In his first two years at UCLA, Joshua Smith showed as much promise as any player in the country. For a guy his size -- in 2012 he was listed at 6-foot-10, 305 pounds and that was probably a little bit generous, weight-wise -- Smith is uncannily agile, with soft hands and innate touch around the rim.
The only problem? He's always been too big. This was the case as a freshman, but like most freshmen, Smith's weight was forgiven. He was a young guy. It was his first year in college basketball. He earned a spot on the Pac-10 All-Freshman team; he was producing. The potential was obviously there. Get him into the program, get him on the weights, he'll get his body into shape, and the sky is the limit. Right?
That didn't happen. Smith can in as a sophomore at roughly the same size, if not bigger and his lack of conditioning made his sophomore year a struggle. Smith's productivity declined, his minutes shrank, and his foul count per 40 minutes ballooned (from an already rough 5.8 as a freshman to a downright awful 7.3 as a sophomore). With troubled forward Reeves Nelson dismissed from the team early in the season, UCLA really needed Smith to step up. Instead, he regressed.
All of which is why it so encouraging to see Smith finally starting to get it -- to understand why hard work and conditioning is paramount for a player with legitimate NBA aspirations. That's the unmistakeable impression left by ESPN LA reporter Peter Yoon's story on Smith's summer workout routine:
Smith, a junior, said he has lost at least 15 pounds since the end of last season. He is consulting a nutritionist, spending more time in the gym and the results were evident during a summer workout Tuesday, when he ran up and down the court for nearly an hour without showing much fatigue. It was a far cry from last season when he routinely lumbered around out of breath and had a mostly forgettable season.
"I can admit that last summer I didn't take that step to improve my game," he said. "I had an OK freshman year, people were praising me, I kind of got my feet wet in D-I, I kind of got my feet wet in the Pac-12 and I thought I knew what to expect. But you see that guys in the offseason were in the gym, in the weight room and stuff. & It was like if you put in the work, good things would happen and that's what I'm trying to do." [...]
"I couldn't really take anything positive from last year," Smith said. "I want to get to the point where it's not, 'Oh if Josh was in shape' or 'If Josh was this.' I just want to be able to run up and down and give my team 29 or 30 minutes on the floor where I'm actually producing, not just 19 minutes where I play in spurts and try to stay out of foul trouble." [...]
"Last summer, I can admit I didn't do anything," he said. "I went to the gym every so often, I was chilling and enjoying my summer. It's like if you want to get to that next level, you've got to put in the work. ..."
Look: As someone who is probably 15 or 20 pounds above his ideal weight (ahem, if that), I can fully identify with how difficult it can be to motivate yourself to a) eat right and b) get in the gym. Playing "Gods and Kings" and eating Lou Mahlnati's is usually a lot more fun! I get it, and I'm sure there are many readers who can identify. Which is why it's always so difficult to criticize somebody -- particularly a 19-year-old kid -- about his weight issues. I have no real interest in that.
But we're also not college basketball players at the University of California, Los Angeles. Smith is. For him to get where he wants to go -- to help lead UCLA out of mediocrity, to play the interior force alongside Shabazz Muhammed and Kyle Anderson -- Smith had to take on the responsibility of getting himself into shape. The same potential is still there. He just needs to harness it.
For the first time since he arrived in Westwood, it would appear Josh Smith is doing just that. It's an exciting prospect for UCLA fans -- and a frightening one for the rest of the Pac-12. The guy's just too talented to play 20 minutes a game. Maybe, just maybe, those days are over.