DimeMag

J.R. Smith Is One Of The East’s Best Scorers Again

There are many ways to describe J.R. Smith. In January, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports labeled him the NBA’s “clown prince” and as a “soft, spoiled, suburban jump-shooter.” Just days later, New York Knicks head coach Mike Woodson called upon his controversial player to become “more of a pro.” Both of these takes are certainly valid, but since the early season distractions, J.R. Smith has been a different type of player. He has kept his mouth shut, his hands off of opponents’ shoelaces and instead, he is focusing on his job: the game of basketball.

Looking at this season as a whole, Smith has been a disappointment. After signing a three-year, $17.95 million extension last summer, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year entered the 2013-14 campaign with high expectations. And until recently, he had not lived up to them. Smith, however, has transformed himself from a lackadaisical loser into a lethal offensive weapon. Not only has he reemerged as a legitimate option to assist Carmelo Anthony in the scoring department, but he should now be in the conversation as one of the Eastern Conference’s top shooting guards.

Since March 1, Smith is averaging 17.7 points, shooting 45.8 percent from field goal range and 42.8 percent from beyond the arc. All of these numbers are significantly higher than his season averages of 14.2/40.8/39.1. Upper-echelon shooting guards in the East, players such as Arron Afflalo and Bradley Beal, own lower scoring averages than Smith during this time span, while others, such as DeMar DeRozan and Dion Waiters, have failed to shoot as well.

J.R. Smith’s shooting chart: March 1 – April 9

Often, it seems as though the numerous critics of Smith forget about the major arthroscopic knee surgery he endured last summer. While he was healthy enough to practice and play just prior to the start of the season, following his five-game suspension for marijuana use (yes, another distraction), the initial timetable for his return predicted he would be sidelined until the middle of November. When he made his return to the court, he predictably struggled.

This piece is not looking to make excuses for Smith, but coming back to playing competitive basketball less than four months after serious knee surgery is impressive in itself, let alone being expected to immediately play like he did in his career-year one season prior.

Keep reading for more on how Smith turned his season around…

Despite his much-improved play of late, Smith is a flawed player. His shot selection is occasionally poor, he often seems unwilling to take the ball to the rim, and he can be considered a liability on the defensive end–and he knows it. Earlier in the season, Smith came out and said that defense is not his “area of expertise.”

Yet, as Dime’s Spencer Lund points out in the above link, that is not why he is on the court–ever. He is on the court to shoot the basketball and score points. And lately, that is exactly what Smith has been doing.

In the past three games alone, he has dropped 88 points all against above .500 teams, including his 32-point outburst against the Miami Heat on Sunday. He went toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the fourth quarter, supplying the Knicks with their only form of offense due to ‘Melo’s ailing shoulder. Sure, he shot 22 three-pointers on his way to an NBA record… but he hit 10 of them–good for 45.5 percent. This is what he is paid to do.

If Smith can maintain his recent level of play–even to a certain extent–he can remain in the conversation with the conference’s top shooting guards. No, it will not be easy. It requires full-on focus and dedication, something he has lacked throughout his career. But after this chaotic season that is about to close with the Knicks on the outside looking in at the playoffs, there may have been a flame lit inside of Smith. Maybe he has had enough of the criticism and the doubt. Maybe this is finally what he needed.

Sure, Smith may just be a spoiled and suburban jump-shooter who will one day “wish he had done everything so differently in his career”–I don’t really know. What I do know is that J.R. Smith is one three-pointer away from 1,300 in his career, a feat accomplished by just 30 other NBA players in the league’s storied history. Now, that’s pretty cool.

Where does Smith rank among the best two-guards in the league?

Follow Matt on Twitter at @MatthewHochberg.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.

×