How Josh Smith Must Raise His Game in 2012-13

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterSeptember 24, 2012

By trading away Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams during his first week as general manager of the Atlanta Hawks, Danny Ferry made it perfectly clear that his team won't be beholden to mediocrity by way of cap-strapping contracts.

Those moves also signaled a sea change in the way the Hawks will likely operate on the court. No offense to Al Horford, but 26-year-old Josh Smith now stands at the center of pro basketball in the ATL.

It's a spot in which he'll (presumably) find plenty of comfort. With Horford sidelined for all but 11 games with a torn left pectoral muscle during the 2011-12 season, Smith posted personal bests in points (18.8), shot attempts (16.7) and rebounds (9.6). He totaled 28 double-doubles—the 11th-most in the NBA.

As far as advanced stats are concerned, Smith ranked in the top 10 among power forwards in player efficiency rating, defensive rebound rate and assist rate (per Hoopdata) and checked in among the top 15 at his position in pure point rating, according to DraftExpress.

Smith enjoyed arguably his strongest season to date and nearly made his first appearance in the All-Star game as a result. Still, there's reason to believe that J-Smoove can do better, and the Hawks will need him to if they're to live up to Basketball Prospectus' rather lofty projections.

That's not just because many of those possessions—formerly designated for Joe Johnson's use—will be shifted into Smith's ledger, though that certainly plays a part.

More importantly, it's how Smith utilizes those touches that the Hawks hope will change in 2012-13. Smith annually checks in among the best finishers in the game and continued that trend last season, converting 68.1 percent of his attempts at the rim.

Unfortunately, such shots constituted less than a third of Smith's total. Granted, his 5.4 at-rim attempts per game placed him 25th among all NBA players and eighth among power forwards. It represented an overall increase over the 4.4 per game from 2010-11.

But by Smith's own standards, having that many easy looks is no impressive feat. In 2007-08, Smith attempted six shots per game—or 42.9 percent of his looks in close—and converted 66 percent. In 2009-10, those numbers jumped to 6.7 shots per game and a whopping 54.5 percent of his total attempts, with a 65.6 percent success rate.

So where did Josh's shots go? In part, out to long two-point attempts. Smith attempted 6.3 shots per game between 16 and 23 feet last season, easily his most by just about any metric. He was also tops among power forwards and fourth in the entire league in long two-point attempts, behind only Kobe Bryant, Monta Ellis and Gerald Henderson.

Keep in mind, those three are shooting guards—guys who are routinely expected to settle for jump shots—while Smith, a power forward, would be foolish to spend so much time testing the limits of the NBA's least efficient shot. What's worse, Smith hit just 37 percent of those shots. To put that in perspective, Los Angeles Clippers All-Star Blake Griffin, a notoriously poor shooter, converted 37 percent of his long twos but only tried 3.9 per game.

Break it down further with long twos consisting of shots taken within three feet of the three-point line, and Smith's selection appears even more flagrant. According to Kirk Goldsberry of CourtVision Analytics, Josh led the NBA in long-two proportion with 16.3 percent of his looks coming in that dubious range, but succeeded at a slightly-below-average clip of 36.9 percent.

All told, Smith shot just 34.2 percent beyond 16 feet compared to 56.5 percent from everywhere else. Clearly, with his size (6'9", 225 pounds) and athleticism (not to mention subpar shooting touch), Smith should spend more time attacking the basket than settling for high-risk, low-reward shots.

The Hawks' retooled roster only figures to make it easier for Josh to do just that. Atlanta will be able to spread the floor even more with sharpshooters like Anthony Morrow, Kyle Korver, Lou Williams and rookie John Jenkins on hand.

Not that the Hawks weren't capable before. After all, they ranked fifth in three-point accuracy last season, while attempting 20 shots per game from behind the arc.

But with a greater share of those attempts designated for spot-up marksmen rather than for a ball-handling wing like Joe Johnson, Smith should only find more room to carve out easy shots—be it on the low block or on cuts to the basket, where he scored an efficient 1.355 points per play last season (per ESPN's Joe Kaiser).

In other words, Josh Smith would do well to spend less time launching long twos and threes, and more time putting his prodigious physical gifts to use from close range.

Defensively, Smith could improve his focus and consistency, though on the whole, he remains one of the best in the game on that end of the floor. He's a fantastic help defender with some of the shiniest block (ninth in the NBA) and steal (20th) stats for his position, and he does a superb job of crashing the defensive boards.

What's more, Smith has the athleticism and lateral quickness to stay in front of smaller guards and wings, along with the sheer strength to stand up to bigger forwards and pivots.

Smith has every incentive to step up his game on both sides this season. He'll be an unrestricted free agent come July 1, 2013 and stands to score a pretty penny (perhaps even a max contract) if he proves that he's a franchise cornerstone and, in turn, worthy of such a hefty investment.

Luckily for Smith, he'll have every opportunity to do just that during the campaign to come. Computer projections aside, the Hawks' expectations will be pared down considerably on account of their massive summer shakeup.

But if J-Smoove can keep the Hawks in the Eastern Conference playoff picture and, perhaps, guide them to a series victory—while committing himself to attacking the basket and defending tenaciously rather than settling for long twos and loafing at times on the other end—he'll be due for a big payday.

Assuming, of course, that Danny Ferry finds it fiscally prudent to reward one man so handsomely.