NBA a new ballgame for Smith

November 26, 1995|By Ken Rosenthal

PHILADELPHIA -- As Maryland discovered Friday night, Life Without Joe is no bargain. Just as predictably, Life For Joe isn't exactly a picnic, either.

Joe Smith still weighs 225 pounds, same as he did at College Park. Problem is, he's now an NBA power forward, matched up against the Karl Malones of the world.

Last night, he again was on the same floor as former North Carolina star Jerry Stackhouse, playing before 35 friends and family members who drove up from Virginia.

At times, he looked lost.

At other times, he was his old brilliant self.

Such is life for an NBA rookie, even one who was the first pick in the draft. Smith played only 24 minutes after getting into foul trouble, yet finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds in Golden State's 107-89 victory over Philadelphia.

Stackhouse scored 18 points and had nine assists, but my, how times have changed. Smith's team is 5-8. Stackhouse's is 2-9. Their first NBA meeting took place at a nearly half-empty Spectrum. Clearly, they're a long way from Cole Field House and the Smith Center, a long way from the ACC.

Statistically, Smith is doing fine, averaging 12.3 points and 6.9 rebounds. But from his very first exhibition game, he knew the NBA would be more difficult than he imagined.

His opponent? Utah.

His assignment? The rough-and-tumble Malone.

"I felt I was ready," Smith recalled before last night's game. "But as the game went on, I was like, 'God, it's going to be a long season of this, banging, being bumped, 80-90 games of being pushed around like this.'

"I'm starting to get adjusted to it. But at first, I was like, 'How long can I go without tiring out?' "

Thirteen games into his NBA career, the question is still valid. Smith should be a junior at Maryland. He doesn't turn 21 until July. His skinny body isn't suited for the NBA grind.

None of this comes as a surprise. And none of it means Smith should have stayed at Maryland. He was the No. 1 pick, OK? He couldn't pass up the chance to provide financial security for his family.

All right, that's why he's here. The question remains, how good will he be? The answer still figures to be "very," because Smith is the same old Joe, working hard, maintaining his unflappable demeanor, learning each step of the way.

Still, it's a different world. Golden State already has lost as many games as Maryland did last season. Smith wasn't much of a factor last night, but it was one of 82 games, in the first season of a career that should last a decade.

It's a different world, all right. No more classes. Lots more free time. No more team meals. Smith doesn't regret his decision to turn pro, but admits he misses his former teammates at Maryland.

"Oh yeah," he said, smiling. "Oh yeah."

The Warriors were in Boston on Friday night as the Terps opened their season in Springfield, Mass. Before the game, Smith called Maryland's hotel and spoke with Johnny Rhodes, Exree Hipp and his former roommate, Matt Kovarik. When he got back to his hotel room, the first thing he did was turn on ESPN to see how the Terps did.

They lost to Kentucky, 96-84.

The Joe Smith Era is over.

"It seems like it was yesterday," Smith said. "It doesn't seem long ago at all. I had such a great time there, I want to try to keep the memories close."

But he has new memories to create now. Warriors coach Rick Adelman loves him the same way Maryland coach Gary Williams loved him. Rookie or not, Smith is still clutch -- he had six rebounds in the fourth quarter last night.

This is Joe Smith, remember? ESPN still shows him dunking every night. Los Angeles Clippers coach Bill Fitch said the rotation on his shot resembles a shooting guard's.

"He's playing well, doing all he can," Warriors point guard Tim Hardaway said. "But it's hard, going up against Otis Thorpe, people like that. He's going to be all right, once he gains some weight, gets stronger."

How much weight does he need to gain?

"A lot," Hardaway said.

Adelman disagrees.

"I don't think it's weight," he said. "I think it's just a matter of toning up and getting stronger. We want him to use his strength better. I don't think right now he knows how to use his strength."

Adelman said he expects to use Smith at both forward positions before the season is over, and there will be nights Smith erupts the way he did at Maryland -- witness his 30-point game against Atlanta on Nov. 9.

Still, Smith often appears out of his element. At Maryland, he had room to maneuver inside, and used his quickness to his advantage. The NBA lanes are more congested. No longer can Smith simply jump over opponents for rebounds.

It's a different world.

But it's Smith's world now.

"If I had second thoughts, I would have stayed in school," he said. "But I made my decision. I thought it out a long time. I miss those guys. I miss playing with them. But once I made my decision, I felt it was right."

Life -- with and without Joe -- goes on.

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