Remember those old Virginia Slims cigarette ads with the sophisticated looking woman and the caption that read: “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby”?
Well, J.R. Smith’s life has become an ’80s cancer stick slogan. As the Knick guard moves further away from the young, wild, free and undisciplined teenager that gave his coaches more BS than buckets, there’s no time for reflection.
Smith is actually in his moment of truth. He is in the midst of what could become the time it all clicks for him. Since joining the Knicks during the ’12 season, Smith has shown a gradual maturity under Mike Woodson, the first head coach to embrace Smith’s nutty ways rather than criticize him. “I just see something,” Woodson told Newsday in January. “You get players that other teams think are a problem child or trouble players. I don’t view guys like that. I think every player wants to be coached. To me it’s a matter of pushing the right buttons and finding the right things to say to these guys to make them want to play for you.”
In Smith’s case, Woodson has been a puppet master. After years of being labeled an uncontrollable showboat, trouble-maker and underachiever, Smith is now second on the Knicks in scoring at 16.5 ppg as they try to win their first Atlantic Division title in 19 years. He’s keeping his nose clean and handling his vital role, as a sixth man with starter responsibilities, like a champ.
The more focused and dedicated Smith is, the more the Knicks will rely on him because if gwop is on the table at crunch time, there’s a good chance J.R. is going to take the shot. He’s built like that. He’s an enigma in that he stays among the NBA leaders in three-point shooting, highlight dunks, game-winning shots and technical fouls. In that regard, he’s still an extremist. He’s just more of a realist now. Less shots of Patron, big buckets of Rosay, booties clapping till the sun comes up, stumbling out of Stripperville. No more 2 a.m. organized bike rides through Central Park. No more late-night Twitter marathons.
It’s about damn time.
For all of his talents – off-the-dribble explosiveness, long-range rips, stupid ups and a knack for nifty buckets – Smith has always struggled with balancing the lifestyle of an uninhibited young, black superstar with the meticulous corporate responsibilities of a professional athlete. His body – a canvas for a collection of tattoos so gluttonous they are hardly legible – tells a tale of a crazy kid who has the lane, but can’t shake the New Jeru in ’em.
Smith was a high school phenom out of St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, the former carjacking capital of the world. Following a 25-point explosion in the ’04 McDonald’s All-American Game (in which he was co-MVP with Dwight Howard), Smith decided to skip college and was selected 18th overall in the first round of the ’04 NBA Draft by the New Orleans Hornets.
During his first two years, he showed flashes of brilliance that drew comparisons to Kobe Bryant, but frustrated HC Byron Scott with his antics. “The biggest thing when I coached him was a lack of maturity,” Scott told the Akron-Beacon journal in 2011. “He was young and wanted to do it his way.”
The NY tattoo, that he got before joining the Knicks during the ’12 season, is fittingly on his throat; for most of his career, Smith’s choked the life out of everything special he’s produced.
Former Nuggets coach George Karl said, “He loved J.R Smith and he hated J.R. Smith.”
That just about sums it up.
Smith takes great shots and the worst shots imaginable. He’ll go for 40-plus and play lockdown- D, then inexplicably fire up a 2-14 performance with a few techs and a crucial 4th-quarter turnover. The money that a 20-something, first round NBA pick gets can be likened to Pandora’s Box for kids like Smith who grew up balling in plush, protective prep schools but were also socialized within a black subculture influenced by inner city violence and poverty.
Smith is one of the lucky ones; however, initially, he didn’t take full advantage of his NBA opportunity. He lacked work ethic. As early as last season, Smith, 27, admitted that the NY night life had gotten to him and affected his play. Seems like his final bump, before turning the corner on life, was the $25,000 he was fined by the NBA for posting inappropriate pics of a shorty on a social media site.
It was always something with this dude. In ’06, he was a principle instigator in the nasty Knicks-Nuggets brawl that spilled into the stands. The nightclub incident, and subsequent suspension in ’07, was a clunker. Smith hit rock-bottom the same year, when he killed his homie Andre Bell in a car accident by speeding into oncoming traffic. Smith was fortunate to get off with a slap on the wrist. He really went bonkers in ’09 when he drew attention for tossing up the Bloods’ gang sign after dope plays. His twitter rants were gang-related, as well, as Smith often tweeted messages with the c’s turned into k’s. That eventually got nipped in the bud, but it gave everyone an idea of where his head was at. It surely wasn’t on becoming a better baller.
Thankfully, for the Knicks, those days are waning. Doing a stint in China with the Zhejiang Golden Bulls during the NBA lockout and the tough-love of Woodson has seemed to help Smith find his inner-zen.
It could also be that he’s nine years removed from high school with an impressionable young daughter and he’s running out of NBA eff up cards.
“More than anything if I go out and do something I’m not supposed to be doing and not preparing right for the game, not only do I feel like I let my teammates down, I feel I let my coach down,” Smith, who admittedly used to jack up shots just to piss off coach Karl, said in The Sporting News. “It’s the first time in a long time I really care about not letting my coach down.”
It’s all good now. Smith doesn’t feel like an NBA orphan anymore. The Knicks need him more than ever, and if he’s ever going to become a superstar, this is the time, town and the team to do it with. He’s still got growing to do, but he’s light-years from where he was.