J.R. Smith’s career has been a long, strange journey. He built a reputation as one of the game’s foremost conscienceless gunners, partiers, online hookup artists and so much more, consistently having a blast while his on-court success came and went. Then he got traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers, where his AAU buddy LeBron James runs an extremely tight ship, and lots of the noise disappeared.
“I feel like my story would’ve been different had I had a chance to play with Bron when I was 18,” Smith said. “I’ve thought about it countless times.”
Most of Windhorst’s piece is about J.R. growing up on and off the basketball court, including getting married and settling down with his 7-year-old daughter, Demi. The off-the-court part directly informed the on-court, according to a classic “from the mouth of babes” story Smith tells:
“[Demi] said, ‘I don’t want to give away these toys.’ I said, ‘Baby, that’s a sacrifice you’re going to have to make. If you want some new toys, you have give some,'” Smith said. “She looked at me and said, ‘Daddy what are you going to sacrifice?’ I was like, wow. I had to think about it. What was I sacrificing?”
Smith says that little exchange caused him to realize how much his defensive effort was lagging behind his offense, and subsequently to changing that aspect of his game. He hasn’t turned into Tony Allen overnight (and he was part of the Cavs’ shameful defensive performances in Games 1 and 2), but he no longer gives back nearly as many points as he pours in, and he no longer insists on shooting as many contested threes. He’s made real progress this season, and apparently we have his daughter to thank for that.
As for the what-ifs, J.R.’s talent certainly makes them tantalizing.