Pay day for Smith On his way: Ex-Terps star Joe Smith has his ups and downs in NBA debut.

November 04, 1995|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

HOUSTON -- Joe Smith was talking with his uncle late Thursday in his hotel room about his NBA debut for the Golden State Warriors. It was then that Willie Brown brought up his nephew's last official debut.

"He kept talking about the Georgetown game," Smith said yesterday.

It was the game that introduced Smith, then an unknown Maryland freshman, to the rest of the college basketball world. It was the game that launched the legend of Smith in College Park.

Smith thought last night's debut, against the NBA champion Houston Rockets at the Summit, would be different than the afternoon he destroyed the Hoyas. Not because of who he'd be playing against, but because of who he'd be playing with.

"I would love to have a game like that," said Smith. "But I'm not the focus on this team. I'm not the guy who's going to have the ball in his hands at the end of the game."

Actually, the 6-foot-10, 220-pound forward wasn't even on the floor for what turned out to be a crucial stretch of more than eight minutes in a 110-92 defeat. Smith departed with 2:28 left in the third quarter and the Warriors trailing 70-68.

By the time he returned, with 6:17 to go in the game, the Rockets were about to go ahead by 15.

The former Maryland All-American finished with 14 points in 26 minutes, but had only three rebounds. He didn't score after a thunderous one-handed follow dunk with 8:40 left in the third quarter, but it's hard to contribute when you're sitting on the bench.

"I think he's going to play between 26 and 32 minutes a game," said Warriors coach Rick Adelman. "I think he's better off playing shorter stretches than longer ones."

Asked about the two long stretches Smith sat, including one of more than 10 minutes in the first half, Adelman said: "It was probably too long."

Smith was his typically diplomatic self about the way he was used, but he admitted he got a little antsy sitting for such a long period with the game still in doubt. It was certainly a far cry from his two years in College Park, when about the only time he came out was because of foul trouble.

"He told me what he was going to do," Smith said of Adelman. "I'm used to being on the floor all the time. Here, there are going to be times when I'm not going to play as much."

It is all part of the adjustment Smith, the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft last June -- for which he received a three-year, $8.53 million contract -- is making as a pro. Just as he did as a Terrapin, Smith has fit into an established team by working hard and saying little.

"I've always had the confidence -- ever since my first game at Maryland," said Smith, who is still wearing jersey No. 32.

"If I didn't think I could play at this level, I would have stayed at Maryland and worked on my game for another year."

There have been a number of other adjustments, from playing power forward rather than center to being, at 20, the youngest Warriors player by more than two years.

A quick study, Smith has heeded the advice of Adelman after trying to show he could play a physical game inside with the likes of Karl Malone and Shawn Kemp.

"He told me, 'Don't try to bang bodies with them,' " said Smith, who hasn't gained any weight since leaving College Park. "He told me to use my quickness."

Said Adelman, who was also making his Warriors debut last night: "He's going to have to learn about playing against certain people, but he'll do it."

There are some who might think that Smith is under less pressure and scrutiny than last year's top pick, Glenn Robinson, because his salary is only a fraction of the reported $68 million the Milwaukee Bucks are paying the former Purdue star.

But Smith knows that he will receive plenty of attention.

"It's still tough," said Smith. "Being the No. 1 pick puts a lot of pressure on me. The fans might expect me to be the do-everything guy, but we have a lot of talent."

Judging by the comments of his new teammates, the Warriors are ecstatic to have him. They appreciate his nose-to-the-backboard approach and the fact he doesn't seem to get flustered.

"I love his attitude, first and foremost," said newly acquired guard B.J. Armstrong, who has compared Smith with former Chicago Bulls teammate Horace Grant. "He plays through fouls, and very few young players do that. He's a level-headed kid."

He showed that after last night's game. Just as he did at Maryland, Smith packed up his belongings and moved on. He was headed to Dallas for tonight's game with a mixture of memories from his debut.

Aside from the dunk, they included jumping center against MVP Hakeem Olajuwon to start the game. They also included the 7-foot-2 center falling on him later on -- "He kind of smooshed my head," said Smith, who nursed a sore neck -- and more time on the bench than he might have liked.

"Playing in my first game against the Houston Rockets is something I'll remember the rest of my life," he said.

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