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Role defined, all clear for ex-Terp Smith

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MILWAUKEE - A reminder of Joe Smith's two seasons as a college star at Maryland is branded into his chest.

There, on the left side, a tattoo reads "Da Beast."

As the figurine depicted in ink had faded over the years, so had Smith. He earned national college Player of the Year honors as a sophomore and was taken by the Golden State Warriors with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1995 draft, but he soon became an NBA journeyman, with stops in Philadelphia, Detroit and two stints in Minnesota.

Now 28 and a member of the Milwaukee Bucks following a trade in June that involved former Dunbar star Sam Cassell, Smith finds his career rejuvenated by more playing time and a more significant role as the unsung hero of one of the NBA's surprise teams this season.

"In Minnesota, I don't think my role was ever really defined," said Smith, who spent four of the past five seasons with the Timberwolves. "Some nights the minutes were there and some nights the minutes weren't.

"With that inconsistency, of course you're going to have inconsistencies on the court. That's what happened, especially the last couple of years."

Limited to 54 games by a nagging ankle injury last season, Smith hit an eight-year career low for scoring (7.5 points), rebounding (5.0) and playing time (a little more than 20 minutes a game). Some thought that Smith's days as anything but a bench player were in the past.

But going into tonight's game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Smith leads the 28-25 Bucks in double doubles (11) and rebounding (8.8.) His scoring is up a little bit (10.2), and his confidence has been renewed because he is again contributing in many ways to a playoff-bound team.

"Here is just totally different," said Smith, who has pulled down double figures in rebounds 23 times this season, including a 16-rebound showing in Wednesday's 102-98 loss at Detroit. "I know every night what is needed of me, what is expected of me. I try and go out and give it the best in doing what they want me to do."

While his offense has become secondary on a team that features fourth-year shooting guard Michael Redd and now Keith Van Horn, who was acquired Sunday in a three-team trade that sent Tim Thomas to the New York Knicks, Smith's value is not overlooked.

"When you say MVP, Michael Redd is our All-Star, but there should be an award for Joe Smith," said Bucks assistant coach Sam Mitchell, who played with Smith in Minnesota. "He's the player we miss the most [when he's not in there]. He does a little bit of everything."

Smith has fit in well with the blue-collar style that first-year coach Terry Porter has brought to this gritty Midwestern city.

"He's an important part of things we're trying to get accomplished as far as the defensive scheme," said Porter. "He's been very consistent for us."

Usually, it involves Smith hitting the boards, or throwing his wiry 6-foot-10, 225-pound body onto the floor or up against one of the league's premier players for a game-saving block, as happened in home victories over the New Jersey Nets (Kenyon Martin) and San Antonio Spurs (Tim Duncan).

"Everywhere I go, fans are showing their appreciation by telling me how many rebounds I got, telling me how hard I worked or about my hustle," said Smith, who got a standing ovation earlier this season at the Bradley Center after leaping over some courtside seats for a loose ball.

It wasn't that fans in Minnesota didn't appreciate Smith, who averaged nearly 14 points and more than eight rebounds in his first year with the Timberwolves (the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season). It was just that everything he did was overshadowed by Kevin Garnett.

"It wasn't like I was complacent or satisfied with what I was doing. I wanted to improve every year and do whatever I could to help the team win. But I felt like I was put in a situation where their go-to guy [Garnett] and I were playing the same position."

Sacramento Kings coach Rick Adelman, who coached Golden State during Smith's first two seasons there, is still a little surprised that Smith didn't develop into an NBA star after averaging 15.3 points a game as a rookie and a career-high 18.7 points his second year.

"He really had a good rookie year," recalled Adelman. "He scored, he rebounded, especially offensively. He was really a factor, and we had some talent that first year. He was a real promising player."

But the Warriors unloaded much of the talent surrounding Smith during his second year.

"That really hurt Joe," said Adelman. "I don't think they were able to build the team up quickly. I really think if we had kept the team with more talent around him his first three or four years, you would have saw his career get better and better. But I think he took a couple of steps back."

When Smith was traded to Philadelphia during his third season with Golden State, it was the start of a long, seemingly disjointed journey. He went to Minnesota as a free agent during the 1998-99 season, and in the middle of his second year there, signed a lucrative long-term contract extension with the Timberwolves.

But that deal was deemed illegal by the NBA - the league claimed it was a secret agreement that violated the salary cap - and Smith was forced to leave Minnesota for an unhappy one-season exile in Detroit. He returned to the Timberwolves in 2001 for much less money, injured his groin in training camp and went through the season without ever reaching full strength.

Last year came the low point.

"I've experienced a lot, I've been through a lot," said Smith when asked to summarize his career. "At the same time I think I've overcome all that and still have my head up. After all the things that I've been through, I don't think a lot of people would be coming up swinging."

His young family has kept him busy away from the court, and he's gained new strength from his religious beliefs, wearing a "What Would Jesus Do" wristband this season as a reminder.

He takes pride in his new role as one of the leaders of these young Bucks, and he said he's starting to enjoy the game again.

"The last couple of years haven't been much fun," he said. "Now I'm getting that smile back on the court."

Joe Smith file

Age: 28

Height, weight: 6-10, 225

High school: Maury (Norfolk, Va.)

College: Maryland

Highlights: Averaged 20.1 points and 10.7 rebounds in two seasons at Maryland. ... Won the Naismith Award as college basketball's player of the year in 1995. ... Was the No. 1 pick in the 1995 NBA draft by Golden State. ... Averaged career-high 18.7 points in 1996-97 season with the Warriors.

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