Where maturity, mayhem and moderation collide: Josh Smith’s final chance
Midseason transfers can be an odd exercise even in the most promising of situations, when an incoming player has significant talent at a position of need. A head coach needs to handle things carefully, as you’re going to fundamentally be changing the way you play part way through the season. In preseason and during the stretch of games during the first semester, you’re seeing things in practice that your team can’t do in actual games. Then the newcomer arrives and everything can change — minutes, roles, approach, success. Even when it looks like a simple plug-and-play, it’s not.
That brings us to the forthcoming re-emergence of former UCLA center Josh Smith at Georgetown, a team badly in need of an offensive inside presence after losing Otto Porter to the NBA lottery and Greg Whittington to injury. Smith transferred to Georgetown in January after 2.5 increasingly frustrating seasons in Westwood, where he was inexorably losing a battle against his own fitness. Smith will be eligible after first-semester exams, but the scope of his potential impact remains unknown because the extent of his latest attempt to work himself into shape remains very much in progress.
As profiled on Thursday by ESPN’s Andy Katz, Smith has apparently dropped 40 pounds since he arrived. He is now down to 310, his listed weight at UCLA, but one that almost certainly understated his heft, at least last season when his girth was unmistakable and left him as a liability on the court. Smith was the unfortunate participant in this airballed layup, but it was even more on the defensive end where his lack of mobility and stamina were sadly apparent. In Katz’s profile, Georgetown head coach John Thompson III says that Smith is still a long way away from being able to stay on the court for significant stretches, and while he refuses to peg a weight where that would be possible, it seems reasonable that Smith may only be halfway (or less) to a successful goal.
If it feels like we have been here before, we have. Multiple times.
After Smith’s freshman season, head coach Ben Howland openly leaked to CBSSports.com that Smith had actually put on 10 pounds during the early part of the offseason rather than cutting the weight he needed to lose after a solid debut campaign. His relative lack of fitness and conditioning led to decreased production and minutes as a sophomore. Howland then ripped Smith’s conditioning again last summer, this time to the Sporting News, saying “I’m disappointed where he’s at, that he’s not further along with his conditioning. That’s just being honest, being truthful.” Heading into last season, Smith conceded that he had been out of shape as a sophomore, but still nothing changed and Smith was essentially unplayable last year before he elected to leave the team during nonconference play.
Maturity issues have been part of Smith’s problem since he enrolled at UCLA, with Howland openly calling him out for comments after a loss to USC during his freshman year. They likely were a strong contributing factor to Smith’s inability to cope with Howland’s increasingly toxic Bruins program, one that featured a ton of recent notable transfers and wrapped up with Howland getting fired after winning the Pac-12 this past season.
Understanding Smith’s significant role in his own lack of development, I have been consistently on record as saying that Howland and the program let Smith down to a large degree. As much as a player has to take primary ownership for his own motivation and impulse control, to allow a player with as much natural talent as Smith to remain so out of shape was a shocking indictment of everyone involved, especially for a coach that was trying to hang on to his program. If a player can’t do it on his own — and there is more than enough evidence at this point that shows Smith clearly wasn’t capable of it — then he needs to have help. And whatever help Smith did get, and whatever different tacks Howland and his staff took, clearly didn’t work. So here we are.
The Georgetown situation is interesting because the last thing Smith needs at the moment is the perception that he’s going to be some kind of savior when he gets back on the floor. Georgetown has some depth in the frontcourt for this season, but a player with Smith’s hands, passing and overall offensive skill would be, in theory, an enormous addition for them. And while my Twitter followers volunteered numerous recent guys — like Devoe Joseph (Minnesota), Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee) and Tyrone Garland (La Salle) — who have had significant impact in their first semester with a new program, midseason transfers often end up overhyped. That may be doubly the case with Smith, as he still has a ton of work left just to get into reasonable Division I basketball shape before he can even think of having an impact for the Hoyas, and five months to do it.
When all a player has to do is stay in relatively decent shape for six months to become a millionaire — which is the position Smith was in entering his sophomore year, and he couldn’t do it — there are deeper issues than just simple dietary concerns. Anyone who struggles with their weight, myself included, will tell you the dangers of food as a coping mechanism to handle other stresses. To Smith’s credit, he took ownership of his time at UCLA, telling Katz, “I didn’t put the work in. That was really it. People told me as a freshman. I didn’t put the work in. I thought I could turn it on and off,” but it seems obvious that he had to get away from Howland and UCLA in order to have any chance. The relationship was poisoned.
We’ll see what happens now, when the onus is all on Smith. Losing 40 pounds is a strong sign of some initial commitment from a guy who may be watching a lucrative future slip away, but this is where it gets harder, when the pounds don’t come off as easily, when the season draws closer and the expectations and media coverage grow in proportion. Here’s hoping Smith takes this final chance to get his own house in shape, just for his own health let alone professional prospects, and also that no one expects too much from him immediately if and when he does make it back on the floor. The weight of too many expectations won’t be healthy for him, either.