Friday November 30th, 2007

Also in this column: Kidd's all-around impact • Durant's uphill climb in West About those Knicks ...

Long before he had any idea how to carry himself on an NBA court, Josh Smith was a dunker. He was so talented in the air that he won the All-Star Slam Dunk contest as a 19-year-old rookie in 2005. But the award engraved his reputation as an athlete who didn't know how to play below the rim.

"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 Dwyane Wade in the final seconds, Smith has averaged 5.3 blocks over his last three games -- two of them wins for the improving Hawks, who were 6-8 entering Friday's game at New Orleans.

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 Acie Law, Smith tries to counsel the Hawks' new point guard.

"I worked out with Calvin Murphy and Hakeem Olajuwon this summer, so I got great advice from them and they taught me different things they did to get by in this game,'' Smith said. "I may be 21, but I've been around. I'm not saying I know everything. I have a whole lot to learn, but when the rookies come in I'm able to tell them things that I've been through and I have faced. I look at them and I'm having flashbacks when I used to make those mistakes in different situations.''

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. Michael Jordan has had them, Kobe Bryant -- the elite players have had critics.

"I think I would tell them to go ahead,'' he said of potential Slam Dunk contestants like New Jersey's Sean Williams or Philadelphia's Thaddeus Young. "If you feel like you can win it, just be ready for the negative criticism.''

Regarding your column about Jason Kidd and LeBron James ... At just 40.2 percent from the field lifetime, Kidd isn't a good enough shooter to be considered a Hall of Famer or all-time great (he would be the lowest-percentage shooter to get into the HOF by a wide margin), but he is magic running the point if he doesn't have to shoot the ball. Ever. It would be great for all concerned if he could get with a team where he doesn't have to shoot. I'd love to see him with LeBron, but most of LeBron's offense comes off his own dribble, not off cuts and passes. --Jon DeMent of St. Cloud, Minn.

Hall of Fame point guards Bob Cousy (37.5 percent) and K.C. Jones (38.7 percent) shot poorer percentages than Kidd. In the historical context, it's fair to note that 30 percent of Kidd's attempts have come from the three-point line, which has skewed his shooting. Three-point shooting is a much bigger part of the game than it was 15 years ago. Inside the line Kidd is a career 43.2 percent shooter, and if it not for the lure of the extra point, he would probably be taking most of his shots from closer range.

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 Rod Thorn, referring to the career-high 8.9 rebounds Kidd is averaging in addition to his 10.5 assists (No. 2 in the league this year) and 11.5 points. The 6-4 Kidd is averaging more rebounds than MVP Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Bosh, Ben Wallace or Shaquille O'Neal.

"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.

How long before Kevin Durant makes an All-Star team? --Mark Moore of Seguin, Texas

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: Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Martin, Allen Iverson (though he is playing a lot of point guard this year), Stephen Jackson, Josh Howard and Corey Maggette. Not to mention competition from Manu Ginobili and potential All-Stars Brandon Roy, Rudy Gay, Monta Ellis and Mike Miller.

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 Josh Howard made it last season as an injury replacement even though he was the second-best player on what was the NBA's best team. Even if Durant shows considerable improvement, he may have to wait a couple of years to earn the invitation.

So, Ian, the Knicks lost to the Celtics by 45 points. You still think they are No. 6 in the East? Are things not so bad? I want to see your next article about the Knicks. --John of Clifton, N.J.

I give up on the Knicks. I saw hope in their talented, young role players -- David Lee, Renaldo Balkman, Nate Robinson -- but Isiah Thomas stubbornly refuses to blend them into the starting lineup. I thought he would see the need for chemistry, but he doesn't see it that way.

That being said, owner James Dolan is even more stubborn than Thomas. The louder the cry for Isiah's head, the less likely Dolan will be to give it to them.

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