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Hawks’ Josh Smith believes he has talent to the max

Josh Smith is just 27 years old, and will be a free agent this summer.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Josh Smith is just 27 years old, and will be a free agent this summer.

It’s easy to see why Hawks forward Josh Smith has become such a confounding and controversial figure in terms of his place among the NBA’s elite.

He is 6 feet 9 inches of pure athleticism with a hulking build that he’s had since he entered the league nine years ago out of Oak Hill Academy. Perhaps a couple of years of college may have polished his offensive arsenal, but Smith is one of the league’s premier defenders and shot blockers.

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Smith is just 27 years old, and will be a free agent this summer, making him, along with Dwight Howard, one of the two premier players on the market. Smith was nearly traded before the Feb. 21 deadline, with the Celtics and 76ers among those in play.

Atlanta general manager Danny Ferry did not consummate a deal, although it was apparent Smith was on the block. Smith has been the central figure in the Hawks’ surprising season after Ferry dealt high-salaried shooting guard Joe Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets.

That was supposed to clear the pathway to happiness for Smith, who felt for the past few years that he should have been the Hawks’ primary option. And while he is enjoying a solid ninth season, he also mentioned that he felt he should be handsomely compensated this summer with a maximum contract.

A maximum deal would start at five years and about $90 million, which scared Ferry, who, like several league executives, doesn’t believe Smith is worth that. But Ferry decided to keep Smith, who is now potentially in his final days as a Hawk, trying to push the rather insignificant franchise to a top-division playoff seed.

“It was total chaos, for two or three weeks,” said Smith. “It’s good just to concentrate, knowing where I’m at, at least until the end of the season, and now we can focus on what we can do to make a playoff push and jockeying for position, knowing that it’s a real tight race. It’s good to be able to focus on basketball.”

As usual, the Hawks have been wildly inconsistent, good enough to have a winning record and a mid-level seed in the Eastern Conference but never good enough to compete with the elite. That was the case when Johnson was dominating the ball and taking fadeaway jumpers, and little has changed.

Ferry is attempting to change the culture in Atlanta. Because of its laidback crowds and mediocre records, it has never been a desirable location for free agents. Smith may be the latest All-Star-caliber player to depart for greener pastures.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” said Smith. “We’ve had some successful stretches. I think if we could put a string of wins together, win more than four or five in a row, we can accomplish something special.

“This team is one where they didn’t even give us an opportunity to win or even make it to the playoffs this year with the preseason predictions. It’s a little added chip on our shoulder and we’re understanding what it takes to make it. This is a confident, unselfish bunch.”

Smith plays with a boulder on his shoulder, seeking acceptance from his critics, a healthy contract from his employer, and respect from his peers.

“It’s never enough for the critics, but at the end of the day, I am not out here to please them,” he said. “I’m here to please my peers and the people that play with me.

“I’m respected in the NBA as far as the players are concerned. I know I’m a highly attractive player and all I can do is keep playing confident, hold my head high, and not really worry about what the naysayers and haters say.”

The pressure to lift the Hawks has been part of Smith’s responsibility since they drafted him 17th overall in 2004.

“It definitely has its pros and cons,” he said. Sometimes I feel I do [take too much responsibility]. When I do that, I kind of sit back and visualize what I need to do, not press things. Just understand I have teammates to help me through those rough patches.”

Smith has a game that can be as maddening as it is graceful. For example, he scored 32 points with 8 rebounds and 9 assists in Friday’s 107-102 overtime loss to the Celtics, but he also made a critical turnover in regulation and missed six 3-point attempts. His free throw percentage, which was 72.5 two years ago, has dipped to a ghastly 49.6 this season.

Still, he stands by his assertion that he deserves a top-level contract, and he will find out in the coming months whether any team feels the same way.

“I didn’t just come up and make the statement that I was [a maximum player] — it was a question that I was asked,” he said. “I gave an honest answer. It’s not added pressure. I’m not going around just stating that. It was definitely a question.

“I’m the type of person who doesn’t like to look ahead. I focus on the present. As long as we do special things during the season or during the postseason, I don’t look into the future. I’ll think about [free agency] when it gets here.”

A STAR IS BORN

Pacers’ George gets to shine

The Pacers are streaking toward the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and a potential showdown with the Heat, who eliminated the Pacers in the East semifinals last year. The Pacers have played shorthanded most of the season without former All-Star Danny Granger, but that may have allowed Paul George to flourish as one of the league’s emerging small forwards.

George was named to his first All-Star team last month, an impressive accomplishment considering he was a virtual unknown entering the 2010 draft as an early entry out of Fresno State. George’s scoring average (17.7 per game) is nearly 10 points higher than his rookie season , and he also averages nearly 8 rebounds and 4 assists.

With his length and athleticism, he is also considered a lockdown defender on small forwards, making him perhaps a franchise cornerstone. George has had to assume more of a leadership role with Granger sidelined and has embraced the added responsibility.

“Danny’s been around even when he’s not on the floor with us,” George said. “He’s still been around.

“The chemistry is always going to be there. We did so well last year playing with our group, but just this year guys had to step up and I think that made us grow as a team because now we’ve got more guys we can rely on.

“I think it helped. Our chemistry has always been great but I think it improved even more.”

George played two seasons at Fresno State, and his sophomore numbers were similar to what he is putting up this year (16.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3 assists), but he didn’t play in the NCAA Tournament or get much national exposure. He took a chance when he entered the draft, in fact motivated by his anonymity.

“I just felt like I was ready,” he said. “I just felt like I really needed the opportunity.

“I think the draft, the whole process, was going in with a chip on my shoulder. A lot of those [other prospects] were kind of comfortable because they’ve been big names and they had a name for themselves already.

“So for myself, it was just coming in and being the underdog, and I felt totally fine.

“When I was going for workouts, the players that were working out with me, they were unfamiliar with the school I was at or whether Fresno State was even Division 1.

“I really was kind of that guy that was a mystery.”

ETC.

76ers stagger to the finish

Last week, we explored the inner thinking of 76ers coach DougCollins, whose thinking wasn’t so inner after a difficult home loss to the Magic Feb. 26. He blamed his team for not playing hard. He criticized management’s trade for Andrew Bynum, who may miss the entire season with bone bruises in his knees. He questioned his impact on his players.

Since then, the 76ers have won once in six games. They lost to the Bulls, Wizards, Celtics, Hawks, and Heat, while defeating the Warriors. Collins realizes that the 76ers, at 23-38, are headed for the draft lottery after being considered a rising team in the East.

So the next move is to coach the guys who are active, and deal with the quandary that is Bynum in the offseason.

If the 76ers simply cut their losses and allow Bynum to sign with another club this summer, how will it look if he suddenly turns into the beast that many expected?

If they do sign Bynum to a lucrative extension, are they dealing with another Greg Oden or Jonathan Bender?

Those aren’t Collins’s problems at this point, and he sounds resigned to making the most of a tumultuous season.

“Just keep competing, playing hard, moving the ball, sharing the ball, playing for each other,” he said. “Worry is the greatest thief of joy.”

Yet, Collins said, the 76ers’ downfall should serve as a wake-up call for his players.

“I think anytime you miss the playoffs, it should hurt,” he said. “Any time the season is over and you turn on the playoffs and you’re not part of that — that should be very painful.

“All the guys want to play in the playoffs. There’s not a guy in our locker room who doesn’t want to be in the playoffs. Our guys, I feel badly for them, for what they had to go through this year with injuries and everything. It’s been very tough.

“We lost [Jrue] Holiday for some games and the games that [Thaddeus Young] missed, I think we’re 1-9. We’ve lost two starters. We’ve traded away a lot, so the plans that we had for this year, this season, we haven’t been able to see that.

“There’s no excuses. Nobody is going to make any excuses for anybody. I think our guys have done a nice job of fighting through it. I’m proud of them. They’ve given all they can give.”

Yet Collins couldn’t resist touching on Bynum’s absence and how devastating it has been for the growth of the club. Asked to compare the Celtics’ loss of Rajon Rondo with his loss of Bynum, Collins said, “I think the big difference is their star player won a championship with them, our star player never has played. So our guys have never been around him.”

Center Spencer Hawes, much maligned for his inconsistencies this season, took the big-picture approach.

“We’re in a position where we get to come out and play a game we love every night and we get paid to do it and paid well to do it, so there’s never a point where you say it’s just hopeless,” he said.

“We understand that we’re in an extremely fortunate position. If I’m able to keep doing this, what the record says, ‘one game at a time,’ you go out there, do your job, and have fun doing it . . . no matter how it goes, we have to keep that mind-set.”

Tomorrow, the World?

There has been talk that commissioner David Stern would consider the idea of a World Basketball Classic, similar to baseball’s tournament. The challenge for Stern and FIBA would be getting American superstars to play. Also, the shoe companies may have to be acknowledged in such a deal. The league’s focus continues to shift overseas, with the announcement of eight more preseason games to be played in cities such as Istanbul, Beijing, and London. The Thunder will play Fenerbahce Ulker, the same club that beat the Celtics last October in Istanbul.

An opening for Moultrie

A player expected to get playing time in the season’s final weeks is Philadelphia’s Arnett Moultrie, who has essentially replaced Lavoy Allen as the backup center. Allen signed a two-year deal in the offseason after making the 76ers as an undrafted free agent, but he has faltered this season in an expanded role, and coach Doug Collins is looking for more help off the bench. Moultrie, the rookie from Mississippi State, has upside because of his size and athleticism but has played sparingly this season.

Layups

Though second-year guard Kyrie Irving has had a sore right knee, Cavaliers coach Byron Scott has no intention of sitting out the All-Star the rest of the season, even with Cleveland again headed for the lottery. Scott could be coaching for his job . . . Although Pacers coach Frank Vogel downplayed DannyGranger’s recent setback as just “above-average soreness,” there is concern as to whether Granger will be effective this season. He will rest for a week and then have his left knee reevaluated, after an MRI showed no additional damage. Granger missed the team’s first 55 games and averaged just 15 minutes over five games before experiencing discomfort last Sunday against the Bulls . . . Charlotte guard Ramon Sessions, who was enjoying a career-best season, could miss the rest of it with a medial collateral ligament sprain in his left knee . . . The Chinese Basketball Association season is coming to an end, making several former All-Stars — including Gilbert Arenas and Tracy McGrady — available for NBA teams. The Celtics have nabbed three players from the CBA.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.
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