When Dell Demps traded for Jason Smith in September of 2010, I considered it a very minor move, a trade that came to fruition more to acquire a backup shooting guard in Willie Green. Smith was an injury-prone big man who tore his ACL in 2008 and who fit the mold of the prototypical white 7-footer from college - limited athleticism/quickness, terrible on-ball defender, over-reliant on the jump shot (mid-range only with no ability to shoot the 3), and a sub-par rebounder.
Even as a Colorado native who knew what he accomplished at the collegiate level at Colorado State, I was surprised he was still in the league. Oh, how Jason Smith has proved me (and everybody else) wrong. Smith has been the most consistent frontcourt player from a production standpoint on the Hornets since he arrived (granted guys like West, Okafor, and Landry are no longer on the team and missed big minutes via injury), he has remained relatively healthy, and most surprisingly, his skills on the basketball court have improved in every way, with his statistics standing as proof. So what can we expect from Smith in 2013? Let's looj at the Hornets' roster and see if we can find out.
Jason Smith has gone from "the guy who's taking minutes from Aaron Gray" to an elite 3rd big man in the NBA in the span of only a couple seasons. He surprised me and countless others with his athleticism for a guy his size, which adds a dimension to his offensive game that already includes a pretty reliable mid-range shot (Smith shot 48% from 16-23 feet last season, up 6 percent from 2011). His rebounding numbers have gone up as well, and it's not out of the question for a guy who averaged a shade under 10 points and 5 boards a year ago to see those numbers get another bump if his minutes stay in the 24-28 per game range (he averaged 23.7 a game last season). Granted a 26-year old forward center with Smith's skillset and ability may have peaked at his current ceiling, but if the players around him continue to grow and improve, we should expect similar numbers from him.
Smith is a decent pick and roll player (even more deadly on the pick and pop) and with Vasquez running the show, he'll get more and more good looks at the rim if he rolls hard. Vasquez developed a very good rapport with the recently-departed Gustavo Ayon, and while Smith may not have the natural movement without the ball and baseline fluidity of Ayon, he has the opportunity to fill that void and be Greivis' go-to-guy in the pick and roll (when Davis isn't on the floor). With Ryan Anderson brought in as the deep threat to stretch the defense, the Hornets will need bigs who can finish strong at the rim, want to go to the rim (Davis should have no problem with that, while one of Robin Lopez's offensive abilities is good finishing at the rim) and most importantly can draw fouls and make free throws by being aggressive.
Perhaps the biggest question mark is how Smith will play with the other bigs on the floor and how the numerous lineups Monty Williams will have to employ (whether through injury or the fact that a young team like this indicates much experimentation) will affect his play and production. Recently I tinkered with an idea that some Hornets' fans may find shocking, but constructing this season's starting five is always a difficult task that requires thinking outside the box. Here it goes.
Starting Five: PG Greivis Vasquez, SG Eric Gordon (Roger Mason if Gordon is hurt), SF-Al-Farouq Aminu, PF-Anthony Davis, C- Jason Smith
6th Man-Ryan Anderson; Bench- Austin Rivers, Robin Lopez, Darius Miller, Hakim Warrick
Now before everyone blows a gasket, let me explain my logic on this arrangement. Following the coaching philosophies of Gregg Poppovich and George Karl, it is not important who starts the games but who finishes them. Anderson will still play 30+ minutes a night and will be on the floor in crunch time. I am the not the world's biggest Robin Lopez fan, though I think he can be useful in extended minutes (aka 15-20 minutes) in certain situations. But Jason Smith is the 3rd best forward on this team, and he deserves to start because of that fact.
Though not a true center, Smith can definitely man that position, and his defensive liabilities are no worse than if Anderson was manning the five spot. He provides an energy, hustle and competitiveness that will help the team out of the starting gate and if he gets in foul trouble or Monty feels like making a switch, you have the league's Most Improved Player coming in for him, most likely against a backup on the other side. It's not a perfect solution, but giving Smith those valuable minutes in the game over Lopez will benefit the team if they choose to bring in Anderson off the bench and not start him.
Jason Smith has become one of my favorite players not just on this team, but in the entire league. He is a great example to all young players in terms of what hard work can do if you put in the effort on the court. Last season Smith had a PER of 16.66 (better than Luis Scola and Antawn Jamison) and a true shooting percentage (TS%) of 53.7 (better than the likes of David West, Brandon Bass, Josh Smith and even Zach Randolph). Those are some pretty impressive numbers for a guy who was traded for Darius Songalia and Craig Brackins (both playing overseas now) and who makes a whopping $2.5 million a year.
Again, with so many new players on this team and so little time to build good rapport and chemistry in the preseason, it is hard to gauge what impact roster flux will have on Smith's production. But I'd like to think that as one the leaders on this team, Smith will not let Hornets fans down. If nothing else, hopefully those who cover the entire league will finally notice him; the fact that ESPN ranked him #261 on their NBA-rank poll is an embarrassing acknowledgment to how few people realize Smith's value. For now, he'll be remembered by most NBA fans as "the guy who tackled Blake Griffin" but hopefully by the end they'll recognize him for his contributions to one of the league's up and coming teams. If nothing else, dude's got some swag.