When fans and critics talk about junior center Josh Smith, any and all discussions start with one word: big. Many gape at his measurements: 6-10, 350 pounds. Others remember how big of a flop his career at UCLA became after much hype coming out of high school, and still others wonder how big of an impact he can have as a Hoya over the next two seasons. But for Josh Smith, he’s just happy to return to playing basketball.
A vaunted five-star prospect coming out of high school, Smith committed to a UCLA program that was on the tail end of a successful decade, with multiple Final Four appearances. In his first year, envisioning a future NBA career, Smith averaged solid freshman numbers, scoring 10.9 points and pulling down 6.3 rebounds in 21.7 minutes per game. But Smith’s second season, one which is often promising for NBA prospects, failed to meet expectations. Smith’s numbers across the board dropped from his freshman season, raising questions about his ability to make the jump to the next level. And by the time Smith’s third year came around, his inability to stay on the court for extended stints became a clear obstacle to both himself and the Bruins.
With his weight ballooning and tensions rising with Head Coach Ben Howland, Smith decided it was time for a change of scenery. And after a visit to the nation’s capital over Christmas break, Smith found himself committing his future to the Hoyas. Smith will presumably be in a Hoya uniform for the next two seasons, after the NCAA granted him four semesters of eligibility in a rare display of leniency, a reality few dared to predict when he announced his transfer to Georgetown in January.
“All I can say is I was blessed,” said Smith, “I knew I was going to play but I didn’t know if it was gonna be the first game, or the Kansas game, but now, knowing that I can play, it’s just a lot of weight off my shoulders.”
For Smith, any success on the court will rest on his conditioning and habits off of it. With his well-documented struggles with his weight, Smith explained that improving his health has been a methodical process. Since he arrived last December’s, Smith has slimmed down significantly but still has a long way to go before he’s in full game shape.
“I’ve been here for almost a year,” said Smith, “so even though I haven’t been on the court, I’ve been with every practice rhythm, every conditioning, lift, workout, playing, I’ve been doing all that … I’ve just noticed a really, really big change, just being able to go for a little bit in practice, now being able to full practice … I’m on steps to getting there.”
Health questions aside, Josh Smith’s potential for on-court play is as high as any big man’s in the country. With his unmatched size and rare skill set: strong offensive moves and a soft passing touch, Smith is a nightmare matchup for any opponent.
“There’s not too much like going up against Josh Smith,” senior team captain Nate Lubick said. “He’s the least fun person I’ve ever boxed out in my entire life.”
Head Coach John Thompson III, perhaps the biggest factor in Smith’s transfer decision, had high praise for his new big man.
“A committed Josh Smith—I’m not sure there is a better big man in the country,” Thompson said in an interview with ESPN. “He has the instincts and the physical tools to be better than any big man I’ve had.”
Clearly, a best-case scenario year from Josh Smith raises the ceiling for a Hoyas team searching for an identity after the departure of star Otto Porter to the NBA’s Washington Wizards. On offense, the addition of a true center in Smith allows both Nate Lubick and junior Mikael Hopkins to thrive at their natural power forward positions. Forced to play out of his position last year, Hopkins will be a particularly formidable matchup for most power forwards he faces this season. Also, Smith’s deft passing touch will be the perfect shot-creator for the Hoyas’ knockdown three point shooters, like senior guard Markel Starks and sophomore guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera.
If Smith can stay healthy and extend his stints on the court, he has the chance to be one of the most dominant forces in the Big East this season. Though questions will follow him all season regarding his health, his eligibility, and his departure from UCLA, for Josh Smith, the fresh start he has been seeking has finally arrived.
“I’m here now,” Smith said, “so that’s all that matters.”