NEW ORLEANS — Jason Smith ducked as he entered through the front door of the P.J.’s Coffee Shop at The Saulet Apartments, appearing to be just another person in for their morning ritual.
Walking through small doorways in old, historic New Orleans is the only time you’d think Smith was possibly a professional athlete.
The 7-foot, 240-pound man doesn’t exude the aura of someone making $5 million the next two seasons.
He’s just a regular guy, driving a used SUV and living in an apartment, preparing for a summer 2013 wedding and the subsequent honeymoon.
But beneath his calm, relaxed and naturally inquisitive persona lays one of the key components to the future of the New Orleans Hornets.
“To put it simply, Jason’s a guy I can trust every day,” Hornets coach Monty Williams said. “I don’t have to guess with Jason what I’m going to get. A lot of the guys in the league, they don’t mean to be inconsistent, but at times, they just are. I know Jason’s going to be all in for the team every day and he’s never going to be at a level where he stops getting better.”
Make no mistake about it, Anthony Davis, Austin Rivers and Eric Gordon will be the players who carry the team on the floor night in and night out. They’ll score and they’ll block shots and they’ll hit game-winners.
Without Smith, though, there is no veteran leadership. There’s no one Williams can point to and tell some of the youngest players in the NBA to mirror and to mimic their off-court personas after.
More importantly, Williams can tell the youngsters to follow Smith’s lead in practice and on the game floor, where he gives 100 percent every time he plays.
“I know the defensive calls and the offensive calls and what he likes, the little details about it,” Smith said. “I think he points me out just for the fact that I’m one of the last players here. I’m the longest-tenured guy here now. I know what he expects in practice. I know what he expects in games. I know what in traveling on the road.
“I know what the expectations are and I have to communicate that to some of the guys.”
Hornets' most improved player in '11-'12
Smith came to New Orleans in 2010 in a trade the Hornets made with the 76ers, sending Darius Songaila and Craig Brackins to Philadelphia in exchange for the frontcourt player and Willie Green.
He averaged only 4.3 points, 3.1 rebounds and .4 blocked shots per game in 2010-11, his first year with Williams. But a year later, after the lockout blockaded any offseason workouts with the team and coaching staff, Smith had a career year, average highs in points (9.9), blocks (1.0) and rebounds (4.9) per game.
Williams called Smith the team’s most-improved player by the end of the ’11-’12 season.
“Jason wasn’t a project, but he didn’t have a game yet,” Williams said. “He’s just worked every day to make himself not only a player, but a player that other teams have to scout. Coaches get a lot of credit for developing guys, but the bottom line is Jason has worked.”
If it sounds like Williams has a man crush on the former Colorado State Ram, it’s because the coach has the ultimate respect for Smith. He trusts him as much as any on the Hornets roster.
But the man crush goes in both directions.
Smith believes Williams is the right coach for the Hornets and the man who can lead New Orleans to places it hasn’t ever been in the NBA.
“Coach Williams, he knows what he’s doing,” Smith said. “He knows how to get the best out of people. If you don’t know that you’re going to work hard, he’s going to make you work hard. He’s that type of coach. He says we’re going to play the right way and when he says play the right way, it means go out there and work hard.”
Williams taking team in right direction
Williams has spent the better part of two years expressing one quote over and again, that you can’t cheat the game.
The team bought in so hard to that philosophy that down the stretch, when it behooved the Hornets to lose to get a better chance at the No. 1 overall pick, they kept playing hard.
“You could say that some teams in our position they would just try to lose games to get that No. 1 draft pick,” Smith said. “But coach, he said multiple times after games we were so close to winning, he said we’re not going to just quit. We’re going to play the right way and whatever happens, happens.”
Whatever happened was a transformational NBA draft that could shape New Orleans into the next big thing.
Smith: 'Davis is legit'
Magically, the Hornets got the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery. New Orleans also had the No. 10 pick thanks to the preseason 2011 trade that sent Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers.
New Orleans took Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis at No. 1 and Austin Rivers from Duke at No. 10.
The optimism that has enveloped the city about the Hornets is completely in regard to Davis and, according to Smith, is much deserved.
“He is legit. He’s a tremendous defender,” Smith said. “He has such long arms and such athletic ability and such a feel for the game that – some guys in the NBA have that feel – and he has that feel. And he’s 19.”
Smith, in other words, gets the buzz.
“Even in town going to the restaurants that I always go to, it was like, ‘What do you think about Anthony Davis?’ ” Smith said. “I was like, ‘Hold on, the draft hasn’t happened yet.’ ”
While Davis was spending his summer with the U.S. men’s national team and at the Olympics, Smith was in New Orleans working on his game.
And that’s why Williams sees the forward as this team’s quiet leader. When Smith could have been traveling the world, he was at home in New Orleans.
“It helped us set the culture,” Williams said. “You can talk about what you want to do all day long as a coach, but if you don’t have guys on the team that buy in and do it, it’s just a bunch of words. Him being here all summer-it set our culture.
“We feel like he’s a guy our guys will look up to and respect because of that.”