The 2013 NBA season has been a fantastic one for J.R. Smith. The New York Knicks guard has emerged as the league's best sixth man, and is right up there with Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler as one of the team's most important players.
Smith's play this year has been a revelation. He has long been considered an erratic, untrustworthy offensive player, but has silenced every one of his critics by making that a thing of the past.
Thanks to some tough coaching from Mike Woodson, the presence of veterans like Jason Kidd and his own personal determination, Smith has turned his career around. After frustrating us for so long, he's looking like the player we all knew he could be.
On the season, Smith averaged a career high in points (18.1) and rebounds (5.3), while also posting a PER of 17.6, his highest since 2008.
Smith also hit the first two game-winners of his career this season, both coming with Carmelo Anthony off the floor. He lifts his play in the clutch, and has proven himself to be a worthy second option to his scoring champion teammate.
From day one, Smith has been having a good year, but it's his play over the last month that really started to grab people's attention.
The Sixth Man of the Year award seemed like it was Jamal Crawford's to lose for a while, but the tables quickly turned after Smith's three straight 30-point games in late April.
From then on, Smith averaged 23.5 points and 6.4 rebounds, as the Knicks won 15 of their last sixteen.
His shot selection was much better, as evidenced by his 50 percent clip from the field, and he got to the line much more often than he had in the past.
And that's what really made the difference for Smith.
A player as athletic as he is should be able to get anywhere on the floor with ease, so when he plays aggressively and attacks the basket it's almost impossible to stop.
Smith attempted 6.6 free throws per game over that last stretch, which is a significant improvement over his career average of 2.6.
The game becomes so much easier for Smith when he plays like that, and allows him to use his sweet jumper and penchant for making difficult shots more selectively.
Winning Sixth Man of the Year was a great achievement for Smith, but at age 27, he still has the potential to do much more as he enters the prime of his career.
First and foremost, he needs to show us he can produce in the playoffs. The jury is still out on whether or not he can perform well when it matters most, especially considering his relatively unsuccessful postseason history.
With Woodson and Kidd behind him, he should be able to keep producing, especially in the weak Eastern Conference.
Beyond that, free agency should be beckoning for Smith in the summer. He has a player option for $2.9 million, but is likely to decline, and cash in on what has been the best year of his career.
Teams with cap space can offer Smith a bit more than the Knicks can, but with the combination of early-Bird rights, Woodson's coaching, New York endorsements and the chance to compete for a championship, Smith would be wise to stay put.
He can probably command $8 million per year on the open market, but the Knicks will only be able to offer him roughly $5 million. In a year's time, however, they will have his full Bird rights, and will be allowed to go over the cap to give him as much money as they want.
In terms of his on-court future, the next step for Smith is to develop into an All-Star. He almost made it this year, but if he can keep putting up these types of numbers should be a lock next time round.
There's no reason to believe that Smith can't be a star in this league if he keeps his head screwed on. He's as athletic as anyone out there, has a fantastic jump shot, and is capable of creating his own shot, as well as for others on occasion.
The future is certainly bright for J.R, and his development over the next couple of seasons—assuming he stays in New York—will go a long way to deciding whether or not they can win a title.
He has the potential to do big things in the near future, and in a situation like this is primed for some serious success.