(Editors Note - This is a guest post from SB Nation Cleveland's Scott Sargent who caught up with Josh Smith prior to Friday's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.)
CLEVELAND -- Josh Smith is a man without answers. He knows that his Atlanta Hawks are not a team with national allure. He knows that The ATL -- despite Dominique, Spud, Andre 3000, and Luda all sharing eight lanes of rush-hour traffic -- is not among the country's biggest markets. He shares the spotlight with four other men who average double-digit scoring totals. He knows that while his team is 18-9 and a mere two games shy of the Eastern Conference's best record, they will always be the other team in the Miami Heat's division.
In Friday's early-morning shootaround, he can be found running drills with his frontcourt mates, keeping the words of his head coach Larry Drew in the back of his mind -- "Stay aggressive, be you, play your game." He ends the morning's festivities by laughing it up with a few teammates while two separate units practice free throws at each end of the court; Smith gets a rebound and spins the ball in a manner where it rolls across his wiry shoulders and lands in the waiting hands of center Al Horford after one bounce. But when the shootaround is over, Smith tosses on a grey Hawks hoodie, throws the hood up over his head awaiting the elements of a Cleveland, Ohio winter and begins to offer questions to questions.
"I don't know what I can do to get the eye of the national fan," Smith says regarding his perpetual less-than-stellar placement among All-Star vote-getters. "All I can keep to is playing the way I've been playing, progressing as an individual and as a player. I'm not really worried about what's going to happen, but when it does, it will definitely be well appreciated."
It is obviously an unmentioned way of saying "recognition." An All-Star appearance. His name blaring over a loudspeaker amidst pyrotechnics and strobes. Being afforded the opportunity to don an Eastern Conference uniform alongside the best the NBA game has to offer. Smith, while he will say that he doesn't speak much about the All-Star game -- "We just go out each and every game and focus on what we can do to keep meshing as a whole" -- it is evident that the power forward thinks it is his turn to get the nod.
Smith mentions his family, those who love him regardless of good game or bad game, individual accolades or another season of snubs. His mother and father, brothers and sisters, wife and children, and even his close friends who may as well be blood. They're the ones who see what he does not just on the court during the course of a regular season where he has averaged a PER of 19.3 over the past six seasons, but during two-a-day workouts in the offseason and the late, late nights shooting in the gym.
"They want to see me succeed," says Smith. "My family sees the hard work that I put in each and every day, especially in the offseason. They see my production and how I get better on the court and the numbers I put up each and every game -- they're numbers that a lot of people don't get a chance to see.
"They get to see that in me and they definitely want to see that what I've been doing as a player pays off and that I hopefully make it one day."
Drew, Smith's coach, echoes these sentiments. In the Hawks' recent double-overtime win against the Detroit Pistons where Smith finished with 31 points and 10 rebounds, it was the forward's work on the defensive end that left his head coach's mouth agape.
"I don't know what more [Josh] can do to get the recognition he derseves," said Drew. "He guarded all five positions through the course of a single game. Not many guys in the league can do that."
Not every game Smith provides is 48 minutes of All-Star audition. While many of his box scores may be a fantasy basketball owner's dream, the ever-athletic 27-year old leaves enough head-scratching moments that merely serve to benefit his detractors. After scoring just one point over the fourth quarter and two sepearate overtime periods in the win over the Pistons, he and his head coach had a bit of a sit-down where he was made aware of his poor shot selection.
In the very next game, Smith shot 2-of-12, eight of his attempts coming outside of 16 feet. He would be found on the bench for the entire fourth quarter with a strained hip despite his team down seven points at the start. The result was a come-from-behind win on the road, all while Smith was a spectator.
Sure, the recent win had its moments: a two-minute stretch late in the first quarter where Smith found Horford for a two-handed dunk, stripped a ball from Cavs center Tyler Zeller (a steal would be credited to teammate Kyle Korver), taking a charge and then driving for a left-handed lay-in that left him seated in a bay of cameramen. There would also be a crucial blocked shot that resulted in a three-pointer from Kover mid-way through the third quarter as the lead was being flipped like a halftime show acrobat.
But the moment that will stick out will undoubtedly be the fourth-quarter benching due to an in-game injury that may have indirectly proved to be addition by subtraction. These types of moments, coupled with a per-game point total south of 20, lead to Smith having more of a cult following than national acclaim. After all, in the recent release of All-Star vote totals, Smith is slotted just ahead of frontcourt names like Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrew Bynum -- neither player has played a minute on an NBA floor at this point in the season.
While Smith's style of play -- defensive focus married with highlight reel dunks and insane leaping ability -- may not turn the heads of those scrolling through the league's scoring leaders, it has undoubtedly been one that, while frustrating at times, has been among the league's most consistent on both ends of the floor. His aknowledgement of the market size in which he plays may or may not be foreshadowing for his future -- he is, after all, an unrestricted free agent after this season. The mentions of his family may just be means to state that while the All-Star Game is not important, it very much is. But assuming that Smith can stay healthy and keep helping his team amass wins that have them among the best in the league, he appears willing to let the cards fall where they may.
"I played with a guy in Mike Bibby who should have made a couple All-Star games [during his days with the Sacramento Kings] but didn't. He always kept focused on being a better player for his team. That's what I'm concerned about right now. That's what I'm focusing on: how can I continue to get better and help my team."
Scott Sargent is contributor to SB Nation Cleveland and the co-founder and contributing editor to WaitingForNextYear. He can be emailed at email@example.com. Follow him at @WFNYScott.