Arash Markazi
Tuesday November 10th, 2009

Few players in the league are as athletic around the rim as 6-foot-9 Hawks forward Josh Smith, who recently became the youngest in NBA history to reach 900 blocks. But that explosiveness hasn't always translated into efficient production on offense because of Smith's insistence on proving that he could be a long-range shooter as well.

That is, until this season.

Smith, 23, has changed his game in his sixth season -- with an immediate payoff. A career 27 percent shooter from beyond the arc, he hasn't attempted a single three-pointer during Atlanta's 5-2 start. (Even Joe Smith has taken three.) As a result, Smith is connecting on 57.3 percent from the field, well above his career mark of 45.6. He's also cut down on his turnovers and nearly doubled his assist average from last season (4.4 from 2.4). Combine those numbers with his 6.6 rebounds and 2.9 blocks, and Smith ranks among the NBA's 20 most efficient players.

"I don't feel I have to shoot threes," said Smith, who averaged 1.2 attempts per game before this season. "I have teammates who can stroke the ball from outside, so there's no need for me to shoot threes. I can concentrate on the inner part of the court near the basket."

Smith's maturity is only one-third of the bigger key this season for the Hawks, whose hopes of going from a 40-something-win team to a championship contender rest on the development of their young yet talented frontcourt.

By now, the Hawks know what they will get from starting guards Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby, and they have a good idea what another veteran guard, Jamal Crawford, will provide off the bench. The real question is how the three 23-year-old frontcourt starters -- Smith, center Al Horford and small forward Marvin Williams -- progress in their third year together.

"Their development is the key," said Johnson, who leads the Hawks with 21.3 points. "Our inside presence has to be there in order for us to win. They've matured a lot over the past three years on both offense and defense. They're taking better shots and think a lot more on the court instead of just going out there and playing. They're a big reason why we've gotten better each year."

The Hawks have improved their win total in four consecutive seasons, and last season they advanced in the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

"The good thing about us playing with each other for three years now is that we know what each other wants to do," said Smith, the longest-tenured Hawk. "It kind of puts a smile on my face that we've been together for a while now."

While Smith has cut down on his shooting range, Horford is trying to expand his own. The third-year player, who is averaging 11.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks, worked out extensively in the offseason with assistant coach Mark Price.

"We run a lot of pick-and-rolls, and I wanted to be able to catch it down the middle and shoot it, or if I'm on the wing, shoot it one dribble in," Horford said of his efforts to improve his mid-range game.

Williams, who has struggled to meet the expectations of being the No. 2 pick in the 2005 draft, developed his outside shooting last season to find a niche as a court-stretching forward. He is averaging 10.4 points and 5.0 rebounds while hitting 4-of-13 three-pointers this season -- making him now the only starting forward shooting from long distance thanks to Smith's transformation.

"Josh is more focused this year," Horford said. "You can just tell by looking at him and the way he's playing. I also think Marvin has expanded his range from my first year where he's now a three-point guy if they leave him open. That makes a big difference for our team and what we do if he can hit those shots consistently."

Consistency, as is the case with most teams trying to take that next step in the playoffs, will be the biggest hurdle for the Hawks and their versatile front line.

"The goal for those guys is to stay healthy and stay consistent," coach Mike Woodson said. "We won 47 games last year and we want to improve on that. In order to do that, those guys have to play at a high level every time they step on to the floor. If they do that, there's not a team in this league we can't beat."

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