ATLANTA — A sweaty Josh Smith walked to the sideline bleachers and stretched out his six-foot-nine frame to sit down to take questions from the media after a team practice in Atlanta Saturday afternoon.
The current Hawks, well, at least, Jaylen Adams, Omari Spellman and Jordan Sibert, were about to tip off Summer League action against the Milwaukee Bucks in Las Vegas. The former Hawk Smith was preparing for his BIG3 matchup against Joe Johnson and the Triplets on Sunday afternoon in State Farm Arena.
“My kids are older now, so it gives them an opportunity to see and know what’s really going on,” Smith, now 33 years old, said. “That’s fun. To be able to play in front of my friends and family is always exciting.”
For those who need a brief refresher, the College Park native and former McEachern High School student was drafted out of Oak Hill Academy as an 18-year-old in 2004 by the Hawks. The love-hate relationship between Smith and the city of Atlanta started off on a positive note, as the athletic teenager would often crash his black headband into the backboard or rim during dunks or blocks.
His highlight-creating ability was arguably the only aesthetically pleasing thing about a team that notched just 13 wins and was one big Al Harrington/Antoine Walker failed experiment.
Smith’s promise and versatility on the floor as a defender, rebounder, and assassin around the rim allowed him to remain one of the Hawks’ key players as the team added pieces like Joe Johnson, Al Horford, and, ultimately, Mike Bibby to push them into the playoffs for the first time in a decade in 2008. Atlanta went on to have the second-longest active postseason streak in the league, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs before the franchise decided to press reset again in 2017.
“It was amazing,” he said. “Being from here and being able to be one of the teams that were successful for this city was definitely a dream come true. I never knew when I was younger, being from here, of the Hawks being good and something to brag about. When I was able to be a part of a nucleus of teams that were able to put together winning season and were able to make consecutive playoff appearances, it was amazing. The highlight factory was something to remember, and being one of those guys was something special.”
Nowadays, Smith’s jaw-dropping highlight reel from his early days in Atlanta still resurface on social media from time-to-time.
Happy belated bday to Josh Smith, fantasy beast & one of the most underrated dunkers ever!— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) December 6, 2018
- 19 PTS, 9 AST, 9 BLK, 4 STL
- 24 PTS, 14 REB, 7 BLK
- 22 PTS, 12 REB, 10 AST, 5 BLK
- 18 PTS, 11 REB, 8 AST, 7 STL
- 18 PTS, 7 BLK, 5 STL
- 16 PTS, 22 REBpic.twitter.com/PALcNOP7CP
“I’m just thankful, man,” Smith said. “I have to give praises to the highest almighty God to bless me with a specific talent that I and my parents were able to focus on and be able to make it to the top level of being a professional athlete. Not only make it there but to be able to do some memorable things that kids my age and kids before me can always remember. It’s kind of a surreal moment to be able to be a part of something like that and be able to type my name in and see some good basketball clips. It’s amazing.”
Smith’s BIG3 team, Bivouac, practiced in a ducked-off church in Buckhead. Team coordinator Mario West came to the door and escorted media in. Jarrett Jack was shooting on one side of the floor by himself, while Reggie Theus was coaching a group that included Smith, Anthony Morrow, and Will Bynum as Dion Glover watched the drills from under the basket.
“It’s still home,” Glover, who now trains players of all ages in the Atlanta area, said. “It still feels good to know that you can walk around this great city of Atlanta and play some good basketball. Seeing all of the faces that you saw growing up supporting are coming out on Sunday to support you. Also, seeing all of the guys that the Hawks drafted playing in this league. That’s a testament to their scouting department and how they select players.”
For some participants, like Theus, it gives them a chance to gain enough visibility to coach in the NBA again. For players like 28-year-old CJ Leslie, it’s a chance to gain enough exposure to get another chance in the NBA. For other guys like West, the BIG3 gives them a chance to see the game and operate within an organization from a different perspective.
Although Smith didn’t specify a desire to return to the NBA in Saturday’s post-practice sit-down, when asked, he did give a couple of teams who he thought he could help this season.
“Any other teams who are contenders,” Smith said. “I’d have to say the Lakers or the Clippers.”
Smith was then asked the follow-up question on if he was really open to returning to the Clippers.
“Yeah, just to give that veteran leadership, something that those guys need. It’s not really for minute purposes because those guys are established. They have many guys that can play high-level basketball. [It would be] just to give those guys an extra body in practice, bumping them and giving them competition to get ready for those games.”
At Saturday’s practice, Smith looked the same he has for the majority of his career. He donned a blue “Crenshaw” hoodie to honor his late friend Nipsey Hussle. He picked up plays as fast as anyone else did on the floor, and he finishes every set that he’s rolling to the basket in with an emphatic dunk. He interrupted his series of one-handed flushes by casually shaking the backboard with a two-handed jam. Theus gathered the team one final time to go over what the group needs to focus on to defeat Smith’s neighbor and the BIG3’s current leading scorer, Johnson.
A shooting competition followed practice. Bynum and Smith teamed up to face the alternating duo of Morrow, Leslie and Glover. Smith talked trash the entire competition. By Bynum and Smith’s (very) unofficial count, they won 6-2.
“Josh Smith and Will Bynum are the biggest cheaters in that shooting game,” Glover said. “They’ll have three points and say they’ll have five, but it’s just all fun and competitiveness, but Josh Smith and Will Bynum beat us today so we have to get some get back next week.”
Smith keeps occasional tabs on the current Hawks and John Collins, who’s arguably the most exciting Hawk since Smith.
“I like him. I like a guy who stays in his element,” Smith said of Collins. “[He] recognizes what he does well for the team, and he tries to do the best that he can to maximize his potential. He’s an active guy for the Atlanta Hawks, I think he’s a good centerpiece for him and Trae Young, a couple of those other guys that they just got. They should be a young-exciting corps.”
Smith returns to play the floor in Atlanta on Sunday afternoon for the first time in years. His most heated return to the city was in 2015 as a member of the Houston Rockets. Every time Smith caught the ball around the perimeter, fans egged him on to attempt the same three-pointers that he was infamous for bricking during his time in Atlanta. On a fast break in the third quarter, Smith seized a catch-and-shoot opportunity in the left corner in front of the Hawks’ bench. The ball took one bounce off the rim as the Atlanta crowd got louder before dropping through the net for three points. The score gave the Rockets a seven-point advantage, which forced Atlanta to call a timeout. On his way back to the Houston bench, Smith shushed the crowd in a move that only ignited the fans even more for the rest of the night. The Hawks won the game 104-96 as Smith finished with 14 points, seven rebounds, and three assists in 24 minutes
“That was expected when I played with Houston,” Smith said of Atlanta’s reception to him in 2015. “[Now], I’m playing for the BIG3 so it’s a different type of feel. Three-on-three basketball is way different than five-on-five so it’s still high-level, but I’m just there for my kids and my family, for the most part. It’s going to be exciting to be able to see them watch me play.”
The game featuring Johnson vs. Smith begins at 1 p.m. Eastern in State Farm Arena.