For eight years, we watched as Smith manipulated our emotions by the game. He was fantastic and dreadful. As exciting as he was infuriating. On the cusp of stardom, yet so far away from it. He was, and still remains, an enigma cloaked by riddles and puzzle pieces.
That's the man we knew. And it's also the man that J.R. has finally begun to distance himself from.
This is still the same Smith who shot just 42.2 percent from the field. And yes, it's the same Smith who still lets himself get involved in off-court controversy. But he's different.
He's finally starting to live up to his ceiling. The apex that his athletic abilities set for him, but his bouts with maturation have kept out of reach.
Smith averaged a career-best 18.1 points to go along with a career-high 5.3 rebounds per game this season. His defense still has some gaping holes, but he has improved in terms of engagement and execution. He even held opposing shooting guards to a 12.8 PER while on the floor.
There were still moments when "Oh, J.R." seemed appropriate, yet they were fewer and farther between than ever before. He emerged as one of the most important pieces to a championship-caliber faction—a go-to scorer scorer on one of the best squads in the league. Have we ever been able to say that before?
Not even slightly. We've never been able to refer to him as anything but streaky, yet this season (specifically in the second half), he's been dependable. He's attacked the rim, drawn fouls and dedicated himself to performing for 30-plus minutes a night.
Not enough can be made of the home Smith has made for himself in New York. Credit Mike Woodson with harboring Smith's potential into something more, with reaching him in a way that a great coach like George Karl never could.
With re-inventing both the player and the man.
And where has it left Smith? In possession of the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award, putting him in the same company as players like James Harden, Jamal Crawford, Manu Ginobili and former Knicks John Starks and Anthony Mason.
Never before has Smith's name been associated with such talent. His capabilities have been compared to countless star athletes, but those arguments never held. Smith hardly gave them reason to.
And in so many ways, he still doesn't. I've seen him dribble for much too long before hoisting up a contested fadeaway. I've witnessed him wasting precious seconds off the shot clock before spiraling out of control and turning the ball over. I've seen him fail when the Knicks needed him to succeed.
But I've also watched him become more aware of his surroundings. For every possession that sees him handle the ball for 15 seconds, there's one where he cuts through the lane and draws a foul. For every ill-fated pass that goes awry, there's a responsible decision in transition that makes you smile. For every hair-pulling, head-slamming and moan-inducing play he makes, there's at least one that brings you to your feet.
Before you know it, you're cheering for Smith as a player and as a man. You're hoping he will become the talent he was thought to be when he was drafted out of high school.
Never mind that he was often depicted as a villain who was hazardous to a team dynamic. He's changed. His shot chart implies otherwise, but the role he has assumed in New York doesn't.
And while we chastise his shot selection (and rightfully so for the most part), he improved considerably over the last quarter of the season.
In his final 20 regular-season games, Smith connected on 47.3 percent of his shots—more than five percentage points above his season average. How, you ask?
Better shot selection.
Over those 20 games, nearly 40 percent of his shot attempts came at the rim. Per Hoopdata.com, just 16 percent of his field-goal attempts came at the rim for the season. And just 19.7 percent of his attempts since the 2006-07 campaign have come from there.
That 40 percent is a huge difference. It's more than doubling what he has done over the last seven seasons. That he managed to convert on more than 56 percent of those shots at the rim in his final 20 games makes this even more important.
Smith also set a career high in win shares (6.7), nearly doubling that of his career average (3.5), led all bench players in scoring and was one of only four players to average at least 18 points, five rebounds and one steal while shooting 35 percent or better from beyond the arc.
LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Paul Pierce.
There's no comparing Smith to these three. They're all likely first-ballot Hall of Famers. To say there's a stark contrast between he and them would be a tragic understatement. But that he was able to place himself in their midst in any capacity is what's truly astounding.
He hasn't burned bridges in New York or left the fanbase and coaching staff pining for his departure. He's won the heart of the Big Apple, and judging by his latest accomplishment, the rest of the league isn't far behind.
What is out of sight and nearly out of mind is the player, the person, that Smith used to be. He's not a cancer or a perennial detriment anymore—he's someone to build around. Not a superstar, but a star. One with a promising future and a long way to go.
Shot selection, continuity on defense, efficiency and general maturation are all areas where Smith needs to improve. His development remains a process, no matter how much recognition he receives for this season.
But it's not a meaningless one that will inevitably yield little to no results. His ceiling is as high as it has ever been, and the chances of him reaching it have never been greater.
"J.R. is not going anywhere," Woodson said of Smith (via Alan Hahn of MSG Networks).
Coach Woodson is only half right. Smith may be going somewhere. Unrestricted free agency looms and the capped-out Knicks, who only hold his Early Bird Rights, cannot offer him as much as other teams. Or he could stay. We just don't know yet.
The J.R. we have come to know and believe in, however, isn't going anywhere.