The NBA's reigning Sixth Man of the Year mercifully returned to the lineup after serving a five-game suspension for violating the league's anti-drug policy. Then, he mercilessly helped perpetuate New York's recent string of troubles.
Smith played just over 20 minutes in his regular-season debut against the San Antonio Spurs, during which time the Knicks were a minus-18 and did almost nothing right.
Following the 120-89 loss to San Antonio, the Knicks are now 2-4 on the season and 1-3 at home. And where Swish's arrival was supposed to be a beacon of hope, it was instead a sign of how far he and the Knicks have to go.
Or, more disastrously, both a symbolic performance for what they are and what they may never be.
Scoring is what Smith does best. His 18.1 points per game last season were second on the Knicks, behind Carmelo Anthony.
Against the Spurs, he couldn't find the bottom of the net, going 1-of-9 from the floor (1-of-5 from three) for five points.
Rust is to be expected at this point of the season, especially for Smith. This was his first game of the year, he barely played during the preseason and spent the offseason recovering from conveniently timed knee surgery.
This early, we're not solely looking at points and accuracy. For starters, we cannot ever look at efficiency with Smith. A decade into his career, he's an erratic volume scorer. That's not going to change.
More than anything, we're looking at this shot selection, which was abysmal.
Only one of Smith's nine field-goal attempts came near the rim, and he missed it. Most of his shots were ill-advised as well, the end product of him dribbling into traffic and forcing the action.
Smith was at his best last season when he was attacking the rim, becoming a dual threat to both bombs away from the perimeter and draw contact on the inside. Here, he lived and died—mostly died—by his jump shot.
J.R. Smith finally hit a shot and had the awesomest reaction - a sort of "Thanks for nothing, God."— Steve Popper (@StevePopper) November 10, 2013
Turbulent performances from Smith are something the Knicks will have to deal with all season. This isn't going to be the last time he shoots under 15 percent from the field; believe that.
What they cannot afford is for him to deviate from attacking the rim. He, along with 'Melo, Andrea Bargnani and Raymond Felton, is the only consistent drive attack they have, so his shot selection must improve.
Easily the best aspect of Smith's return was his distributing, which is saying almost nothing.
Though he finished with three assists, he struggled to pass out of double teams. Typically, he tried to will points and plays for himself into existence. Occasionally, he would make the right decision, deferring to another open teammate.
Something to watch for moving forward is how Smith's awareness develops. He's never been much of a passer, but much like 'Melo has been doing, he needs to make a more concerted effort to involve his teammates.
Kicking the rock out of double teams is a good place to start. Doing so consistently while also becoming more of a drive-and-kick artist is even more imperative.
As we've already seen, the Knicks stumble when they run too many isolations. With so many scorers on the floor at any given moment, moving the ball will be key if the Knicks and Smith wish to climb out of the ditch they've dug themselves into.
In 2012-13, Smith was notorious for his spotty defense. On certain nights, he would emerge as the Knicks' best perimeter defender. Others, he would take too many chances and get burned. And then there were the games where he would lack any sort of attention or desire.
His season debut fell somewhere between the latter two. At times the effort was there and he came up with a steal. But his on-ball defense was terrible, and his off-ball protection even worse.
Sans Tyson Chandler, the Knicks cannot afford to be weak on the perimeter. Dribble penetration won't be thwarted at the rim by a former Defensive Player of the Year. Awaiting any who seep through New York's defense will be Bargnani, who contests shots sparingly. Or Kenyon Martin, more driven to dell out hard fouls than he is to leave his feet. Or Amar'e Stoudemire, who's continuously confused about everything these days.
See where I'm going with this?
The Knicks don't need Smith to be a defensive juggernaut; they need him to keep ball-handlers out of the paint and remain in sync with his teammates on high-low pick-and-rolls.
On Sunday, the lateral quickness wasn't there, nor was the sporadic aggression Coach Mike Woodson would have welcomed. Smith was passive, at best.
One game in, it's clear Smith still needs to get his feet wet.
Throwing him into the fray against an always-dominant Spurs team was almost cruel. Out of the gate, it became clear practice didn't prepare him for the uptempo style San Antonio played.
Falling behind early didn't help things, either. Not only were the Knicks forced to defend a high-octane offense, a desperate need for instant scoring dictated they push the pace on the offensive end themselves.
Premature plays ruined any impact Smith could've had. You could see the urgency in his step, but the execution under those circumstances wasn't there.
Woodson, on JR's rust: "You kind of expected that." But says the team's struggles started well before JR ever entered the game.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) November 10, 2013
Wrong pass. Bad-to-nonexistent defensive switch. Horibble shot. Turnover. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Once Smith becomes more acclimated to the wear-and-tear of the regular season and the style of offense and defense it comes with, the turnovers (four) should be less frequent and, at the very least, he should look more comfortable in his own skin.
Give Smith time.
You hate to hear it, but that's just how it goes. Players returning from injury, almost no preseason and a five-game absence are light years behind their teammates and the opposition.
How would you grade J.R. Smith's 2013-14 debut?
Scoring will come for Smith. Sometimes at an unsightly clip, but it will come all the same. Put your faith in that.
Everything else is more related to his mindset and willingness to buy in. Shot selection, ball movement, defense—that will only come later if Smith can adjust to his comrades and the needs of the team.
With Smith, it's not always pretty. A few games from now, expect everything he does to look better than this.
Whether we can say the same for the Knicks overall, well, like Smith, I say they'll get there. Time will tell.
Melo: "This city and this organization are not known for being patient. But we've gotta figure it out." Says patience may be necessary ...— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) November 10, 2013
Keep the barf bag handy though, just in case I'm wrong.
Final Grade: C-