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Bob Ryan

Josh Smith has starring role with Atlanta

ATLANTA - Was he serious?

I’m not knocking it. There was something quite refreshing about seeing a 21st-century NBA player of stature sitting down for his postgame media session wearing a beige sweater, a bow tie, and a pair of those Clark Kent-ish glasses that I hear are all the rage. I guess it was the tie that knocked me out. Satch Sanders would have been proud.

It just wasn’t what I expected from Josh Smith. Maybe he lost a bet. Or maybe he has matured.

The raw talent was always there. He is an exceptionally athletic player, someone who was capable of providing the highlight tape material almost from Day 1. Slash to the hoop, shoot, rebound, defend, pass . . . he’s been able to do it all. But talent alone does not a superior NBA player make, and for a long time Josh Smith’s sum was maddeningly less than the dazzling parts, which can happen when you bypass college and enter the NBA directly from Oak Hill Academy.

But the talk in these here parts is that, at age 26, the game itself is starting to make complete sense for him. It’s been a given locally that this has been his finest year, that no list of the NBA’s really good all-around players can be complete without mention of the name “Josh Smith.’’ And Sunday night he showed the Celtics and national televiewers that this talk may not just be idle propaganda as he provided the Hawks with 22 points, a career playoff-high 18 rebounds, 4 assists, and a number of big plays as the Hawks jumped on the Celtics early and held on for an 83-74 Game 1 triumph at Philips Arena.


“It’s just one game,’’ he said. “We know they’re going to make adjustments in the second game. We’ve got to come out with the same type of energy.’’


This was an odd game, one you could argue consisted of 5 minutes and 50 seconds of real importance and 42 minutes and 10 seconds of maintenance on the part of the Hawks. Atlanta led by such scores as 7-2, 13-4, and 20-6 before the first quarter was half over. It got the lead up to 17 at 29-12. There was a lot of push and pull afterward, but Atlanta was able to answer every challenge, and Smith was usually front and center in the Atlanta response.

You know the term “young veteran?’’ Josh Smith is a young veteran. He is the longest-tenured Hawk with eight years of service.

“It’s a little like [Rajon] Rondo,’’ observed Doc Rivers, who has been able to monitor Smith’s entire career. “He’s young.’’

In the beginning he was a major knucklehead, and I’m talking on the court, not off. He had absolutely no idea of proper shot selection, and he thought he could do anything, whether it was drive on five guys, hoist 3 1/2-pointers or throw passes even the young Magic Johnson wouldn’t have tried.

Yet he almost had to play, even if his coaches had no idea what he might try. If nothing else, you knew it wouldn’t be long before the 6-foot-9-inch kid would block a shot.

But was he really ready for prime time in those early days? Ah, no. Remember that devastating whuppin’ the 2008 Celtics put on the Hawks in that Game 7? Josh Smith, age 22, was absolutely overwhelmed. He was almost paralyzed.


Now he goes out and plays a big-time playoff game. And when it’s over, he dispenses a bit of wisdom.

“We knew they were going to get back in the game and play the way they want to play,’’ he said. “We didn’t get stagnant. We never got to the point where we put pressure on ourselves to make a basket. We have experience. We dug ourselves out of holes when the right opportunity presented itself.’’

The young man has been through a lot. In addition to that crunching Game 7 loss to the Celtics, he was a major part of a dreadful team effort two years ago against Orlando, when the Hawks were repeatedly walloped as no team has ever been walloped. He’s got battle scars.

I’m not usually very big on that whatever-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger bit, but in this case there might be something to it. Josh Smith has taken his licks, both in a personal and team sense, and he has emerged as a very good player, one of the best two-way performers in the NBA.

“I think he has matured a great deal,’’ Atlanta coach Larry Drew said recently. “Are there still some things he needs to work on? Absolutely. He will be the first to admit that. But he has really started to understand the type of player that he can become. You see a guy - and I’ve said it before - he’s one of the few guys in this league to impact both ends of the floor.’’


The Hawks were really ready to play, hitting the Celtics with three 3-pointers and a driving Smith 3-point play, all of which knocked the Celtics back on their heels and placed them in catch-up mode for the remainder of the evening. Smith was instrumental in the rocket start.

“He was big,’’ said teammate Joe Johnson. “He made a lot of big plays and he ate up the glass. He had [18] boards. He had a total effort tonight.’’

“We know how important it is to have a good start,’’ Smith said, “and we definitely set the tone early. You always want to play with that kind of energy. But sometimes it’s not going to happen.’’

It may take Smith a few more years to outgrow his early reputation as a basketball airhead, but the fact is he is an all-time Atlanta Hawk already. This is a franchise with not a whole lot to brag about since relocating from St. Louis, with just four divisional titles, no trips to the Finals, and just three retired numbers (Lenny Wilkens, Dominique Wilkins, and Lou Hudson), in addition to the Bob Pettit jersey that was earned in St. Louis.

Smith is the kind of guy who can fill up the stat sheet, and now he finds himself in the franchise top 10 in such categories as points, field goals, rebounds, blocks, steals, and games. If he is allowed to stick around, how can he not be considered one of the greatest Hawks?


Rivers appreciates the man’s talent, but he thinks his team made him look even better than he is by the way he was played Sunday night.

“We don’t want to give anybody jump shots - and he made ’em,’’ Doc said. “Listen, he’s a pro. If we keep guarding him the way we guarded him tonight, he will continue to have a big series.’’

I’m just hoping he plays well enough to keep visiting the interview room. I want to see what additional sartorial surprises lay in store.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on He can be reached at