Jason Smith has debated with his wife, Kristy, about what they would do with Ella Rose, their button-cute 17-month-old daughter, if Smith had a “podium game” in the playoffs. That term applies to players who have a breakout night during the postseason and are summoned to the formal press conference. Often, NBA players have their little ones in tow. And, often, it’s around 11 p.m. when this happens.
Since Ella only makes it to halftime during the regular season, Kristy has told Jason she will not be available should Smith put together a press conference-worthy night in the playoffs. He gleefully disagrees, ready to arm Ella with a bow in her hair and a seat on his lap no matter what the clock says.
That Smith has an outside shot at such an event was unlikely to start the season. He was viewed as a fill-out-the-roster signing, essentially the fifth player in a full frontcourt. His three-year contract drew derision for its length. How he fit — was he a third center or did he play alongside centers — was in question. Smith’s hustle, bubbliness and jump shot answered those questions and have pushed him into a key wild-card role for the Washington Wizards.
His playing time is unpredictable. Smith played 12.5 minutes per game in November before dropping to 10.5 in December and rising to 16.2 in January. Wizards coach Scott Brooks was often experimenting then. He tried to figure out how Andrew Nicholson could fit and how to deploy Smith while Ian Mahinmi was injured. Smith was used as a center or a power forward. Eventually, Nicholson was traded and Mahinmi returned just before the All-Star break.
Those moves opened a spot for Smith alongside Mahinmi with the second group. From Jan. 10-Feb. 16, Smith played at least 13 minutes per game as part of the rotation. He shot 56 percent from the field during that time. The Wizards also excelled. January into February was when the team moved toward the top of the Eastern Conference standings for multiple reasons. Smith’s play was among them.
Then, his minutes were shut off. He played four total minutes in the first three games after the All-Star break. He was inserted during a game at Toronto, played 10 minutes, made all four shots, then did not play the next two games. He showed up again in Phoenix, when he played 23 minutes, went 6-for-7 from the field and scored 17 points. From there, the team traveled to Denver. Smith was born in Greeley, Colorado, went to high school in Kersey and played in college for Colorado State in Fort Collins. He’s one of nine players in Colorado State history to make it to the NBA or ABA. He did not play against the Nuggets.
“He’s probably one of the true professional teammates I’ve ever had,” John Wall said. “Can play games, go to his hometown in Denver, don’t get no minutes and don’t complain, be the first guy there clapping and enjoying his teammates and encourage guys to play on.”
Two nights later, he was back on the floor in Sacramento when the Wizards were in a funk. He again went 4-for-4 from the field and added six rebounds in 24 minutes. Brooks lauded him afterward, saying Smith was the reason Washington won that night.
He started last week against Chicago and Charlotte because of Markieff Morris’ illness. Against the Bulls, Smith scored 15 points in the first half. It was a different evening for him. The last time he started an NBA game was 378 days prior. The team found out shortly before tip-off that Morris could not play. In went Smith.
“Let’s retrain the mind here, had to wake up a little bit,” Smith said with a laugh. “I really just try to be prepared for anything the team needs from me.”
This season, that has included 3-point shooting. Smith has long been a capable jump shooter despite being one of the larger players on the floor. His college coach, Bill Peterson, repeated to Smith that he had a rare combination of size and shooting. That was in 2007. A decade later, the NBA has morphed into a home for large shooters, endangering big men who could only score from 17 feet and in. So, aware of the trend and Brooks‘ preference, Smith stepped back until he was behind the 3-point line and started working. First, from the corners to master the shortest 3-pointer. Then what Brooks calls “the slot,” his term for a wing 3-pointer.
“I think [player development coach] Dave Adkins has been great,” Smith said. “He’s been with me since I signed, trying to get workouts going. He’s really helped me along having confidence shooting the ball from outside. Winston Gandy, Ryan Richman. All of our individual coaches, they work with us every day. Practice days. Days you don’t want to shoot. Days we have off days. They’re always here.”
Smith is shooting a robust and selective 51.5 percent (17-for-33) from behind the 3-point line. The long-distance makes have vaulted his effective field goal percentage, which accounts for the higher value of a 3-pointer, to 57.3 percent.
“I think he can shoot more of them,” Brooks said.
How many more is in Brooks‘ hands. He knows the playoffs will cut his rotation to around nine players. Eight of those are clear. The ninth spot could fluctuate between Smith and Kelly Oubre, depending on matchups, game flow and results.
That he’s in the conversation is unexpected. But, the blend of Smith’s shooting, ability to sit then deliver, and Washington’s clear path to the playoffs has caused discussion of how a podium game would be handled. He just needs to pick out that bow.
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