He says he hasn't changed, but there are some differences about Michael Smith after one year in the NBA.
There are no more drawstrings hanging from his uniform. No more aqua-colored knee braces. And, naturally, he no longer passes the ball off the glass to himself the way he did in college. "No, I don't go off the glass, no," says Smith with a wry smile. "Not in this league."This year's Michael Smith is older and wiser.
Smith, in his second year with the Boston Celtics, has been through a taxing period since he left BYU. When he arrived for training camp in 1989, he was out of shape and out of synch. He had been billed as being reminiscent of Larry Bird, but when he arrived in camp, Celtics' management was talking Dom Deluise. He wasn't actually fat - he weighed 235, up 20 pounds from his playing weight - but Smith didn't have the endurance necessary for an 82-game schedule.
"When I saw him, I was definitely disappointed, " Celtics' President Red Auerbach told the Boston Globe. "You could see he wasn't in shape. I looked at his legs and his chest and I was mad."
Smith had several explanations. He said he worked on weights trying to bulk up for the NBA, and it affected his already average quickness. He was trying out new gym shoes (he had signed a contract) and wasn't used to the new model. Then, when he set about trying to get in better shape, he came up with back injuries and shin splints.
The rest was mostly a non-stop ride of criticism and doubt. He did start for seven straight games, and responded well. He scored 16 in his first start, at Golden State, and two nights later got 24 in Denver.
That period as a starter made Smith the first rookie Celtic to gain such an honor since you-know-who, Larry Bird, started in 1979-80.
The starting period and a decent finish on the year improved Smith's season-ending stats to five pointsand 1.5 rebounds per game. "I had a lot of bad breaks last year. I'm glad the way it ended, though," said Smith. "I did turn it around. It's better rather than starting strong and fading to do well at the end. Now I'm stronger and better."
He may be, but the Celtics don't appear completely convinced. Smith's name came up regularly during the summer as trade material. He's started two games this year, but is averaging only 3.2 points, four minutes and less than a half-rebound through seven games. He didn't play in Wednesday night's win over Charlotte. The previous night he played seven minutes and scored two points in a loss to Milwaukee.
His high game for this year is a 12-point effort.
Boston, which entertains the Jazz in Boston Garden tonight (5:30 p.m. on PSN), is 5-2. The Celtics are battling the Knicks for the lead in the Atlantic Division.
Smith says he prefers to consider last year a learning experience. "You live and learn," he says. "I learned last year that I can play at this level."
Pointing at his head, he adds, "I learned that 90 percent of the game is played right up here."
This off-season Smith came back lighter and in better shape. The improvement seemed to impress the Celtics, and he played considerable time during the exhibition season. He says the new up-tempo approach first-year coach Chris Ford uses is better suited to him.
Smith's career in Boston is developing, but it isn't necessarily secure. Despite being in only the second year of a reported four-year, $2.25 million contract, he had stiff competition from rookies this fall.
Although wiser, Smith says the kid who used to do things to set himself apart at BYU isn't that far gone. "I'm still myself," he says. "It's not that it's more structured in the NBA. It's the fact that it's a business. You're out to do the job and play a certain way, so my attitudes and thoughts are in that direction."