New York Knicks: J.R. Smith's Recent Play Proves He Can Be a Future All-Star

Ciaran GowanContributor IIIJanuary 3, 2013

PHOENIX, AZ - DECEMBER 26:  J.R. Smith #8 of the New York Knicks stands on the court during player introductions for the Phoenix Suns before the NBA game at US Airways Center on December 26, 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona.. The Knicks defeated the Suns 99-97.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

He may not be the first name that comes to mind when you think of the New York Knicks, but J.R. Smith's stock is rapidly rising with his recent play.

All season long, Smith has been playing at a higher level than we'd ever seen before, with the main differences being his improved focus and understanding of his role on the team.

Smith was skeptical about playing as a sixth man and even spoke out (per Pro Basketball Talk) about his disappointment at not starting, but has since quieted down and made the most of the opportunity Mike Woodson has given him.

It may only be January, but right now Smith is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and minutes. That's no small feat considering his career numbers are actually pretty good for a bench player.

His shooting percentages have also increased from last season, and though he may not be averaging a career high in that category, that can be attributed to him playing a more important role on his current team.

When the 2012-13 season is over, Smith will more than likely be one of the leading candidates for Sixth Man of the Year, with only Clippers guard Jamal Crawford standing in his way.

What J.R. has been doing for the last few weeks, however, indicates that he might turn into a lot more than just an award candidate if he continues this trend.

Over his last six games, Smith is averaging 25.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists, which are unheard-of numbers for a bench player and would make him an All-Star if they were his season averages.

Of course, there's a reason those aren't his season numbers, but they show that he is capable of contributing greatly in every department and covering for Carmelo Anthony when he is out.

The Knicks may have a record of 2-4 in those six games, but Smith has kept them in contention for victories despite what has been a depleted roster for the most part.

It's also worth noting that Smith's star-caliber play has also been evident in the clutch, with two ridiculous game-winners to boot already this season.

Though Smith's numbers will likely drop now that Melo and Amar'e Stoudemire are healthy, it's important to understand that what he has done recently is no fluke.

Smith has always had the talent to be an All-Star and a triple-double threat, and these past few weeks have been proof of what he can do when handed the reins of a team. This video of Smith's pre-Knicks career tells you all you need to know about his talent level:

The trio of Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler may have been dubbed the "Big Three" when they came together, but by season's end, Smith will have made it a "Big Four."

Smith could have been paid a lot more had he opted to test free agency this past summer, but he instead took New York's offer of just $2.8 million knowing that if he played to his potential, he would be able to both play in the Big Apple and get his big payday eventually.

As it stands, the Knicks will have his early-bird rights going into the offseason and with that the power to go over the cap to give Smith the money he deserves for his play.

With Chandler and Stoudemire both on the wrong side of 30—and with a history of injuries—it's essential that New York locks up Smith when the time comes. The guy has the potential to be an All-Star in 2014 and at the very least become an even more important part of this Knicks team.

The development of players like Smith and Iman Shumpert will be key to the Knicks extending their championship window, because the fact is the older players on this roster are already on the verge of retirement.

He wasn't on the Knicks' ballot for the 2013 All-Star Game, but you can bet your bottom dollar that Smith will at least be a candidate when 2014 rolls around. His popularity with fans and coaches (see: George Karl) will probably keep him out of the game, but the take-away here is that he will at least be considered good enough to make it.

We have waited a long time to see Smith play at this level, but now that it's happening, it's time to get used to it. Smith is still only 27 and blossoming into a star right in front of our eyes.

Looking at his history, it's understandable to have doubts about this, but Smith's level of play right now is not something to take lightly.