Moving forward Joe Smith: After a slow start, the former Maryland star is beginning to show people why he was the top pick in the NBA draft.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

OAKLAND, Calif. -- He can't keep any weight on. He often looks tired. And he's started wearing glasses.

Seven weeks into his pro career, Joe Smith has discovered the NBA can make someone age in a hurry. The process apparently is particularly harsh if that someone is a No. 1 pick and undersized power forward, playing for the talented but struggling Golden State Warriors.

Smith, though, appears to be weathering the sudden demand to mature physically, in large part because of his emotional and mental maturity. He still struggles on the second night of back-to-back games, which is what tonight's rematch against the Washington Bullets at USAir Arena will be, so those planning to welcome back the former Maryland star may need to temper their expectations.

He also bruised his hip in last night's loss at Detroit when he lost his balance on a rebound and landed hard on the floor. Although X-rays were negative, his status for tonight is not known.

Still, he recently carried the Warriors to a couple of victories, such as their 132-117 blowout of the Bullets five days ago in Oakland, and coach Rick Adelman has made him the go-to man down the stretch.

"I feel a lot better now," Smith said. "I'm starting to play better, block shots, rebound. I'm doing what I wanted to do when the season started."

Concerns about Smith's adjustment to the NBA began during the exhibition season after he met No. 2 pick Antonio McDyess in an exhibition game against the Denver Nuggets. On the Nuggets' first possession, McDyess soared over Smith and nearly tore the rim down on a vicious tip-dunk. McDyess finished with 19 points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots. Smith had two points, two rebounds.

A fan shouted at Adelman what probably crossed more than one observer's mind: "You picked the wrong guy!"

The rush to judgment didn't abate when the Warriors started 3-8 and Smith had nine blocked shots and averaged seven rebounds and 13 points. Not bad numbers, but the most impressive aspect of his game seemed to be his jumper. And that's the last thing the Warriors needed -- another outside scorer.

It was about this time that Smith showed up in the locker room wearing glasses. It turned out that Smith needed corrected vision for driving around unfamiliar surroundings in the Bay area -- but the second-guessing had reached such proportions that the glasses prompted a minor rumble.

"There was a time where I thought, 'Can I get a chance?' " Smith recalled. "They didn't say it directly, they were beating around the bush, but I was catching on."

Smith was taking a quiet punishment on the floor as well. He entered the league undersized for a power forward -- 6 feet 10, 215 pounds -- and instead of adding pounds, he was dropping them. His weight fell as low as 207 when the team added five protein shakes a day to his diet.

And he seemed to forget that he was undersized, choosing to wrestle for rebounds rather than slip and slide for them, making him equally ineffective against the smaller Grant Longs of the league as well as the bigger Karl Malones.

"When I'm out there now, I'm playing a lot smarter," Smith said. "I just thought about it and realized, 'I can't fight with these guys for 82 games.' My strength is my quickness."

That revelation has had a notable effect. After last night, he has as many blocked shots (10) in his last four games as he had in the first 11. He's averaged nearly seven rebounds the past six. Charlotte coach Allan Bristow said, "He's the best out of the rookie crop that I've seen so far."

Adelman has been careful to temper his criticism, wanting to make certain Smith's confidence is not damaged before it can develop.

"What has hurt him more than anything else is when he plays a lot of minutes or back-to-back games," Adelman said. "Whenever he's fresh, he comes out and plays well."

What teammate Chris Mullin says he likes most about Smith is that there's no way to tell by Smith's attitude if it's the first or second game of a back-to-back set.

"He has a perfect demeanor for the NBA," Mullin said. "If he plays well or if he plays so-so, you can't tell. He's consistent with his effort. He's the kind of guy you want to focus your team around."

Despite that even-keeled nature, the victory over the Bullets and his contribution of 27 points on 10-for-14 shooting, 10 rebounds and a blocked shot meant a lot for at least a couple of reasons. One was that his family and friends back home in Norfolk, Va., and his Maryland teammates would be watching it on television. Another was that it came against Bullets forward Chris Webber, a previous No. 1 pick and power forward who had been expected to lead the Warriors to glory.

"I was as nervous as I've been all season," Smith said. "It's not that we were playing the Bullets. It was playing against Webber.

"Before the season, I heard so many comparisons made between me and Chris. Never mind that we're two totally different people with two totally different games. They were saying I couldn't do what he did. It was tough for me to take. Chris Webber is a great player, and I felt I was going to be a great player, too. Don't take my first two games and compare them to his first two games. It made me just want to go out and play hard."

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