J.R. Smith made it clear that he wanted to be a starter this season, but the New York Knicks shooting guard put his individual goals aside and dedicated himself to helping the team off the bench. Approaching the midway point of the season, J.R. Smith is the unquestioned favorite for NBA Sixth Man of the Year.
In years past, Smith's disappointment over not starting—he told reporters "disappointed would be an understatement" (per the nydailynews.com)—might have resulted in tension between player and coach. But this is not the same J.R.
Smith was always an exceptional athlete with a deadly stroke, but his immaturity kept him from maximizing his ability as a player. One of the last prep-to-pro ballers, he played an undisciplined and selfish brand of basketball during his first several years in the NBA. Poor decisions on and off the court infuriated his coaches.
This season has been a different story. J.R. appears to have finally grown up. He is playing the best basketball of his career and is a major reason why the Knicks are in first place in the Atlantic Division.
No longer just a shooter, the New Jersey native is focusing on all aspects of his game. He is averaging career highs in rebounds—5.2—and assists—2.9, in addition to points—16.9 per game.
With Iman Shumpert sidelined and Ronnie Brewer receiving limited playing time, Smith has often been assigned to the opponent's best perimeter scorer and has more than held his own. According to 82games.com, Smith has limited opposing shooting guards to a PER (player efficiency rating) of 13.6 per 48 minutes, well below the league average of 15.
Coach Woodson has rewarded Smith for his stellar play with more playing time in recent weeks, and the shooting guard has responded by performing at an all-star level. Over his past ten games, J.R. is averaging 23.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists in 36 minutes of play.
Smith is still prone to launch the occasional ill-advised three-pointer early in the shot clock that so aggravated his long-time coach in Denver, George Karl, though those poor decisions are now few and far between. He is scoring his points within the flow of the offense and in a variety of ways.
In addition to his repertoire of spot-up threes, step-back jumpers and dribble-drives, Smith has been running the pick-and-roll this season. Since Raymond Felton broke his finger in late December, Coach Woodson has even leaned on J.R. to be the primary ball-handler at times.
Smith is averaging four assists per game in the six games that Felton has missed. Despite the increased ball-handling duties, his turnover percentage is down to 8.2 percent, according to basketball-reference.com—by far the lowest of his career.
Still, Smith's greatest asset is his scoring ability. Other than Carmelo Anthony, he is the only player on the Knicks capable of creating his own shot on a regular basis. His scoring prowess was particularly important to the Knicks with Amar'e Stoudemire out for the first two months of the season.
J.R. is the team's primary scorer when Melo is out of the game, and he has been forced to carry the offense at times since Felton's injury. He averaged 19.3 points over the six games that Anthony missed in December, leading the Knicks to three wins without their star player. Twice in the month of December, Smith's late-game heroics sealed a victory for New York.
On Dec. 5, the Knicks and Charlotte Bobcats were tied at 98, and Charlotte had the ball with 11 seconds remaining when Smith intercepted a pass intended for Gerald Henderson. The Knicks called timeout with 3.4 seconds remaining, and Woodson drew up a play for Smith at the top of the key. Smith took three dribbles to his left, then hit an off-balance fadeaway jumper at the buzzer for the win.
Three weeks later, on Dec. 26, J.R. delivered Knicks fans a late Christmas present in Phoenix with two sensational shots in the closing seconds against the Suns. With the Knicks trailing by two, Smith hit an extremely difficult fadeaway jumper from the top of the key with a hand in his face to tie the game with 11 seconds remaining.
After a Suns turnover, the Knicks called timeout and advanced the ball to half court with one second left. J.R. received the inbounds pass from Jason Kidd, turned and fired an improbable shot from just inside the three-point line while falling towards the baseline as time expired. Somehow, it went in and the Knicks won the game.
Of course, Smith is not the only player making a strong bid for the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year. The Los Angeles Clippers' Jamal Crawford, Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Martin, Golden State Warriors' Jarret Jack and San Antonio Spurs' Manu Ginobili are all having great seasons for their respective teams. However, none of them have been as instrumental in their team's success as Smith.
Crawford is one of the NBA's elite one-on-one scorers and has provided the Clippers with a spark off the bench at a clip of 16.5 points per game, but he does little else on the floor. The shooting guard is grabbing a measly 1.9 rebounds per game, compared to Smith's 5.2, and lacks Smith's defensive tenacity.
Crawford also benefits from playing with two superstars who can create their own shots in Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. Smith, on the other hand, is the second-leading scorer on the Knicks and was the number one option for six games when Anthony was hurt.
A similar argument can be made for Martin, who has the privilege of sharing the floor with two of the top six scorers in the league in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Martin is also not known for his defense or rebounding.
Ginobili is having a down year, averaging just 12.7 points per game on 44 percent shooting. And though Jarret Jack has been a valuable third guard for a much-improved Warriors team—12.2 points, five rebounds per game and 42 percent shooting on three-point attempts—he may not even be the best bench player on his team. Forward Carl Landry has been a force down low, scoring 12.2 points and snagging 6.5 rebounds per game.
The New York Knicks have rattled off a 23-11 record despite injuries to several key players, due in large part to Smith's all-around play. J.R. wanted to be a starter. He became one of the team's most valuable players instead.