Josh Smith may be only 24, but after six years in the league, he has become arguably one of the key figures in the Eastern Conference. The athletic Smith has developed into a reliable rebounder and the league's leading shot-blocker, and those skills combined with his still-developing offensive game offer the Hawks a dynamic few teams possess. Yet, despite his varied talents, Smith has been dogged by criticism that he hasn't put it all together to be among the league's elite -- a criticism also leveled at his team, which has been swept in the second round of the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
Smith addressed those concerns, his summer work with Carmelo Anthony, new coach Larry Drew's approach and more in an interview with SI.com.
SI.com: For much of your career, people seem to have defined you by what you haven't done instead of what you have. How do you define yourself as a player?
Smith: You can't listen to commentators or the media because a lot of them have never played the game of basketball; they just analyze it. They don't understand what a player has to go through night in, night out, on and off the court.
I'm a hard worker and I'm going to work hard at my craft. My trainer this summer, Idan Ravin [who also works with Chris Paul and Rudy Gay], instilled a lot of positives in me because we worked hard to be able to get me to knock down the mid-range jump shot consistently and that has opened up my game this season. Guys really have to respect that now, and that allows me to take my time and not just rely on my athleticism all the time.
SI.com: Did you work on anything in particular?
Smith: When you're in the offseason you take a lot of jumpers, but I was also able to work on my handle and on my post game, so I didn't just focus on one thing. Most of the work was with my trainer, but I also got the opportunity to work with Carmelo Anthony for about two or three days. He definitely is a guy who pushes you when he works out.
SI.com: What did you learn from working with Carmelo?
Smith: Carmelo is definitely a confident player. When we were working out, we were doing pretty much the same drills, but his focus is on knocking down every shot; I definitely took notice.
SI.com: Last season, you shot a career-best 50.5 percent while taking only seven three-pointers. This season, you've been a bit more active from behind the arc. Will you continue to take more threes?
Smith: Maybe I can take just one a game. The team is not sold on me taking the three as much as checking on my mid-range game before I do anything else.
SI.com: After improving the last few seasons, the Hawks seemed to hit a wall in last year's playoffs against the Magic. With the roster largely unchanged, how will you guys make a deeper push in the postseason?
Smith: I think the fact that we've been together for a long time equals success. When you have a lot of teammates who have been together for a while and you trust them, it makes it easier to practice, everything is easygoing.
SI.com: Does this team need a clear leader?
Smith: I think we can lead together. I always compare us to the 2004 Detroit Pistons; there really was no defined leader on that team. Everybody was able to police each other and it was definitely a family-oriented team. And they won [the NBA title that year] when people didn't think they could do it. I think that we can do the same thing. But that starts with doing it on the defensive end.
SI.com: Defense was an emphasis of former coach Mike Woodson. Has Larry Drew taken up the same cause?
Smith: He definitely takes after Mike Woodson, who made us better every year that he was here. Larry has been here [as an assistant coach] and he knows what he wants out of the players and he has come in and been stern about it. The coaches are preaching defense and being unselfish on the offensive end, that doing it on defense equates to us to having a better shot on offense.
SI.com: Speaking of defense, you are leading the league in blocks this season. What's the secret to blocking a shot?
Smith: I just try to keep the opponents off guard and come from the weak side and help out whenever I can.
SI.com: This is your seventh season in the league. How have you blended your experience with your athleticism?
Smith: I definitely use my basketball smarts more now because you can't always rely on athleticism, especially on defense. I want to show people that I'm not just a shot-blocker, that I can also be an on-the-ball defender.