Smith 'surviving,' thriving for Wizards with 3-point shot

Mar 18, 2017 | by Joey Lomonaco, fredericksburg.com

WASHINGTON—Jason Smith has long understood his status as a rare bird, a seven-footer who can stretch the floor and shoot mid-range jumpers with a form and ease belying that stature.

But it took the latest leg of a 10-year journeyman’s career—Smith’s free-agent signing with Washington last July—to convince him that he needed to adapt his unique skillset to a rapidly changing NBA environment.

“The way the game’s going, it’s not pound-it-inside anymore,” Smith said. “It’s run and gun, shooting outside shots. Evolve or die.”

Making his first start in 378 days, Smith unveiled version 2.0.

Pressed into the Wizards’ starting lineup for Friday’s game against the Chicago Bulls in place of a congested Markieff Morris, the reserve center matched his season high with 17 points, connecting on his first three 3-pointers in Washington’s 112–107 victory.

Smith scored all but two of his points during a first half that saw Washington build a 19-point lead, despite a gimpy point guard in John Wall (foot sprain) who went scoreless until his dreideling trey finally fell in at the buzzer.

Smith celebrated his 24-minute offensive renaissance by snarling his daughter Ella Rose, 2, in a hug as he walked off into the tunnel.

“He was trying to lead the league in scoring in that first half, right?” said Wizards coach Scott Brooks, who laughed when confronted with the time spanning Smith’s last two starts.

“He was good. You know what, he plays the right way. I know everybody says that, but he plays the right way.”

For Wall, no game revealed more about Smith than his hushed homecoming during a March 8 road contest against the Denver Nuggets. Smith, a Greeley, Colo., native who played his college ball for Bill Peterson at Colorado State, didn’t see the floor as Washington won, 123–113.

“Jason is probably one of the true professional teammates I’ve ever had,” said Wall, who set a career high with 20 assists Friday. “He came in, went to his hometown in Denver and didn’t get no minutes and didn’t complain. He was the first guy clapping and enjoying the teammates and encourage guys to play on.

“So, it’s great for him to come out and play well and bring a lot of energy.”

Morris battled a head cold throughout Washington’s recent five-game road trip, and Smith only learned he’d be starting minutes before Friday’s 7 p.m. tip.

He admitted that the memory of his last start, which came March 8, 2016 as a member of the Orlando Magic, had long since faded, as had the sensation of hearing his name called during pre-game introductions.

“It was like, hmm, OK, let’s re-train the mind here, let’s get it going,” he said. “Had to wake up a little bit. I really just try and be prepared for anything the team needs from me.”

Smith was brought to D.C. as an insurance policy behind center Ian Mahinmi. And when Mahinmi missed 50-plus games with various knee ailments over the first three months of the season, the Wizards collected on their claim. Smith’s effort-driven play solidified his role as the Wizards’ key reserve in the front court.

Though Mahinmi’s February return impacted Smith’s minutes somewhat, he’s still managed 5.3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game.

Perhaps more surprisingly, he’s shooting 53 percent from beyond the arc this season—nearly 20 points above his career average.

When Smith first arrived in Washington, Brooks’ focus was on getting him acclimated in the offense. The understanding was that Smith would limit his 3-point attempts to the corners.

But Smith was determined to increase his value to the team, putting in countless hours with assistant Dave Atkins and the Wizards’ other shooting coaches.

“He’s working on things he’s going to do in the game, and he’s going to be able to use to extend his career,” Brooks said.

Or, as Smith himself put it, evolve or die.

Joey LoMonaco: 540/368-5045

jlomonaco@freelancestar.com