The Detroit Pistons signed Josh Smith to a four-year, $54 million deal this offseason, and they'll need him to live up to that contract if they want to make noise in the Eastern Conference this season.
Smith, who plays both forward positions, is one of the most physically gifted players in the entire league. His career has been filled with vicious blocks and posterizing dunks.
While the highlight-reel plays are part of what makes him a valuable player, the Pistons need Smith to concentrate on doing the little things necessary to helping them win games.
They'll need him to play to his strengths offensively while giving consistent efforts in a variety of roles on the defensive end. And with a roster of young players around him, Smith will be asked to become a leader as the Pistons look to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
With two emerging low-post stars on the roster in Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, Smith will play more minutes at small forward this season than he has in the past. But while he will be playing on the wing, he needs to find ways to generate shots near the rim, where he's at his best offensively.
Smith's combination of size and athleticism has made him one of the NBA's best interior scorers. In 2012-13 he shot 70.3 percent from within five feet of the rim, per NBA.com. That mark was good for eighth among the 248 players who attempted at least 100 such shots.
When he's getting to the rim, whether off the dribble or by cutting off the ball, Smith puts a lot of pressure on opposing defenses. The problem is he settles for outside jumpers too often, an area in which he struggles.
Smith took 539 shots from 10 feet or further in 2012-13, and he made just 30.2 percent of them. He took 201 three-pointers, a career-high, and hit just 30.3 percent.
In six preseason games, Smith has already taken 23 threes, making 10 of them—or 43.5 percent. While that percentage is excellent, the success is unlikely to last, as Smith's career-best is 33.1 percent from beyond the arc. It's more telling that he's taking nearly four three-pointers per game.
He will be tempted to take jumpers as smart defensive teams dare him to shoot, but Smith just does not have the skill set to hurt opponents that way. He has to be willing to pass up those shots in favor of higher-percentage looks for himself or his teammates.
On the other end of the court, the Pistons will need to use Smith's versatility to improve a defense that ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency in 2012-13.
Smith's offensive skill set may not be ideally suited for the perimeter, but the transition defensively should be an easy one. According to 82games.com, Smith held opposing small forwards to a PER of 8.9 in 2012-13, and ESPN Insider Bradford Doolittle ranked him as the NBA's top perimeter defender in January.
He ranks sixth on a per-possession basis against isolations and second in steal-plus-block percentage. Smith is just a really good defensive player, which hasn't always been the case during his career.
That's good news for the Pistons, who otherwise lack a great perimeter defender. There will be times where Smith spends the entire game matched up against an opponent's top perimeter scorer.
There will be other times where they need him as an interior defender. Drummond is an elite shot-blocker, but when he's off the court Smith is the only other player who can challenge shots at the rim. He'll also have to defend top post scorers when paired with Monroe, a poor defensive player.
While most players have a clearly defined defensive role, Smith's may change on a nightly basis, and sometimes even in-game. To be successful, he'll need to be prepared and engaged for 82 games.
The 2013-14 Pistons are a very talented team, but they're also one of the youngest in the league.
There are nine players 25 or under on the roster, and just two players who are 30 or older: Chauncey Billups, 37, and Will Bynum, 30. If Billups comes off the bench, Smith will be the Pistons' oldest starter.
With such an inexperienced roster, it is imperative that Smith makes strides as a leader.
He can also be a volatile player on the court—his 11 technical fouls were tied for 11th in the NBA last season. General manager Joe Dumars told the Detroit News he likes that side of Smith, as long as it's in moderation.
When we sign him, we’re accepting everything ... He’s an edgy guy, and he’s going to have his moments. But I felt like we needed that. We have some nice guys.
Two players who will be looking up to Smith are Drummond and Monroe, 20 and 23, respectively. They are already very good players, but Smith has nine years of NBA experience to share with them.
Smith wasn't looked at as a leader in Atlanta, but he has little choice but to be one for the Pistons. If he plays basketball the right way and helps the young players mature, this can be a very dangerous team in the East.