- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2000

WILMINGTON, N.C. When the Washington Wizards drafted Mike Smith in the offseason, the rookie out of Louisiana-Monroe talked a good game. Smith, taken with the 35th pick overall, said that despite his small-college pedigree, he would show everyone that he was a big-time player in a small pond.

After three days of training camp, Smith would appear to be on his way to doing so.

"Obviously you can see he's nervous out there to some degree," Wizards president of basketball operations Michael Jordan said. "But he's got the skills. But you can't tell me one guy who came into unfamiliar circumstances and did not have some nervousness and some discomfort about a new beginning and a new system. But he does have a lot more leeway than anybody else because he has never played this [NBA] game before. We know that he has talent; it's just going to take him a while to made the adaptation."

Smith has not looked bad by any stretch. At times he has demonstrated that he can stick the jumper from afar. And despite his lithe, 6-foot-8, 195-pound frame, Smith has taken the ball inside against bigger players such as center Jahidi White and power forward Popeye Jones.

But what Smith lacks right now is familiarity with the NBA game and its nuances. When to make the right pass and how to play NBA defense are things some players never learn, and Smith, who is being force-fed a variety of offenses and defenses from a new coach that are foreign even to the veterans, doesn't mind admitting his nervousness.

"I got plenty of jitters," Smith said. "My first day out here, I was throwing the ball around all crazy. I'm about to get over that now, though. I've got to protect the ball and be strong and just play basketball.

"But right now it's kind of difficult because they expect you to be on target with everything. But the good thing is that the majority of them will let you know what you are doing wrong and will tell you what you need to do. It's been a big help. Guys like Chris Whitney and Juwan [Howard] have been really helpful to me."

Wizards coach Leonard Hamilton says there is not need for Smith to rush anything, because he isn't ready.

"It's going to be a process that is going to take him some time," Hamilton said. "Most of the stuff that we are doing and that the experienced guys find somewhat familiar is totally new to him. From his standpoint, he's just thinking and trying to make sure he's in the right place at the right time. It's not quite as easy to go out and feel comfortable and relaxed when you are still at the stage of just trying to find out where you are supposed to be offensively and defensively."

It's not hard to understand why Smith expressed such confidence in his ability. After all, he's always going to be identified as the first player ever drafted by the greatest player ever to play the game. And he got his first chance to mix it up with players from bigger and better-known programs this summer at the Portsmouth NBA rookie camp, where he walked away with MVP honors.

But now he finds himself on the court with players who have 10 years of experience under their belts, guys who have been to multiple All-Star Games and others who see him as a guy who isn't even wet behind the ears yet. His humble approach has endeared him to some.

"He listens, and that's a good thing," Howard said. "They talk about a lot of the young guys who think they know everything, but Mike Smith wants to learn and he wants to get better. He works hard and he's a humble kid. He asks questions because he wants to learn, and that's the key, man.

"Not only that, that's a bit positive for him. If he continues to stay on that path and pull guys to the side who have been around this league for awhile, and watch some of the guys who are leaders around here and how they take care of their bodies and stuff like that he can go a long way."

Smith might have to contribute faster than either he or the team originally had envisioned. He signed a one-year deal ($316,969) that will roll over into a second year if he is still on the roster after Jan. 1. It looked like he might be able to move at a slower pace until the Wizards released Dennis Scott on Wednesday.

Scott and Howard who prefers to play power forward were the only other small forwards on the team. But with Scott now gone, some of the minutes he was expected to get will now go to Smith or perhaps newly signed Harvey Grant.

"I'll just be willing to accept what happens," Smith said. "I'm willing to work hard to be ready. If they need me my job is to be as close to being ready when they need me. I've been playing basketball all my life."

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