Smith finds niche on Warriors Ex-Terp star returns to his inside game

March 01, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

Entering his second season in the NBA, Golden State Warriors power forward Joe Smith figured he would demonstrate more versatility. So, after working on his shooting during the off-season, Smith took his game farther from the basket, to the perimeter.

Eighteen-foot jumpers became a norm. His new offensive repertoire also included a fade-away jumper. There was just one little problem: When Smith took his game to the outside, there was no one inside banging the boards and doing the dirty work -- what the Warriors expected when they selected Smith with the top pick of the 1995 draft.

Joe Smith, the jump shooter, lasted for about a month.

"It was something that I became aware of -- that I was settling for the jumpers and the fade-away shot and not getting inside as much," Smith said last month in Los Angeles. "I had to be more aggressive. I needed to get inside more, to get to the basket more, and try to make things happen."

In short, to resemble the player who, in two years at the University of Maryland, became one of most dominant inside players in college basketball. And Smith has returned to that form. While he still shoots that 18-foot jumper, he's more apt to take his 225-pound frame inside and bang with the big boys. He has had success, averaging 19.6 points and 8.9 rebounds after last night's game against the New Jersey Nets.

Smith has a homecoming of sorts tonight when the Warriors face the Washington Bullets at USAir Arena in a game that pits two of the most disappointing teams in basketball.

The Bullets (25-31) have lost 10 of their past 13 games. The Warriors (21-34) had dropped nine of their previous 12 before last night, and that has been frustrating for Smith, who was the main reason the Terrapins returned to national prominence and made two Sweet 16 appearances in his two years at Maryland.

"While we still have a shot at the playoffs [Golden State is ninth rTC in the Western Conference], losing has been pretty difficult," Smith said. "You come in here, you're used to winning, you're used to postseason play. Last year we were two games out of the playoffs, and that was tough. We're trying to come back and make things a little different this year."

That is why Smith decided to give his game a bit of a face lift this season. While he had a successful first year, averaging 15.3 points and 8.7 rebounds, Smith's biggest problem was his size. Against a player like Utah's Karl Malone, Smith was giving up nearly 30 pounds and getting pushed easily off the low block.

"I felt I had to get stronger to compete as a power forward in this league," Smith said. "And I also felt that I had to work on stepping out on the floor, to make things happen from the perimeter as well as from the inside."

And while Smith may have relied on that a bit much early in the season, he has managed to incorporate both an inside and outside presence on the court -- while getting close attention from opponents.

"I'm more of an offensive threat than I was a year ago, and teams are focusing on me and not letting me get the ball as much," Smith said. "They're trying to force me to do different things, but I feel I've been successful."

Golden State coach Rick Adelman agrees.

"I think sometimes he gets ignored, but he has put up some pretty good numbers for us," Adelman said. "I think people tend to forget that he's just 21 years old."

A 21-year-old who is a bit hardened by an off-the-court incident over the summer in which he faced felony assault charges after a male exotic dancer was stabbed in a bar brawl. Smith was cleared of those charges, an incident he said he learned a great deal from.

"The whole incident just taught me to be more careful," Smith said. "I've always been concerned about my image, and being accused of something like that was surprising. I learned a lot from what happened, learned to be more aware of the people around me."

Those charges were cleared up about three weeks before training camp. With that out of the way, Smith, disappointed that he did not win the Rookie of the Year award last season, set a goal of having an all-star season. Even though his numbers were good, and even though there were numerous injuries in the Western Conference that presented further opportunities, Smith was not named to the team.

"I worked real hard over the summer to achieve that, and to come into a season and not accomplish a goal that you set for yourself, it's tough," Smith said. "We have Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Shawn Kemp out here, and those guys have been in the league for so long and it's tough for a second-year guy to knock one of them out."

Then, laughing, Smith added, "Hopefully, a couple of those guys will retire soon, to give some of us other guys a chance."

Smith, who was the third sophomore to be selected with the No. 1 pick in the draft (Magic Johnson in 1979 and Chris Webber in 1993 were the others), said he closely followed the progress of the Terrapins -- who were an early-season surprise in college basketball.

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