Joshua Smith ready for homecoming
UCLA's freshman center knows Washington fans won't be shy expressing feelings
Joshua Smith is headed home this week, presumably with earplugs in tow.
A few extra layers of skin might make a good addition to the packing list as well.
Smith, UCLA's freshman center, was born and raised in the Seattle area and blossomed into a local hero while attending high school in Kent -- a Seattle suburb about 25 miles from the Washington campus -- but chose the Bruins over his hometown team when it came time to pick a college.
So when UCLA takes the court Thursday at 6 p.m. for a Pac-10 game against Washington that will be televised on ESPN2, you can bet Smith will become target No. 1 of the vitriol spewed from a crowd that has developed a reputation for being spirited and boisterous.
"In their mind, I'm a traitor," Smith said. "Obviously it's going to be a hostile environment. I've been to UW games, I know how hostile it gets."
Smith's ability to handle the crowd may very well have an impact on UCLA's chances of winning the game.
Earlier this season, Smith let the crowd get to him and it affected his play. At USC on Jan. 9, Smith was so upset with the fans that he gave the Trojans crowd the middle finger after the game. He finished with eight points and three rebounds and fouled out as UCLA lost.
"I thought early on it was bothersome for him," coach Ben Howland said. "We saw that at SC. And then even at Arizona a little bit. You just learn to tune it out. It's not what's important. They're trying to get you to focus on something they're saying as opposed to what you're trying to execute or accomplish."
Smith seemingly has learned to tune it out. On Feb. 20 at California, for instance, he made a pair of free throws that gave UCLA its first lead of the game while fans were verbally assaulting him regarding his weight.
Surely the Washington crowd will provide much more venom than that, but Smith says he's ready for it.
It's "just focus and maturing," he said. "Fans will say whatever they can to get you under, and on the road, all you should care about is the family and friends you've got there, your team and your coaches, and that's all that matters."
Learning that focus and maturity has taken some time, but it's beginning to show on the court.
Early this season, Smith sporadically showed glimpses of the potential that made him a high school All-American, but often left observers wondering when his big breakout would come.
As it turned out, there would be only a slow, steady, plodding growth.
Smith failed to play more than 20 minutes in nine of his first 15 games because he had been in so much foul trouble. He had at least four fouls in nine of those games, and UCLA was a meager 9-6 overall and 1-2 in conference games.
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He has scored in double figures in 10 of 13 games since the USC game and, perhaps more important, he's averaging 23.6 minutes. He has had more than three fouls only four times during that stretch, as UCLA has won 11 of those 13 games and is tied for first place at 12-4 in the Pac-10.
"I think the improvement of Josh Smith and what Ben and his group have done with that kid has elevated the growth of their team," USC coach Kevin O'Neill. "Since we beat them here they've won 12 of 14, and that kid has gotten better and better every week."
Arizona coach Sean Miller has seen Smith twice now and said there was a world of difference between the Smith who played at Arizona on Jan. 27 and the one who had 17 points Saturday in UCLA's 71-49 victory over the Wildcats.
"His physical size and his ability to catch and finish and UCLA's execution to get him the ball is alarming, is how I would put it," Miller said. "I would tell you I don't care who they play from now on, getting Josh Smith in foul trouble or not allowing him to have a big role would be something to UCLA's opponent's advantage. If he's in there and he can have the role they want him to have on offense, he really changes the game."
Perhaps the biggest turning point for Smith came Jan. 29 at Arizona State. Midway through the second half, Smith got the ball in the low post and Arizona State's Jordan Bachynski tried to body him up. Smith turned and threw down an aggressive one-handed slam that got the Bruins off their bench.
“"Then he came back and had a couple of big-time dunks in the next game at home, and I think he's really taken off from that point," Howland said. "It's funny how that happens, where you wouldn't think just one play like that can change things, but it can at times and I think it did."
Now they have him defending better and he is playing so confident offensively. You can tell when he gets the ball he feels no one can stop him. And a lot of times that's the case when he gets it down there.” -- Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, who heavily recruited UCLA center
Joshua Smith out of high school
Until that point, Smith had been a little too passive on offense and teammates kept prodding him to dunk more.
"A lot of high school players come in and are just getting feel of it," forward Tyler Honeycutt said. "Being able to know what you can and can't do, and I think he's just realizing how good he can be. Now he knows. Before he didn't know. He never did this before."
Smith has also become more comfortable in his role. He began the season as a starter but went to the bench for a few games after continual foul trouble. He went back to starting and then back to the bench.
He also started the season hedging screens, which was in part to blame for the foul trouble. Now he's being asked to plug and has become more at ease with those techniques. The plugging started just before the USC game Jan. 9.
"It was just kind of weird because I started and then I didn't start and then he wanted me to plug and then he wanted me to hedge and then he wanted me to hedge in the games I would start," Smith said. "Now, just coming off the bench and plugging, I know my role and it's every day."
Washington coach Lorenzo Romar scouted and aggressively recruited Smith throughout high school and said Smith is now playing a lot like the dominant force he was while at Kentwood High. Facing him Thursday, Romar said, is going to be a lot different than when the Huskies faced him Dec. 31.
"Now they have him defending better and he is playing so confident offensively," Romar said. "You can tell when he gets the ball he feels no one can stop him. And a lot of times that's the case when he gets it down there."
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Washington is a notoriously difficult place to play. The Huskies are 13-1 at home this season and have defeated UCLA the past six times the teams played there. Washington, of course has had good teams, but a lot of it has had to do with the crowd.
The Bruins are well aware that Smith will be a target. Howland said he already has talked to Smith about it and teammates are also giving him advice on how to handle it, letting him know they will be there for him if things get out of control.
Smith says he isn't all that worried. He knows what to expect and is preparing himself to deal with it.
There is one fan in the Seattle area that has him concerned, however: his biggest fan.
Smith's mother Tracey is a Washington alum. She grew up cheering for the Huskies and is well-versed in how to cheer like a Washington fan. But on Thursday at Alaska Airlines Arena, she'll be cheering for the opposing team, and Joshua isn't so sure how well her antics are going to fly.
"My dad keeps joking around, saying that my mom is going to get into a fight with the whole student section," Smith said. "The last thing I need is to look up there seeing my mom trying to tell the whole student section to shut up and stuff."
If things go the way they have been of late for Smith, however, she probably won't have to. Her son's play will do it just fine.
Peter Yoon covers UCLA for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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