Meet the player who lost over 50 pounds in pursuit of NBA dream

Jeff Eisenberg of The Vertical
Yahoo Sports

The first time he worked out with his new trainer two months ago, Joshua Smith didn't even make it through the warmup before he felt gassed.

One minute of high knees left the notoriously out-of-shape former UCLA and Georgetown center hunched over at the waist and gasping for air.

"I was trying to act like I'm good, but I was like, 'Damn, this is the warmup?'" Smith said with a chuckle. "I was already exhausted and the workout hadn't even started yet."

Hiding his fatigue only became tougher for Smith as the day continued. The 383-pound former McDonald's All-American paused to catch his breath between every jump hook during a simple low-post drill. He needed almost two and a half minutes to jog a lap at a track in the Portland, Ore., area and about 11 and a half minutes to stagger through a full mile.

Smith's struggles revealed the magnitude of the challenge he and trainer Casey Trujeque faced trying to revive his stalled basketball career.

Hailed as a potential NBA prospect after high school because of his soft hands, deft passing ability and imposing size, Smith instead regressed in college and went undrafted in 2015 amid concerns about his ballooning weight and sporadic work ethic. He fell further off scouts' radars during an unproductive debut season in the NBA Development League, leaving himself just a few short months this summer to drastically improve his fitness and earn another training camp audition with an NBA team.

"I knew he was heavy, but I was taken aback after that first workout," Trujeque said. "I was like, 'Wow, we're a lot further from where we needed to be than I expected.' We had a very, very long way to go."

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Merely agreeing to train a player with Smith’s history of lethargy and indifference was a risk for a trainer of Trujeque’s growing stature.

Only a few years out of college, Trujeque had just begun to garner acclaim for his work preparing close friend and former high school teammate Allen Crabbe for his contract year with the Portland Trail Blazers. (Crabbe, a restricted free agent, signed a four-year, $75 million offer sheet Thursday with the Brooklyn Nets.) Friends warned Trujeque that the doors Crabbe's breakout season opened could quickly slam shut if he hitched his star to Smith and became the latest to fail to help the Seattle native tap into his potential.

The 6-foot-10 Smith produced a promising freshman season at UCLA and averaged 15 points per game in the 2011 NCAA tournament despite weighing anywhere from 30 to 45 pounds above his listed playing weight of 305. All he had to do to become a millionaire after the following season was to slim down to a more manageable weight, yet he showed no urgency to improve his diet or training habits and began his sophomore year noticeably bulkier.

Too heavy to log more than two or three minutes at a time without resting on defense or committing fatigue-related fouls, Smith logged only 17.2 minutes per game as a sophomore and averaged fewer points, rebounds and blocks than he did as a freshman. He apologized for letting his team down and pledged to rededicate himself the next offseason, yet nothing changed.

Smith barely got on the floor early in his junior year before transferring from UCLA after six games. He used his redshirt year at Georgetown to trim down to a more functional size, but at times during two up-and-down seasons with the Hoyas he appeared to be even heavier than the 350 pounds at which he was listed.

"When I was at UCLA and Georgetown, I was never the guy who was going to do extra workouts," Smith said. "If we had practice at 8 a.m., I was going to get there at 8 a.m. and then that was it. I wasn't going to get there earlier in the morning or go back late at night. I never put in that extra work. I always had a problem going to the gym."

Sustained progress remained elusive for Smith during his first year as a pro. He played well enough in training camp last fall that he was the Houston Rockets' final preseason cut, yet his playing time eroded as his work ethic waned and his weight swelled midway through the season with the D-League's Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Rockets’ affiliate.

When Smith's agent, Mayar Zokaei, reached out to Trujeque just over two months ago about working with his client, the trainer first set up a face-to-face meeting to gauge the 24-year-old center's desire. Only after Smith opened up about his disappointment with the trajectory of his basketball career and his concerns about his long-term health did Trujeque decide to take a chance by working with him.

"He told me about almost getting cut by his D-League team and about his fears of not being healthy in general," Trujeque said. "He didn't want his life to be cut short or to be diabetic.

"That conversation gave me a better idea where his head was at and made me want to work with him. I told him I was going to put full trust in him."

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Smith's transformation from obese mode to beast mode began the day Trujeque invited him to Portland to start working right away. They hit it off almost from day one, two men of similar ages leaning on one another to try to forge vastly different careers in the sport they both loved.

Every morning, Smith and Trujeque did 75 minutes of basketball drills. Every afternoon, Smith and Trujeque did 75 minutes of strength training and conditioning. By mid-May, Smith began going back to the gym on his own each night to do an hour of cardio work on the treadmill, something he'd never have done previously.

There was one night in May when Trujeque, Crabbe, Smith and some other friends went bowling and didn't return home until well after dark. Trujeque was surprised to receive a text from a friend about an hour later informing him Smith had returned to the gym for another cardio workout.

"That really surprised me," Trujeque said. "That showed me he was really serious."

In addition to his training, Smith has also revamped his diet. Gone are the sugary smoothies and half-dozen bottles of Gatorade he used to chug after workouts. So, too, are the Domino's pizzas and Panda Express orange chicken he'd scarf down whenever he didn't have time to prepare a healthy meal.

As a result of his lifestyle changes, pounds quickly melted off. Smith said Thursday that he weighed 327 pounds, 56 fewer than he did the day he began working with Trujeque two months ago.

The amount of time Smith needs to complete a lap around the track has decreased by about a minute. The number of breaks he needs during basketball drills or conditioning has plummeted too. No longer does Smith have to wear nothing but 3XL-sized shirts, something which clearly gives him newfound confidence.

"Before I never looked at myself in the mirror when I put clothes on," Smith said. "Now I'll walk by the mirror when we lift and I'll be like, 'Oh snap. Who's that guy?'"

The first test of how shedding 50-plus pounds will impact Smith's game arrives Friday at 6 p.m. ET. That’s when Smith is expected to make his Milwaukee Bucks debut against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Las Vegas Summer League.

"My biggest thing now is to show my motor, to show that I can go longer than 2-3 minutes," Smith said. "I want to prove I can go up and down, I can set screens, I can rebound and I can score. I want people to say, 'Dang, who is this dude?'"

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Skilled yet physically imposing big men are scarce enough that NBA scouts will undoubtedly keep an eye on Smith this week, yet league executives aren't naive enough to cough up a guaranteed contract based on a better-than-anticipated summer league showing. They'll need proof that this time Smith's transformation will last, that this time his remorseful words aren't lip service, that this time he won't regress at the first hint of adversity.

Asked why NBA teams should believe in Smith now despite all his previous missteps, Trujeque cites all the hours the ex-UCLA and Georgetown center has spent in the gym the past two months on his own. Trujeque is adamant that's a sign Smith now possesses the focus and commitment he has lacked previously.

Asked the same question about why this time will be different, Smith also cites his motivation. Fueled by the memory of failures past and a trainer who believes in him, he insists he'll return to the gym after summer league in hopes of weighing less than 300 pounds for the first time in eight years when NBA training camp starts in early October.

"I know I should have done more to lose weight in college, but my thing now is I don't want to go back," Smith said. "I've had times when I've lost a little weight and gained it back, but this time I've lost so much weight and I feel so good that I'm motivated to go back to the gym and keep going at it. When NBA teams see me again in training camp, I want them to see I've lost another 30 pounds. Then they'll realize I must be serious."

 

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