Like a lot of Knick fans last Spring, when JR threatened to leave the team after fans sent a barrage of “spirited” tweets his way, I didn’t really care. It wasn’t just an indifference that was fueled by the embarrassment of being eliminated from the playoffs by a hated rival in the Heat. While his horrible Game 5 performance where he shot an anemic 3-15 from the field didn’t help much, my frustrations with JR stemmed largely from an already established negative reputation and a half season trial that only proved every preconceived notion I had of him.
From what I knew of him about his Denver days, I wasn’t crazy about the Knicks midseason acquisition of a shoot first malcontent that spent more time in George Karl’s dog house than he did on the floor. Yea, his dominance in the Chinese league raised my eyebrows but I figured his tenure with the Knicks would be nothing more than a short symbiotic transaction that would help both parties for the time being. For the Knicks they needed a gun for hire that could give the team some instant offense of the bench, a la Nate Robinson, and for JR his time with the team would simply be a 30 game layover on his way to a new franchise where he would become some other team’s headache. During his time on the team last year there were quite a few ups, mainly via his offensive prowess and of course many lows also from his erratic shot selection.
Actually, his playoff series against the Heat was a perfect microcosm of his season. There was his first game where he scored a crisp 17 points off the bench in a 33 point blowout loss, a few forgettable games in between where the Knicks managed to win just one, his final game in which he jacked up 15 shots on a paltry .200 Field Goal percentage in a crushing loss, and of course the court controversy where he tweeted this to Knick fans:
“Damn didn’t know this many people didn’t want me in #NY might just get what you asking for! #sorrykidz
I’ll admit that I was one the many fans that tweeted an offer to pack his bags for him and even drive him the to airport, but he went largely unheard of during the offseason since that moment. In a well-known exit interview Coach Woodson channeled the frustrations of Knick fans by putting JR on public notice and admitted that he didn’t want to see him walking around with his pants sagging down and challenged him to act like a professional.
So far this season JR has met those challenges head on and has become one of the most important players on the team not named Melo. On the floor his contributions are unquestionable. His 17 points a game have thrown him into early 6th man of the year contention and his league leading three point (.636%) is enough to make Novak look pretty human. Instead of sulking when not cracking Woodson’s starting 5, he’s embraced his role off the bench and has changed his attitude in the locker room. His transformation has gotten the attention of others. The New York Times wrote earlier this week about JR switching sagging pants into a polished suits and in a recent interview with the press JR admitted that he was ‘too caught up in the NYC nightlife’ and not as focused as she should have been. Now I don’t put too much stock into what happens off the court, but hearing about JR’s professional maturity is something that really has been the icing on the cake for me. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that JR’s new focus has lead to the best basketball of his career. Too often athletes don’t get the most out of their talents due to a half assed approach to their craft, so when a player finally “gets it” its always a moment that fans remember and deeply appreciate.
A part of me thought that JR’s resurgence would dissipate the very moment he had a bad game. Well, he did have one against Memphis and it wasn’t pretty. He missed all of his 3’s for once and had trouble finding his shot for most of the game. The most notable incident of all was when Jerryd Bayless took an errant elbow by Smith and shoved him on center court. Instead of jawing back at him, JR stood his ground and shook his head in disbelief at Jerryd’s inability to control his emotions. When given a technical JR shook his again, this time in agreement and went right back to work. It’s the kind of play that reminded of my favorite player, John Starks. The only difference was that while Starks always played with all of this heart, he rarely controlled his emotions which of course resulted into a lot of technical fouls and sitting on the bench to cool off. Though the Knicks loss, JR contributed in other ways by hitting a couple of critical shots down the stretch and sustained a few war wounds by one of the most physical teams in the game. At the end of the game, JR took to twitter again, but this time he wasn’t blasting Knick fans. Instead he had a different message:
Fake tuff guys… That’s that ish I don’t like!!!! #ManUp!
— JR Smith (@TheRealJRSmith) November 17, 2012