If you’ve been keeping up with UCLA hoops, the departure of highly-talented, but oft-maligned, center Josh Smith is old news. (And if you haven’t kept up with UCLA basketball … well … surprise!)
The first narrative that was formulated was that which emphasized the vast amount of players that have left the program in the past four years with four having left in the past calendar year.
But what hasn’t been discussed was the impact of Smith’s departure not on just the direction of the program, but the direction of this team on the actual court where actual basketball games are being played.
Because without Smith, UCLA’s once-assumed advantage of being larger and more intimidating on the interior no longer exists. From here on out, UCLA will have to employ a three-big rotation of Travis Wear, David Wear and Tony Parker. Aside from the fact that watching a two-Wear line-up is detrimental to your eyes and this UCLA hoops team, the only player that can play the pivot fully is Travis Wear, meaning he’ll be relied on for heavier minutes than usual. That’s not ideal considering this squad has had conditioning issues (as they did last year; surprise, surprise), and although Parker can step in at the 5 occasionally, his success there isn’t sustainable just yet, given the amount of fouls he commits and his over-aggressiveness which needs to be channeled and used appropriately.
UCLA didn’t just lose a talented center that was coming off the bench and had largely disappointed a hopeful fan-base. UCLA lost its most efficient big man in the past three seasons. They lost a player who led the team in total rebound percentage (percent of available rebounds a player grabbed while on the court), the team leader in defensive rating (measure of amounts of points allowed per 100 possessions) and effective field goal percentage.
We can lament about Smith’s inability to stay on the court all we want, but for the 14 minutes a game that Smith played (a number that’s low not because he couldn’t stay on the court, but because Ben Howland was so reluctant to play him in favor of a two-Wear line-up), he was incredibly tough to match-up with and his rebounding skills were lightyears ahead of that of the Wear twins.
Smith was consistently able to get position inside offensively and roam the paint defensively. His presence would’ve been useful against SDSU last Friday night, when the Aztecs outscored UCLA in the paint 28-20. His presence in that game would’ve offset the fatigue accumulated from a devastating seven-man rotation.
Fans can resent Josh Smith all they want — and they have, often saying good riddance to a 20-year old kid who clearly is undergoing serious personal issues — but it’s not as if his presence on the court resulted in a net negative for the team. Sure, laugh at the airballed lay-up .gif all you’d like but he wasn’t a horrible presence in the locker room and he often performed at a higher level than Travis or David Wear when he subbed in.
So Smith will be missed greatly, not just because he’s a good kid, but because he was still a damn good basketball player.
Who knows? The way UCLA hoops is headed, we’ll probably applaud Smith for jumping off the wagon as fast as he could.