His critics aside, new Piston Josh Smith keeps showing there's a method to his madness. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)
Auburn Hills — The NBA has a way of typecasting players, no different than Hollywood actors who seemingly portray the same character over and over.
Pistons forward Josh Smith has been called plenty of things during his nine-year career, and most of the adjectives revolve around what he believes are half-truths.
He’d be the perfect movie villain begging for someone to understand him, to see there’s a method to his madness and behind it all reveals a sense of humanity no one has bothered to uncover.
In its heyday, the Pistons franchise was a haven for misfits, talented players set aside, forgotten or vilified.
"Watching Josh, watching him play, I like his personality,” Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks said. “I like his fire on the floor, and I don’t want to change that. There’s always ways to channel it. (But) I like the way he is, I liked it in Atlanta."
Smith’s fiery persona seems to be the perfect fit, even if he isn’t the prototypical fit next to Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. Pistons president Joe Dumars saw a fit in attitude.
“It speaks volumes because you come into a situation … a lot of people listen to what they hear,” said Smith, who agreed to a four-year, $54 million deal in July. “They don’t want to come in and give their own assessments about who the player is, getting to know the guy.”
Smith also admits to being guarded, partly from spending most of his life in Atlanta until recently.
“It only takes one time to rub someone the wrong way,” he said. “(But) I don’t mind answering questions. I have to feel people out.”
Smith certainly carries an edge — in the form of a scowl — that’s been missing from the Pistons for a while. But he also has become one of the savviest and most cerebral players.
“I always leaned on my athleticism to get me by,” said Smith, one of the NBA’s high school-to-pros success stories. “But as you begin to have years in this league you become a student of the game.”
Before the NBA changed its rule to prevent high-schoolers from jumping directly to the league , it had about a 50-50 success rate, and Smith, though cautious, stuck close to his inner circle. He leaned on his father, who drove him to each and every home game, and counts former NBA star Steve Smith (Michigan State) among those he trusts.
“I have to wait for his texts (after games),” said Josh Smith of his father, Pete Smith, last season.
On the floor, Smith can be a blur. The lefty goes from blocking a weakside shot on one end to filling the lane on the other, finishing a fast break with a punishing dunk that has left many challengers shaking their heads in self-disgust.
It’s why Cheeks didn’t mind Smith taking nine 3-pointers in last Thursday’s exhibition win over Minnesota — with Smith’s last attempt taking a shooter’s bounce through the hoop as time expired — because Smith will likely be his SwissArmy knife this season, doing some of everything.
“I liked (Smith’s) game, he was aggressive on defense,” Cheeks said. “He’s gonna get some open 3s, and the ball finds him. Some he’s gonna make, some he’ll miss.”
Smith has to guard everyone from perimeter wings like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James to power forwards like David West and LaMarcus Aldridge, something that requires a certain amount of intelligence. Don’t be surprised to see him charged with shutting down a hot player late in games, a challenge he relishes.
“I always was a guy that thrived off defense,” Smith said. “You can’t really teach it; it has to be instilled in you. I know it’s a lost art in this league and I’m trying to keep it going.”
For every nine things Smith does well, like his all-around defense, unselfishness or stellar post play, he hears about the two things he’s not so adept at. Like the perimeter shots that made the crowd in Atlanta cringe, one that never saw Smith help the Hawks past the second round of the playoffs in six appearances.
When Chauncey Billups was asked if his new teammate has been judged too harshly, he didn’t hesitate: “Yes. Yeah, he is.”
“In my opinion, people ask me what position he is, and he’s a basketball player,” Billups said. “When he’s engaged, he’s a tough cookie, man. It’s tough to guard him. He can guard you.”
The list of players who have averaged at least 17 points, nine rebounds and four assists in this millennium, as Smith has done the last two seasons, reads like this: Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber and Lamar Odom, who have all been recognized as arguably of the best thinkers in recent history by TV analysts and longtime observers.
Fittingly, Smith immediately tabbed Billups, who played with Garnett, Webber and Odom, as someone he’ll attach himself to this season, in the effort to make himself a better leader for a franchise he’s immediately embraced — because it has embraced him.
“That’s why acquiring Chauncey is gonna help me in so many ways. I’ve been ‘captain,’ but I don’t believe in that word at this level because everybody on this team should have a voice and should respect what their teammate says,” Smith said.
“(Lead) is a foreign word and thing to have a group of guys who look to me for leadership and for me to get them out of situations. I look to Chauncey to help me do it the right way.”
Billups has already started working on his newest pupil, seeing Smith get frustrated early during an exhibition game in Orlando before helping lead a late comeback. Smith said the frustration came from seeing some of his younger teammates struggle — before realizing a lot of them were inexperienced and telling them they all needed to slow down.
Smith and Billups had a chat after getting back to Detroit, and Billups said he believes Smith’s up-and-down days will be behind him — immediately.
“I told him I seen two different Josh Smiths last night; one of them I don’t like. I don’t want to see him,” Billups said. “Then I saw the one in the fourth quarter that turned it on and gave us a chance to win because he was mad. This process is allowing me to learn him as a teammate, and once I do get to know him, I know how to approach him.”
It’s no secret the Pistons have suffered from a lack of someone wanting to take ownership of the locker room in recent years, leading to long losing streaks and a lack of recognizable identity since their contending team aged and moved on.
Smith likes being looked to for answers, and while he’s giving them, he’s still listening. He can tell you which players around the NBA give the best and worst effort defensively, who uses their gifts and who wastes them. He watches them all.
During the exhibition game he sat out, he was often seen with Rodney Stuckey, pointing out things while play was going on and during the timeouts. After practices, he's taken time to show the art of defending the post to rookie Tony Mitchell, showing him a few tricks like demonstrating where to position his legs to give himself the best leverage against an offensive player.
“Not saying guys didn’t listen to me in Atlanta, but this is a group that relishes in the moment of getting better and wants to win. We have guys that are sponges,” Smith said. “At this level you have so many egos. So many players who think they’re better than they are and don’t want to listen to certain individuals. It’s about where you land.”
And he landed in a place that appreciates players of all backgrounds and attitudes, so long as they perform when it matters most.
“I’m in a humbling position, humbling situation that these guys wanted me to be the main guy in free agency,” Smith said. “I’m a guy that plays hard, that’s versatile and put his heart out every night. I feel that I owe these guys gratitude to show them how much I appreciate the opportunity.”
Sounds like Smith wants a new role in a new movie — unsung hero.