John Thompson III has coached countless bigs since arriving at Georgetown a decade ago, but he has never worked with a player like Joshua Smith, and the addition of the oft-criticized Smith will propel the Hoyas to the Big East’s upper echelon.
Smith’s journey to Washington, D.C., is well known but worth recapping: a top prospect, the center committed to UCLA over Washington (near his Kent, WA home), and after two productive but ultimately frustrating seasons under Ben Howland, Smith elected to transfer six games into his junior season. It was unclear this offseason whether the 6’10” Smith would play in 2013-14, so when the NCAA ruled that not only could Smith suit up but he would have an additional season of eligibility (2014-15), intrigue began to build regarding how Thompson could use Smith in Big East play.
Though conditioning has historically stunted Smith’s effectiveness, that same heft contributes to the center’s uniqueness. Smith’s agility and footwork give the impression he carries less than his current weight (per Georgetown’s roster) of 350 pounds. His ability to maneuver around the paint and then use his trunk to dislodge defenders makes Smith nearly impossible to guard. Front him and he can seal a defender and catch a pass with his opposite hand; play behind him and he deftly drop-steps toward the bucket.
It is fascinating that Thompson brought the big to the East Coast because players with Smith’s skillset typically don’t play for Thompson. Thompson doesn’t want to dump the ball into the paint – Hoya guards dominated the scoring load during the last three seasons, and even when Greg Monroe took the court, the big did not lead the team in percentage of shots taken. Thompson prefers his bigs to be mobile. The frontcourt should be comfortable flashing to the free throw line or to the perimeter while also facilitating, swinging the ball to the opposite wing to get defenders moving and creating gaps that fuel Thompson’s offense.
Monroe played a crucial role in Georgetown’s offense, but the 2010 team (the last year Monroe suited up for the Hoyas) was driven by perimeter play. More than 20% of the squad’s possessions ended with a jump shot, and the ball was fairly equally spread amongst Monroe, Chris Wright, and Austin Freeman.
Smith had a year to work within Georgetown’s offense, so what might we expect when the Hoyas debut against Oregon on Friday? Neither Thompson nor Smith has explicitly revealed the extent of the big’s conditioning – Thompson did tell ESPN’s Jeff Goodman that Smith can play for ten minute stretches (up from two minute stretches when he arrived from Westwood) – and there will be a correlation between Smith’s minutes and stamina. When Smith was a Bruin, he rarely left the paint (77% of his touches came on the block or offensive rebounds), and it is fairly safe to say Smith will remain anchored to the paint, leaving only to set bruising perimeter screens.
There are a variety of ways the Hoyas could enter the ball to Smith, the simplest being dump offs from Markel Starks and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera when they drive the interior. Since Smith is much less mobile than former Hoya bigs, and he might clog the lane, but even if Smith’s defender stays by his side, Starks and Smith-Rivera have enough bounce to consistently beat their man if help doesn’t arrive. Another option could be cuts within the paint; though Smith recently said he is more comfortable now with his handle, his ball-handling likely still needs some work, but he has shown skill passing from the post (specifically from the right side of the court) and could become an integral aspect of GU’s perimeter game, opening up different looks for his teammates. One further play might be high-low action with either Nate Lubick or Reggie Cameron. Once Smith seals his defender, there is little chance that opponent generates a steal, so if Smith can ride the player up the line, he’ll open the offense for an over-the-top pass or create an open 10-plus foot shot for either big.
It also behooves Georgetown to keep Smith within a few feet of the bucket because he is arguably the country’s best offensive rebounder. He’s immovable once he boxes out, and though he isn’t great when it comes to snagging long boards, he anticipates caroms well. Smith posted an offensive rebounding percentage of 19.5% and 16% during the 2011 and 2012 seasons, respectively, and he scored nearly 1.5 points per offensive rebound during the 2012 season. If he can improve his free throw touch, Smith’s offensive rating could lead the team. Smith’s rebounding is crucial because the Hoyas have never been a team to consistently secure second chances. Since the 2007 season, there have only been two Hoya squads that grabbed more than 35% of their Big East misses and those extra possessions Smith generates should boost their offensive efficiency.
It is also worth mentioning that Smith should complement Georgetown’s already staunch defense. Opponents struggle to score within the paint, and the long-armed Hoyas have seemingly mastered the art of preventing easy looks. Georgetown typically uses about 60 or so possessions per game, and are skilled at preventing transition looks: per Hoop-Math.com, 23% of opponents’ attempts come off the break, and the Hoyas do well limiting two and three-point field goal makes. Smith’s weight loss will help him better navigate the open floor, and since Georgetown is now the Big East’s slowest team (thanks realignment!), Smith can remain on the court for longer stretches.
When I made my preseason Big East rankings, I was pessimistic that the Hoyas would contend in the new look Big East. A JTIII-led team will always defend well, but I had doubts about their frontcourt – the duo of Lubick and Mikael Hopkins isn’t very offensively imposing – and there were too many scoring question marks. But the NCAA’s ruling is significant. In Smith’s two-plus seasons in Westwood, his conditioning issues meant he was never the offensive focal point, but he converted 56% of his twos when he got minutes. Since Georgetown is a somewhat veteran team – Otto Porter is the only departee from the 2013 squad – the Hoyas don’t need Smith to dominate offensively. If he can crash the offensive glass, not commit turnovers, and disregard his tendency to needlessly foul, Thompson has an advantage unrivaled in the Big East.