A Bumpy Ride
High-flying Hawks forward Josh Smith has seen his game take off, but his reputation may clip him in free agency

LIKE A skilled hunter who silently stalks his prey, Hawks forward Josh Smith has perfected the art of approaching unnoticed. Last Friday in Toronto, Raptors guard Anthony Parker pulled down a long offensive rebound and appeared to have a clear path to the basket. But in one fluid motion Smith closed the gap from the free throw line to the rim and rejected Parker's dunk attempt. "He's an ungodly athlete," says Nets coach Lawrence Frank of the 6'9", 235-pound Smith. "The things he can do defensively at his position, there aren't many guys in the league who can match him."

Smith's play is one of the main reasons that the Hawks (17--19 through Sunday) are battling for their first playoff berth in nine years. After struggling mightily for two seasons, the young core of Smith, 22, guard Joe Johnson, 26, forward Marvin Williams, 21, and swingman Josh Childress, 24 (along with rookie big man Al Horford, 21) has begun to jell into a cohesive unit. "Last year we would have spurts of 12 or 13 minutes when we were worthless," says fourth-year Atlanta coach Mike Woodson. "But [we] are starting to finish games on both ends of the floor."

At the defensive end Smith has been strong since the Hawks drafted him out of high school in 2004; through Sunday he was second in the league in blocks, with 3.29 per game. But this past off-season Smith focused on his offense, working on his ball handling with Hall of Fame guard Calvin Murphy and on "big-man stuff" with 12-time All-Star center Hakeem Olajuwon. "Hakeem showed me the Dream Shake," Smith says with a laugh. "I've pulled it out one or two times already." Smith's offensive production—he was averaging career highs in points (18.3) and assists (3.4)—is more impressive given that very few plays are called specifically for him. "When he came into the league, he couldn't dribble, he couldn't pass, he couldn't shoot," says Woodson. "He has improved in every area."

While Woodson praises Smith's development on the court, their relationship has been rocky off it. Last April the Hawks suspended Smith for two games after he directed a profanity-laced tirade at Woodson during a loss in Philadelphia. According to two sources close to the situation, the relationship has deteriorated to the point that it is unlikely that Smith, a restricted free agent at season's end, would agree to rejoin the Hawks if Woodson, who is in the final year of his contract, is brought back as coach.

On the market Smith will have to deal with a reputation—justified or not—as a hothead. Last January, Smith was fined $25,000 for raising his middle fingers at the crowd after his ejection from a game in Charlotte. On the heels of the Woodson incident the New York Post reported that Smith had gotten into a tussle with center Zaza Pachulia following a game the previous year. In November, The Detroit News suggested that Smith had to be restrained from going after Woodson during a game a week earlier. "None of those things happened," Smith says of the allegations. "It's discouraging—people who you meet think you're a bad guy."

Smith, a College Park, Ga., native, rejected a five-year, $45 million extension during training camp. G.M. Billy Knight says that Atlanta will match any offer sheets—and he may not have to go any higher. "I think [Atlanta's offer] was fair value," says a Western Conference G.M. "I don't see anyone offering him more than that."

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Scout's Take

On the recent success of Bobcats small forward Gerald Wallace (who through Sunday was averaging 25.3 points in January) and guard Jason Richardson (24.6):

"They are two completely different players. Richardson is a scorer with tremendous range whose overall offense has improved this season. Wallace (above) is a slasher; he does himself a disservice when he doesn't take the ball to the hole. So even though they are both guys who need a large volume of shots, they don't get in each other's way."

PHOTOSCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (SMITH)BUTTING HEADS Smith has soared despite his spats with Woodson (inset). PHOTOKEVIN C. COX/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] PHOTOKEVIN C. COX/GETTY IMAGES

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)