeem Olajuwon) to learn how to be a better player.
He had a (10) block game in Dallas, he filled Top 10 highlight reels. Folks around the league began to take notice of his statistical and around the rim feats of greatness, highlighted by National Bird Watcher Lang Whitaker in his SI Links piece midway through Smith's rookie season in 2005.
In that piece, Whitaker proposes that Smith could resurrect the NBA Slam Dunk competition that season and Josh replied he would be interested. The Hawks had not had anyone represent anything during the All-Star Weekend, save for a pair of appearances in the game itself by Hawks front court men (Mutombo, Abdur-Rahim), the last of which was in 2002. So it was a big deal when the man nicknamed "J-Smoove" was invited to participate in the dunk contest.
Representing the ATL in spectacular fashion, Smoove put on a throwback Dominique Pac-Man era jersey to execute the classic THHF windmill jam, clinching his place as the Slam Dunk Champ.
Smith has since moved beyond his dunk glory to improve significantly as an all-around player. His PER for his career:
Age 19: 15.4
Age 20: 15.5
Age 21: 18.3
Age 22: 19.0
Age 23: 17.3
Age 24 (current) 22.3
This is the kind of improvement you can only wish to have in a #17 pick. His dip last season can be attributed to his early season injury, which forced most of his numbers to bow slightly, but has obviously made up ground this season, currently in the Top 20 in PER. At his position, he is Top 5 in Assist rate, Assist + (measuring threes from assists), Assist/TO, Blocks, and Steals.
For the Hawks' decade, he ranks 4th in PER, Most Blocks, 2nd in Steals, and since the 2007-2008 season, Smith has led the team in PER 19.4 to Joe Johnson's 18.1.
But the stats tell only part of the story. When folks go to the Highlight Factory, they count on Joe, but watch for Josh. Is he shooting too many jumpers? He's complaining too much! But for all those times we shake our heads and grit our teeth at some of his work, he makes plays we know that only a small fraction of the league can do---and some of those times that fraction is just Josh Smith.
He has worked at polishing the rough parts of his game, relinquishing the thrill of the three pointer to take higher percentage shots and/or get to the free throw line. No player today on the roster has more to do with a win or a loss on the Hawks more often than Josh Smith.
He is indeed the player that defines the Hawks, even if it's not quite yet that he is the best player on the team. The pluses of his game are very strong, as have been his minuses. But slow and sure, time is melting away the frays of the minuses, and the result has lifted this team to a level not seen in well over a decade. His next all-star appearance will most certainly be as a participant in the game itself.
Josh Smith, J-Smoove, for capturing our attention, for continued improvement and beginning to fulfill that fantastic upside, and for putting the Highlight in the Highlight Factory, you are the Number One Hawk of the Decade.