J.R. Smith is an enigma. One I didn’t care to understand until a friend e-mailed me a Tina Cervasio interview from January featuring the relationship between Smith and Knick forward, Steve Novak last week. I wasn’t a fan of Smith’s inefficiency and poor decision making, and what I knew about his past didn’t help his case, but my friend insisted that the video would help me see Smith in a different light. He turned out to be right, and the video intrigued me enough to learn more about the mercurial shooter.

At the prototypical shooting guard size of 6’6/220 pounds, Smith is easily one of the most athletically gifted players at his position. He was heavily recruited out of the prestigious Saint Benedict’s Preparatory School, and initially signed a letter of intent to play for the University of North Carolina before dominating in that year’s McDonald’s All-American Game and deciding to skip college to take his shot at the NBA early. Smith was selected with the 18th overall pick by the New Orleans Hornets in 2004, a draft that saw several players enter the league straight out of high school, including Al Jefferson, Josh Smith, and Dwight Howard.

However, since entering the NBA, Smith’s career has resembled a flame: when focused, it can be life-giving, but if left unchecked, can consume and destroy.

For much of Smith’s 8-year career, he’s been feast or famine. One game he’s untouchable, like in a 2009 home game against the Sacramento Kings when as a member of the Denver Nuggets he scored his career high of 45 points and hit a ridiculous 11 three-pointers, only one shy of the NBA single game record. And then in classic J.R. Smith fashion, followed up that performance with a putrid outing against the Portland Trailblazers two days later, scoring a lowly 5 points on 2 of 7 shooting with 1 rebound. Smith’s off the court incidents have ranged from mildly amusing – in 2011, an arrest in Florida for failing to appear in court for operating a motor-scooter with no valid license – to tragic – the infamous June 2007 car accident when Smith’s SUV went through a stop sign and collided with another automobile and his long-time friend Andre Bell died after suffering fatal head injuries.

With the 2011 lockout looming, many players took their talents overseas in search of a sure paycheck, including Smith who signed with the Zhejiang Golden Bulls of the Chinese Basketball Association. Once the lockout ended and a 66 game regular season was decided on, players steadily began to return to the NBA, but Smith was contractually obligated to finish the season with the Golden Bulls since he didn’t have an opt-out clause in his contract. A clearly unhappy Smith then began clashing with the team, most notably when he appeared to suffer a serious knee injury, only to be accused of faking by the team’s general manager when his MRI revealed he was fine.

jr mike woodson

The father & son relationship between Smith and Woodson has been a big reason for his maturity.

When the Golden Bulls failed to qualify for the playoffs, Smith was released by Zhejiang, and returned to the NBA during the 2011-12 season as a man without a team. Smith saw his name connected to a few clubs, but his immaturity issues were again brought to the forefront and the hesitance from teams to offer him a contract was clear.

As Smith got closer to making his decison, the two front-runners for his services were the Los Angeles Clippers – and the New York Knicks. Smith joined the Knicks, taking their $2.5 million room exception, and in 35 regular season games averaged 12.5 points on 40.7% shooting and 3.9 rebounds. However, the Knicks drew the rolling Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs and were eliminated in 5 games with Smith failing to be a factor. The following summer the Knicks signed then interim head coach Mike Woodson to a 3-year extension, and re-tooled through the addition of several veterans, including Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton, and Rasheed Wallace. Many expected Smith to pursue a larger contract in free agency, but he ultimately decided to stay in New York, signing a two-year contract worth $2.8 million, citing how much he appreciated the organization’s display of faith in him.

2013 has been a great leap forward for Smith, both as a person and as a basketball player, with part of the credit undoubtedly going to Woodson who’s paternal-like relationship with Smith has become one of the most likable things about this year’s Knicks team.

via ESPN New York’s Ian Begley [quote]Woodson has been on top of Smith since he took over as head coach last March. The player and coach have what Smith calls a “funny” relationship — but it’s one that has helped Smith play some of the best basketball of his career.

“It’s crazy. Off the court it’s like father-son. On the court we bump heads sometimes. He cusses me out, I cuss him out and we just go from there,” Smith said. “It’s fun. I love playing for him.”

Said Woodson: “I try to coach him and be demanding, but I see something maybe other coaches didn’t see in terms of his ability to score the basketball.

“I think you’ve got to put him in the right positions and you’ve got to be demanding with him and not let him off the hook, and I’ve tried not to do that with him.[/quote]

Smith, who is often criticized for his love of the long jumper and not taking the ball to the rim enough, has had a light-bulb go off over the past two months. Finally realizing his absurd athleticism, Smith has begun to attack the basket like never before in his career, averaging 23.5 points on 47.2% shooting, 5.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists – and 7.5 free-throw attempts per game in his last 15 outings.

JR Smith vorped

Smith’s shot-chart over the past 30 days, via Vorped.com.

By going to the rim and drawing contact, he’s achieved a new career-high in free-throw attempts per game with 3.9, but more importantly, has emerged as the number 2 scoring option that the Knicks envisioned the injury plagued Amar’e Stoudemire to be when they added Carmelo Anthony via trade in 2011.

Anthony is on a tear of his own, averaging an historic 40.6 points over his last 5 games, but in the playoffs, defenses tighten and multiple scoring options become key. In the Knicks last two playoff series against the Celtics in 2011 and Heat in 2012, defenses threw the kitchen sink at Anthony and forced others to step up and beat them. Stoudemire’s absence due to his most recent knee surgery left a hole in New York’s offense, and Smith has admirably stepped up to the challenge.

It’s easy to write Smith off as just another headcase, but looking at his career as a whole, it seems what he’s lacked most was simply an environment where he was surrounded by support. Playing for a New York Knick franchise where he is arguably the best guard to wear the blue and orange since Latrell Sprewell, and regarded by fans as John Starks incarnate for his charismatic and never back down attitude, Smith appears to finally be comfortable enough to trust in something bigger than himself, and focus on developing as a player for the good of his team.

Anyone who knows me in person or follows me on twitter is well aware of my gripes with Smith. He’s made me rip my hair out in frustration, only to silence me by making an incredible play the very next possession time and time again. He is an incredible athlete and when he’s playing like this, is one of the best shooting guards in the league. There are some who don’t believe this new leaf Smith has turned is sustainable, and knowing his history, it isn’t an unfair argument. I choose to believe that this isn’t simply a stretch of “good J.R.”, but instead, just “J.R.”.

About The Author

21-year old college student from Westchester, NY. Do the right thing, playboy.

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