NY Knicks' J.R. Smith Can Still Blossom into a Legit NBA Star

Ciaran GowanContributor IIIDecember 4, 2012

Nov 30, 2012; New York, NY, USA;  New York Knicks shooting guard J.R. Smith (8) during the fourth quarter against the Washington Wizards at Madison Square Garden.  Knicks won 108-87.  Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

It has been a strong start to the year for J.R. Smith and the New York Knicks, with the shooting guard looking like a promising piece of the team's future.

With some dead eye shooting to go with tight defense and great teamwork, Smith is leading one of the league's best bench units.

As good as Smith has been, though, don't think for one minute that this is his ceiling. He may be playing the best basketball of his career, but there could be more to come, potentially to the point where you start to consider him as a genuine star.

Last season, almost completely out of the blue, the Knicks made the move to accommodate Smith's return to the NBA after playing a season in China.

Little did they know that only a few months later, a player who was expected to be only a short-term fix would turn out to be one of their most important players in the long run.

After making strides in the half-season he played for New York last year, Smith has come out of the gates running in 2012-13, establishing himself once again as one of the league's premier sixth men.

But there's something different about Smith this year.

Thanks to the help of head coach Mike Woodson, he has been playing much smarter basketball and is more focused than we've ever seen him.

The results of said changes are a player whose unheralded talent is finally starting to shine through, making him an early front-runner for the Sixth Man of the Year award.

Smith has always had the makings of an elite NBA player. He can create well for both for himself and others, he has ridiculous athleticism and he has as effective a jump shot as anybody in the league today.

Despite all this, things just haven't worked out in the past. It seems that for every promising attribute Smith has, there have been times of immaturity—both on and off the court—to cancel them out.

From night club incidents to Twitter mishaps, Smith has always managed to find a way to hold himself back off the court. Once you couple that with some bad habits on the court (which are chronicled in greater detail here in Jonathan Abram's fantastic Grantland article), you had a recipe for disaster.

Things have changed for the better in New York, though. Smith is avoiding late-night clubbing, and is simply enjoying being able to compete for a title near his hometown of New Jersey.

For once in his career, basketball is his clear number-one priority.

Don't let Smith's experience in the NBA fool you. Though this is his ninth season, we must remember that Smith only recently celebrated his 27th birthday. In other words, he still has more than enough time to make up for his past mistakes.

Now that Smith is in a situation that suits him, with a coach who knows how to get the best out of him, it's scary to think just how good J.R. could still be.

With some more aggression getting to the basket to go along with his improved shot selection, Smith has the chance to be dominant on offense.

This season really could be the turning point for Smith. He's on the last year of his contract, and the Knicks will have his early Bird rights this coming offseason to give him his big pay day if he earns it this year. 

Playoff basketball is a likelihood—if not a certainty—for this Knicks team, and if he can perform there, on the greatest stage of all, people will start to pay some serious attention to his game.

He may not be on the All-Star ballot this year, but if he continues to play at this high level, it will be hard for the NBA to leave him out next time around.

Though he wanted to be a starter going into the season, Smith needs to continue to embrace his sixth-man role, as he has the potential to be the league's best spark off the bench.

Much like James Harden did with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Smith can truly make a positive name for himself, and kickstart his road to stardom, if he can win the Sixth Man of the Year award in 2013.

But it can't be all about himself. Playing selfless basketball and being part of a winning team is going to get Smith where he needs to be.

Hard work, consistency and smarts are the key for Smith at this point. It sounds simple, but that really is his blueprint to becoming a legit NBA star.

The talent and the skill has never been lacking; it's been the mental side that has let Smith down. Once he gets that sorted, the sky really is the limit.