Long before he had any idea how to carry himself on an NBA court,
"I feel like whoever wins the Slam Dunk contest, they get that label,'' Smith said. "That's why I got in the gym and got those extra shots up, just to be able to get the critics off my back to stop saying that all I do is dunk.''
At that time, of course, the critics were right. Smith was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks with the No. 17 pick from Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.), which he led to a No. 1 national ranking (38-0) while setting a school scoring record. Today, because of the NBA's age requirement, he would be forced to fulfill his original commitment to enroll at Indiana as a freshman in college. Back then, however, he not only jumped straight to the NBA but also averaged 27.7 minutes for a horrid team that won 13 games.
"I came in not knowing anything,'' he said. "I'd get in the game and I needed help all the time.''
Now the 6-foot-9 Smith is in his fourth year, and the investment in teaching him the hard way is starting to pay off. Through Thursday he was averaging an impressive array of 16.9 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists with 2.0 steals and a league-leading 3.8 blocks. Since he clinched a win at Miami last week with a block of
Of course, there are still plenty of holes in his game. Too often he lustily goes for the block at the expense of playing solid defense, earning a share of blame for the Hawks' No. 23 ranking in field-goal defense (46.3 percent), and he still tends to swing at the ball as if the aim is to block a shot out of bounds rather than tip it to himself or a teammate. He still wanders out to the three-point line a couple of times per game even though he's converting 19.2 percent from there, and his overall 36.3 percent shooting betrays a poor selection.
But on the whole Smith has come an awfully long way, especially considering that he's never had much elder guidance in Atlanta. Though he's almost a full year younger than rookie
"I worked out with
When (or if) Smith turns into a disciplined 26-year-old who knows when to shoot, pass and go for the block in the best interests of his team, then he will escape the forbidding label of Slam Dunk champion. Until then, he'll continue to hear the tsk-tsks of those who view him as a promising but unrefined athlete who is still learning on the job.
"It is a curse,'' Smith said of the Slam Dunk label, "but it's also a blessing to be able to do that at a young age. You can't always listen to what people say about you because you'll go nowhere doing that. You're going to always have critics as long as you play the game.
"I think I would tell them to go ahead,'' he said of potential Slam Dunk contestants like New Jersey's
Hall of Fame point guards
But I'm not going to argue that Kidd is a worthy shooter. I definitely think he is a Hall of Fame player, however. For more than a decade, he's been a consistent winner who drove the laughingstock Nets to a pair of NBA Finals. Kidd has emerged as a savior internationally with an undefeated record while playing for USA Basketball. He's expected to lead his country to the gold medal in the Olympics this summer, which will end years of American losses in the big global tournaments.
It's wrong to focus on Kidd's shooting percentage at the expense of his 91 career triple-doubles. Only five NBA teams (including his own Nets) have accumulated more, and already he has four this season as a 34-year-old.
"The rebounding aspect of it is phenomenal,'' said Nets president
"The big-time rebounders -- I'm talking about big guys -- their numbers tend to go down as they get older, but Jason is a better rebounder than he's ever been," Thorn added. "When he goes up for rebounds, he seems to jump better than when he's going to the bucket. It says a lot about his competitiveness and how strong he is.''
The reason LeBron creates so much of his own offense is that he hasn't had anyone like Kidd to generate plays for him. Together they could contend for a championship, but I don't see how Cleveland could package enough to be able to trade for Kidd.
It's not easy to become an All-Star shooting guard or small forward in the West. At 19.5 points a game, Durant currently ranks behind the following wing scorers:
To be an All-Star, Durant will have to rank among the top six of that crowded group. It won't just be a matter of improving his scoring or boosting his shooting from the current 39.3 percent. He'll need to develop a spectacular presence as someone who takes over games while leading an improved team in Seattle, Oklahoma City or wherever it is the Sonics wind up playing.
Anthony didn't become an All-Star until his fourth year, and
I give up on the Knicks. I saw hope in their talented, young role players --
That being said, owner