J.R. Smith Emerges as Top Candidate to Win Sixth Man of the Year

Andrew GouldFeatured ColumnistJanuary 3, 2013

J.R. Smith is heating up for the New York Knicks.
J.R. Smith is heating up for the New York Knicks.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Carmelo Anthony's NBA MVP pursuit captures all the attention in New York, but Knicks guard J.R. Smith has stepped his game up enough to also chase some hardware.

Playing the best basketball of his career, Smith has materialized as a leading option to take home Sixth Man of the Year honors.

Serving as the primary option off New York's bench, the shooting guard is averaging career highs with 16.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. His 2.8 assists match his previous best total from the 2008-09 season.

During the past few games, Smith has finally unleashed his superstar potential that has sporadically scratched the surface throughout his up-and-down career. If this guy showed up regularly, he would make a trip to the All-Star Game.

The New Jersey native has scored 25 or more points in each of the past four games and averaged 24.6 points throughout the team's last seven contests.

It's not just on offense where Smith's game has progressed to a higher level. The 27-year-old is regularly attacking the glass with ferocity, grabbing seven boards during that seven-game stretch.

Regarded as a selfish, shoot-first scorer, Smith has dished out five assists in each of the past three games. He'll still take the occasional head-scratching shot attempt, but he's largely caught the team-first bug from a squad no longer operating through isolation plays.

Because of his past reputation as an undisciplined coach's nightmare, Smith rarely receives proper due for his work on the defensive side of the court. Pestering the opposition and zooming in to snag loose balls or force a steal, Smith plays defense as aggressively as any other Knick. 

All talk regarding the Knicks' bench now stems around how Amare Stoudemire's return will bring about the apocalypse and doom the franchise, but he's still not their second unit's most important contributor, even if he comes back at full force. 

Smith is still not the most efficient player, shooting 41.5 percent from the floor and attempting at least 22 shots during his past four prolific outings. Manu Ginobli, Kevin Martin, Matt Barnes and Jarrett Jack all sport higher player-efficiency ratings (PER), according to ESPN's John Hollinger.

Then again, the Knicks have needed Smith lately to keep them afloat offensively. Until Stoudemire can regain his past form and Raymond Felton's fractured finger heals, Smith represents the only scorer besides Anthony who can effectively create his own shot.

Tyson Chandler has perfected the catch-and-dunk on lob passes, but he's only posted up one time this season. The rest of the team relies on nailing open three-pointers, which leads to games like Wednesday night when a cold spell from long range forced Anthony and Smith to carry the offense.

Because of Smith, the Knicks held their own without Anthony, going 3-3 in games the superstar missed throughout December. In those contests, Smith averaged 19.3 points per game.

His offensive prowess salvaged a victory over the Phoenix Suns on Dec. 26. After sinking an off-balance shot to tie the game at 97 apiece, Smith landed a corner fadeaway with time expiring, the same exact shot he converted three weeks earlier to defeat the Charlotte Bobcats in a game that Anthony departed during the fourth quarter.

Smith's scorching play of late should propel him into the heart of the Sixth Man of the Year conversation.

Barnes and Jamal Crawford are each drawing consideration, but it'll be a daunting challenge to win the award for the league's best reserve when voters are debating who the best player is off the Los Angeles Clippers' bench.

While Martin has replaced James Harden with rousing scoring efficiency, he also works alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and seldom helps out on defense.

Jack is a premier candidate to fight Smith for the award. The backup has helped transform the Golden State Warriors into a playoff contender at 22-10. He's scoring 12.3 points per game on 48.2 percent shooting along with 5.1 assists and 3.4 rebounds.

Smith originally wanted to start, a request that seemed reasonable considering Iman Shumpert's absence. Head coach Mike Woodson instead decided to employ him off the bench, a tactic that has worked to perfection.

He didn't complain or throw a temper-tantrum. Smith's quote regarding the decision from Nate Taylor's article in The New York Times shows his expanding maturity under the guidance of Woodson, who stays on Smith's case more than any other player.

What they really needed was for me to come off the bench. It wasn’t really a disappointment, because I could still help my team.

The Knicks boast shooters off the bench, but Smith plays the Anthony role on the second unit, driving to the basket and making something out of a sputtering possession to lift the team out of a funk.

His ability to coexist with Stoudemire might prove just as, if not more pivotal to New York's success than the much discussed cohesion dilemma between the returning big man and Anthony.

Go ahead and talk about Anthony's climb to true superstardom, Stoudemire's comeback, Jason Kidd's veteran savvy or Chander's case for a much-deserved All-Star bid.

But let's also devote some attention to J.R.Smith, a player doing everything asked of him and who may now hold the key to the Knicks keeping a spot near the top of the Eastern Conference.