Greg Smith Turning Heads in Houston
Greg Smith has been one of the pleasant surprises of the 2012-13 NBA season, emerging as a significant contributor for the Houston Rockets two months into his first full year in the league.
After beginning the year at the end of Houston’s bench, the 21-year-old Smith has established himself as a key role player for the team, averaging 7.3 points and 4.3 rebounds in 14.5 minutes for Houston.
While Smith has been making a name for himself this season, his path to the NBA was anything but conventional. Prior to joining the Rockets, he was passed over by every team in the league. He went undrafted in 2011, despite having several impressive workouts and intriguing many in NBA circles with his size and potential. During his pre-draft training at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas, Smith was one of the most dominant players in the gym. Not only was he skilled, he had extraordinary athleticism and the biggest hands that had ever been recorded at the draft combine. When point guards dumped the ball into Smith down low, he would often catch the ball with one hand, as if he were catching a tennis ball.
But before he could start his NBA career, Smith had to prove he was NBA-ready. He had stints with Soles de Mexicali of the LNBP in Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the NBA Development League.
“I knew that I had the talent and everything to play in this league,” Smith said. “Not getting drafted was definitely a setback, but it just motivated me to work harder. I wanted to show teams that I was going to bring that fire, bring that passion for the game that I love every night. It definitely motivated me.”
While Smith always knew that he had the talent to play in the NBA, he’s now showing everyone else. When given the minutes, he has played like a starting-caliber center.
In 22 minutes against the Boston Celtics, Smith recorded 20 points, six rebounds and three blocks. In 24 minutes against the Los Angeles Lakers, Smith contributed 21 points, nine rebounds and two blocks. In other words, good things happen when Smith is on the court. When he has played 18 or more minutes this season, Houston is 6-1.
The game against Los Angeles was special for Smith, not only because it was his coming out party but because he grew up watching the Lakers and because he got the best of Dwight Howard, which isn’t an easy thing to do. After the game, Howard complimented Smith and told him to keep working.
“I’m from California so L.A. was one of the teams that grew up watching,” Smith said. “Playing against them and playing against Dwight Howard, who is right now the best center in the league, it was great to be able to showcase what I can do. It was great to get the win and show my talent. It worked out well.
“I’ve just been working hard in Houston, trying to improve my game, agility, quickness, knowledge. It’s basically just hard work. I knew I had it in me. I just had to put the work in and keep improving. Now, I’m getting more adjusted to the league and I’m motivated to keep getting better and keep working.”
Growing up in Fresno, Smith looked up to Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon, modeling his game after the legendary big men. Like every other young basketball player, he also watched Michael Jordan.
“I was going outside every day trying to practice their moves and work on my game,” Smith said.
Another big man that he respected was Kevin McHale, who is now his head coach in Houston. Smith still has to pinch himself sometimes. He has enjoyed playing for McHale and loves to pick his brain.
“Oh man, it’s Kevin McHale, it’s crazy playing for him,” Smith said. “He’s one of the greatest big men of all-time. He was such a great player. He could use both hands in the post, he could get you with a pump fake or an up and under and he could shoot it. He’s definitely one of the top five big men of all-time.”
Now, as he adjusts to the NBA, several people have helped guide him. Carlos Dew and Duane Martin have been his mentors throughout the process. Paul George of the Indiana Pacers has also helped him with his transition to the league. George, who was Smith’s teammate for one season at Fresno State, let him know what to expect on and off the court in the NBA. He has helped him adjust to the league, get used to the NBA lifestyle and deal with pressure. Even though George is only one year older than Smith, he is in his third season in the league. The two players talk several times a week and George helps Smith stay hungry and confident.
George, who was the 10th overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, and Smith have had very different journeys, but both ended up in good situations and are living out their dream of playing in the NBA.
Smith couldn’t be happier in Houston, going so far as to say that he’d love to play with the Rockets for the duration of his career. When asked if he could see himself in Houston long-term, Smith doesn’t hesitate before saying, “I can.”
“I love Houston, I love the fans, I love the coaches and I love the organization,” Smith said. “Hopefully I can be here for a long time, maybe even my whole career. I really love Houston and everyone there.”
Entering this season, many predicted that the Rockets would finish as one of the worst teams in the Western Conference. However, the team has exceeded expectations, just like Smith, and currently sits sixth in the West with a 14-12 record. Smith said that the team’s early success has been a result of the team building chemistry and developing an identity as a team that players hard-nosed basketball.
Another reason for the Rockets’ success? The presence of a surprise contributor like Smith who has been able to become an everyday player and make an impact each time he steps onto the court.