ATLANTA — Josh Smith can still come across as nothing more than a big kid.
He bounces around the court with an obvious love for the game, wowing teammates and opponents with the depth of his skills.
That's the good Josh.
Then there's those times when he throws up a head-scratching shot, or petulantly whines to officials about a call that doesn't go his way, doing everything but hold his breath in a futile attempt to get them to change their minds.
That's the bad Josh.
These days, the former shows up a lot more than the latter for the Atlanta Hawks.
Make no mistake, J-Smoove has grown up.
"Is there some things he still needs to work on? Absolutely. He'll be the first to admit that," Hawks coach Larry Drew said. "But he's really starting to understand the type of player that he can become. He's made tremendous strides in developing his game. He's one of the few guys in this league who has the ability to impact both ends of the floor."
Smith's maturity couldn't have come at a better time in Atlanta, which was dealt a huge blow in January when All-Star center Al Horford ripped a pectoral muscle and underwent surgery that kept him for the rest of the regular season (and at least the first round of the playoffs).
Into the void stepped Smith, a man-child of a player who's always been treated with equal parts awe and contempt in the city where he was born, raised and has spent his entire working career. No one ever doubted his talent, but there's always been a sense that he never quite lived up to his enormous potential.
Well, it's time to put those complaints to rest.
It's hard to imagine where the Hawks might be if Smith hadn't taken his game to a new level. They certainly wouldn't have put up the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference, gaining home-court advantage for an opening-round series against Boston.
Game 1 is Sunday.
"When he's competing and playing at a high level," Drew said, "he's as good as anybody in this league."
Smith averaged a career-best 18.8 points a game, led the Hawks in rebounding (9.6) and did his usual stellar job at the defensive end, where he was often matched against bigger players in the post. Despite the mismatches, he had a team-high 115 blocks and ranked second in steals with 96, all while playing each and every night on frequently ailing knees (Jeff Teague was the only other Atlanta player to go in all 66 games).
"This was definitely a year where I was productive," Smith said, sitting at his locker before the regular-season finale. "With the injury to Al, I had to step up as a scoring leader and being more of a vocal leader. Basically, it was just showing everybody what I always had in my game. I was able to get noticed more so than my previous years."
Still, playing in Atlanta where the Hawks usually rank near the bottom of the league in attendance despite five straight trips to the playoffs, Smith's stellar year has gone largely unnoticed.
He was passed over again for his first trip to the All-Star Game — even after teammate Joe Johnson, who had been selected, couldn't go because of an injury.
"I think my teammates appreciate me," Smith said. "The people who understand the game appreciate what I do. That's all that matters. You have a lot of people who don't know the game of basketball, who just go off what they hear and that's what they say. It's funny, but it's life."
Smith sometimes wonders just how much his own organization values his game, complaining they haven't lobbied hard enough for him to receive more league-wide recognition.
"There's a whole lot of stuff involved in that," he said. "Your own team has to push you first for stuff like that before you ever get noticed. Every other team who has all-stars, who've been part of multiple all-stars, they push for their players. It boils down pretty much to how much does the team want to invest in you. Not just on the court, but definitely off the court, too."
Smith was none too pleased in 2008 when the Hawks forced him to test his value on the open market as a restricted free agent. He signed an offer sheet with the Memphis Grizzlies, which the Hawks quickly matched but not without leaving Smith feeling a bit unwanted — especially when the team was much more amicable in negotiations with Horford and Johnson.
Smith, who has one more year left on his contract, heard his name thrown around at the trade deadline, though the Hawks made no serious attempt to move him. But, if it becomes clear that he doesn't plan to re-sign with Atlanta this summer, the team would have to start considering a possible trade rather than lose him for nothing in 2013.
"I don't know what future lies ahead of me right now," Smith said. "All I know is right now I'm an Atlanta Hawk. I've been here for eight years. It's been eight good years. I'll just have to wait to see what happens next year."
The 6-foot-9 Smith clearly took the loss of Horford upon his shoulders, establishing himself as a forceful presence in the post, which is where he's most effective and keeps him from being tempted by an ill-timed jumper from the 18-to-20-foot range.
Turns out, he doesn't need his outside shot — an odd-looking, left-handed motion in which Smith cocks the ball behind his ear — that much when he's doing most of his work in the lane.
"It all started when Al went down," Johnson said. "Sometimes, when you've got two guys on the blocks, you're not able to get in a good rhythm. Josh has been able to catch a good rhythm in the post. He really came into his own this year."
Certainly, those who watch Smith on tape know how effective he can be.
"Off the chain! He's been phenomenal," said New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson, who coached the Hawks during Smith's first six seasons. "Since the All-Star break — I mean, he's had a solid year all year — but since the All-Star break, he's been one of the top players in the league. It's crazy how good he's been."
Woodson is most impressed by the way his former player carries himself on the court. With Horford out, Smith has stepped up to claim a costarring role with Johnson.
"His leadership role has gone out the roof," Woodson said. "He's become the leader that everybody expected him to be."
Yep, J-Smoove has grown up.