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The golden state of Joe Smith NBA: In the last season of his Warriors deal, the ex-Terp is driving hard for basket of millions with a post-Sprewell surge.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

OAKLAND, Calif. -- It's an off-day public appearance, and Golden State Warriors forward Joe Smith is able to fulfill most requests: an autograph that an older woman wants for her grandson, a family portrait with a couple and their two children, and the promise to get back to a woman who would like him to make an appearance at her church.

When the crowd thins, a woman in her 20s, who had been standing on the fringes, approaches with a wrapped lollipop. Extending her hand she says, softly, "I'll trade you my sucker for yours."

She repeats her request again and again for the sucker Smith has had planted in his mouth for the better part of a half-hour. Politely, and with a smile, he refuses.

"That's too weird," he says, laughing, once she gets out of earshot.

But, clearly, not as weird as the circumstances that have surrounded the Warriors this season with Latrell Sprewell's attack on coach P. J. Carlesimo and the suspension of the former Golden State guard. But these days things are nearly back to normal with the team, where the focus now is whether Smith's future in the NBA will be in the Bay area.

Come the summer of 1998 -- when his three-year rookie contract of $8.53 million comes to an end -- the 6-foot-10 Smith will be in a position to negotiate a deal with any team. And just how well Smith, the top pick of the 1995 NBA draft, plays over the remainder of this season will determine whether he puts himself in position to negotiate deals like fellow 1995 picks Kevin Garnett ($125 million contract extension), Rasheed Wallace ($80 million extension), or Bryant Reeves ($65 million extension).

There is a chance that the Warriors, if they feel Smith will not re-sign, will trade him. Smith refused to sign a contract extension with the team last summer.

In any event, he grins widely when asked about the contract numbers some members of the class of 1995 already have received. He knows his big payday is close. "Wheeeww," Smith says, his eyes rolling. "They have definitely set the market. I've said this before, I'm just like a little kid on Christmas. I just want to prove to people that I was worthy of being the first pick."

Filling Sprewell void

Smith, in recent weeks, has showed some signs of why he was the first pick in the draft after being named the college Player of the Year at Maryland. In the 10 games since Dec. 10, Smith has averaged 19.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and shot 46.9 percent (86-for-183).

His numbers and his aggressiveness started to pick up after Sprewell, who was Smith's best friend on the team, was suspended. Prior to Sprewell's suspension, Smith had scored more than 20 points in just three of 14 games. After the suspension, Smith has scored at least 20 points seven times in 13 games. He had a season-high 27 in a Dec. 10 upset over the Los Angeles Lakers, which he topped three games later with 28 points in a win over Dallas.

After shying away from contact for much of his first two seasons, Smith is mixing up his improved perimeter game with some of the low-post power moves that made him successful in college. His play is a big reason why the Warriors, who had won just one game with Sprewell in the lineup, are 6-7 since his suspension.

"No one looked at it as a good situation, what happened to Spree," said Carlesimo. "But in reality what has happened is it was an opportunity for other people like Joe to step up.

"It's taken us awhile to utilize his talent," Carlesimo added. "But right now Joe is playing the best he's played all year."

What Smith wants to be careful to do is not let statistics -- which often come into play during contract years -- get in the way of the team goals.

"You know, when I was a rookie I used to look at the box scores [of other first-round picks] to see how they did," Smith said. "But when you get in a habit of worrying about what other people are doing or other things, it can mess up your game.

"I don't want to make this a money thing, not at all," Smith said. "I just want to go out and play basketball and try to get as many wins as possible. I don't want to go out and say 'I need to score 30 points to get $100 million.' I don't want to get into that frame of mind."

That unselfishness impresses the Warriors' organization. And they are doing everything they can to impress Smith, who did not sign an extension over the summer because he first wanted to see the team's commitment to winning.

"We can't do anything right now and we'll just have to see where time takes us," said Golden State general manager Garry St. Jean. "But we want to keep him here -- you don't want people like that to go. Obviously, I'm going to keep hugging him."

Said Smith, of his chances of coming back: "Just because I didn't sign here didn't mean I didn't want to be here. We'll just have to wait and see what happens over the summer."

Blocking media shots

At least the organization, perhaps mindful of its blunders with past stars, has maintained its love affair with Smith. That hasn't been the case with the Bay area media, who have offered harsh criticisms, and some fans, who have gone as far as posting Joe Smith Web sites to express their disappointment with his play.

It's far different from the time Smith was drafted, when words like "hard-working," "truly fine," and "intelligent young man" were used to describe him. Already this season words used to depict Smith in the local media have included "ineffective," "small," and "soft." Most of the criticisms on the Smith Web sites are unprintable.

"That's why I don't read the papers, so comments like that don't bother me," said Smith, after several of those remarks were read to him. "Everyone has their own opinion about everything. I just want to play basketball."

If Smith wasn't aware of the heat he was taking, St. Jean was.

"When you're one of the top players and your team is not doing well, we're all going to share the blame," St. Jean said. "I'm just happy to see Joe respond with some big games and come through in some clutch situations."

And some of that has included throwing his still thin 225-pound body around defensively, taking charges, diving for loose balls and bringing his offensive game closer to the basket.

Smith realizes that many people saw his drafting in 1995 as being a final piece of a Warriors team that has suffered four straight losing seasons.

"This is a competitive league with top-notch players, so you just can't throw a rookie out there and turn a whole organization or a whole team around," Smith said. "I think when I came here we had enough veterans -- Tim Hardaway, Chris Mullin, Latrell -- where I could just fit in and not be looked at as being a savior. It's been unfortunate what has happened here over the last few years."

The departures of Hardaway and Mullin are just the start of it. A virtual playoff team has defected, including the likes of Mario Elie, Chris Gatling, Tom Gugliotta, Tyrone Hill, Mitch Richmond, Rony Seikaly and John Starks.

And as the losing continued into this year, Smith was labeled by some observers as an underachiever. Asked whether perception his play would affect his market value, Smith said: "I don't know. I think that's something we have to wait and see next summer when the market opens. Hopefully I'll keep playing the way I'm playing now. And hopefully we can keep winning. If that happens, then I don't think I'll have to worry about market value."

A reason to smile

In the final minutes of a recent close game against Sacramento, Smith is on the bench. Not because of ineffectiveness, but because he fouled out after scoring 25 and grabbing 11 rebounds.

In his role as a cheerleader, Smith exhorts his team to an eventual overtime win over the Kings. His smile indicates that he's enjoying himself, a far cry from the expressionless Smith that was the norm at the start of the season.

"I didn't have much to smile about, but I told myself that I'm going to go back out there and have some fun now," Smith said. "I figure that if we as a team are going to work hard, we might as well have fun doing it."

There was a concern about whether Smith could have fun after the suspension of Sprewell. Smith was one of the six players who stood in support behind Sprewell at his news conference, and he even wrote his former teammate's No. 15 on his ankle wraps for several games after the incident.

"There have been no problems with me," Smith said. "I've stayed about as level-headed as anybody throughout all of this."

And that has been proven by his play on the court, where the financial windfall of Smith just might be connected to his performance -- and how the team fares -- the rest of the season.

"All I want to do is win," Smith said. "And if we win, it will take care of everything else."

Money player?

How Joe Smith's numbers compare with those of three other big men from the 1995 draft who have signed lucrative contract

extensions:

Joe Smith

Career .. FG .. .. RB .. BL .. PPG

.. .. . .453 ... 1592 . 242 . 16.9

97-98 ... FG .. .. RB .. BL .. PPG

.. .. . .439 .. . 196 .. 22 . 16.9

Kevin Garnett

Career .. FG .. .. RB .. BL .. Pts

.. .. . .496 ... 1373 . 351 . 14.3

97-98 ... FG .. .. RB .. BL .. PPG

.. .. . .498 .. . 254 .. 57 . 17.6

Bryant Reeves

Career .. FG .. .. RB .. BL .. PPG

.. .. . .478 .. .1366 . 146 .. 14.4

97-98 ... FG .. .. RB .. BL .. PPG

.. .. . .508 .. . 186 .. 24 .. 13.0

Rasheed Wallace

Career .. FG .. .. RB .. BL .. PPG

.. .. . .521 .. . 885 . 159 . 12.6

97-98 ... FG .. .. RB .. BL .. PPG

.. .. . .500 .. . 163 .. 46 . 12.8

Pub Date: 12/30/97

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