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Joe Smith shows eagerness fitting in with the Lakers

December 20, 2010 |  7:21 pm

Sitting near his locker, Joe Smith received a call from his agent that left him giddy on the inside but stoic on the outside.

He had just been informed that the Lakers were acquiring him in a three-team trade that sent guard Sasha Vujacic from the Lakers to the New Jersey Nets. But Smith didn't want to tip his hand that he felt excited to pack his bags and leave right away. Smith, after all, was in the Nets' locker room when he received the phone call.

"It kind of surprised me at first," Smith said after Monday's practice at the Lakers' facility in El Segundo. "But I was pretty happy with it."

Smith has been with 12 teams in a 16-year NBA career, a nomadic existence that's atypical for a No. 1 overall pick but a process that's become mind-numbingly familiar. The change of addresses. The packed bags. The never-ending process of trying to fit in with a new team.

Yet, this process feels different for Smith, and the reasons go beyond the Maryland alum's admission he grew up a Lakers fan and idolized Magic Johnson.

"I have a lot of playoff experience, but I never had a chance to officially be on a team that has a chance to win that title," said Smith, who has seen decreased playing time and performances in recent seasons and appeared in only four games with the Nets this season, averaging 0.5 points and 0.8 rebounds. "Obviously this group of guys have done it before and are on the road to doing it again. Hopefully I can be a part of it."

The Lakers' main motivation in acquiring Smith appears to involve team finances. The trade, in which  the Nets also sent Terrence Williams to Houston, allowed the Lakers to save money. Vujacic is making $5.5 million in the last season of a three-year, $15-million contract he signed in 2008 with the Lakers, while Smith's salary is $1.4 million this season. But the Lakers should benefit with Smith's arrival in ways other than dollar figures. The reason points back to Smith's attitude.

Although Lakers Coach Phil Jackson remains unsure how many minutes Smith will play (he had zero minutes Sunday against Toronto), there's a litany of reasons the Lakers will welcome his presence, albeit in limited fashion: Andrew Bynum's lingering knee issues, Theo Ratliff's continued rehabilitation of his surgically repaired left knee, Derrick Caracter's likely demotion to the Development League and never-ending fatigue for Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom.

In case any of the aforementioned variables exacerbate themselves, the 6-foot-10 Smith's career averages of 11 points and 6.4 rebounds, his reputation as a versatile forward and center and his ability to hit mid-range jumpers and make defensive stops suggest he could hold the fort and eat minutes so that the Lakers can minimize their frontline issues.

If in other instances Smith receives little playing time, it doesn't seem he will make a fuss, which was hardly the case with Vujacic. Although he remained mostly mum about his decreased role this season, Vujacic hardly looked interested in fitting in with the team. He kept to himself in the locker room. Teammates constantly poked digs at him, although they were playful. And in the Lakers' 87-86 victory two weeks ago against the Clippers, Vujacic could be seen on the sideline during timeouts appearing more engaged with the on-court entertainment than on what was being stressed in the team huddle.

Smith has shown the exact opposite. He carried 12 bags during the team's trip to Toronto and refused to make rookies Devin Ebanks and Caracter carry them "because I'm new." He's been strongly active on Twitter engaging with Lakers fans. And he's expressed more concern about how he can fit in with the team without disrupting a championship roster than about worrying about what kind of production he can have.

He's simply just happy to be here, a sentiment he immediately felt once his agent alerted him he would become a Laker. Now he's comfortable enough to express it.

"This is a little more special than all the other stops I've been," Smith said. "I'm not saying those stops weren't special. But this has a little more edge to it."

--Mark Medina

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