The reclamation of J.R. Smith from a talented weirdo lacking focus to a prototypical 3-and-D winger still goofy enough to be an internet darling has been one of the best secondary storylines of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the last couple of seasons. Observers all knew that Smith benefited from his proximity to one of the most focused, professional athletes in American sports history in LeBron James, but thanks to Lee Jenkins’ incredible Sportsman of the Year profile of LeBron for Sports Illustrated, now we know how much.
Just look at this anecdote about LeBron’s Tony Robbins-level of motivational speaking when he arrived in Cleveland after getting dumped by the Knicks:
On Smith’s first full day in Cleveland, James was rehabbing an injured back and found him in the weight room. “People say you only care about offense, offense, offense,” James told Smith. “I think you can become one of the top five defenders in our league.” Smith, an unconscionable gunner, didn’t know if James was joking. “I sat there for a minute and started thinking, You know what, he might be right,” Smith says. “I’m not going to be able to shoot step-backs at will anymore here. I have to use my athletic ability, my speed and strength, in a different way.” They became workout partners that day.
The other story from the piece that’s most illuminating about LeBron’s effect on J.R. comes not in the form of a LeBron lecture, but in the level of investment LeBron got from J.R., to the point when Smith could send late night messages to James after the Cavs went down 3-1 (but before the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals after winning 73 regular season games with the first unanimous MVP in history):