May 14, 2009

Player Profile: J.R. Smith

Over the past few months, I've been especially intrigued by the skillsets and personalities of complementary players on playoff teams. More so than the stars, I've spent some time analyzing the games and court behavior of players like J.R. Smith, Luis Scola, Derek Fisher, and Courtney Lee. This inspired me to log my thoughts and observations, and in the coming days I will be profiling individual players that caught my eye. My first profile will focus on J.R. Smith.

J.R. Smith is often thought of as a one-dimensional player. For the casual fan, J.R. comes off the bench and provides instant offense for the second unit a la Dennis Johnson. This impression is not without reason: in the playoffs (entering game 5 against the Mavs), J.R. was #14 among all players in field goal attempts per 48 minutes. He is higher on that list than Yao, Paul Pierce, Chauncey Billups, and Dwight Howard, to name a few. The "microwave" reputation was not earned exclusively from his 20 three-point attempts against Sacramento this year or his volume shooting in the 2009 playoffs. The reputation was accumulated over the past three seasons, and its connotation is partly positive and partly negative.

Prior to the trade for Billups, I had developed an opinion of Smith. In short, I thought that he was selfish & lazy, that his god-given talents were minimalized by his unwillingness to play defense or take responsibility for his performance on the court. Magnified during their early playoff exits, he appeared to have bought into Iverson's pouty brand of basketball and anti-professionalism. Energy was spent on the offensive end and in skirmishes, rarely spent on other facets of the game. Passing was an afterthought, and head-hanging was a trademark when he was excluded from the offense or pulled from the game. His defensive philosophy had playground-style undertones, focused on reaching-in rather than keeping his body between the basket and the man. Excitement rarely ensued as a result of team success unless his scoring average had been padded in the process. Understandably, George Karl's doghouse was a vantage point J.R. was accustomed to heading into the summer of '08.

Pre-Billups J.R.

Then it clicked. On a timeline similar to Denver's transformation as a team, J.R. transformed his approach to the game (at least from my perspective). The transformation of J.R. Smith was subtle in its parts and profound in its entirety. Much of this transformation can be attributed to the influence of a true leader in Chauncey Billups, but it can also be attributed to the apparent maturation of J.R. Smith as a man.

5 games into the 2008-09 season, the Nuggets decided that they were going to play defense. This decision coincided with the arrival of Billups and the departure of Iverson. About 20 games later, J.R. Smith decided that he would embrace his role on the team. He also realized that if he played defense and passed to open teammates, his minutes would increase. The Denver Nuggets realized that as J.R.'s minutes increased, the team improved.

Don't get me wrong, J.R. Smith's role with the Denver Nuggets has not changed dramatically. He still comes off the bench, drops his warmups, and shoots a three in one motion. When he gets his swagger going (which doesn't take much), he'll fire from anywhere. Anywhere. While the ancillary aspects of his game have improved, they are still that: ancillary. Smith is a shoot-first, shoot-second type of guy. But to call Smith a one-dimensional player is to discount his development, to discount his skillset.

Over the past year, Smith turned into a good teammate. Watch a Nuggs game, and he's the first one to meet Chauncey or Carmelo for a chest bump at a timeout. This is coming from the J.R. who pouted his way to the bench last year. Smith displayed flashes of point guard and stretches of lockdown defender. By "flashes of point guard," I mean to say he's got silky handles in the open floor or the congested paint and is a pretty crafty passer. By "lockdown defender," I'm referring to his defensive assignments shifting from the Wally Sczerbiaks to the Dwyane Wades (when Dahntay Jones isn't in the game). J.R.'s athleticism is off the charts. What I like most, though, is that he plays like he's on fire even when his shot's off; make or miss, the defense has to account for that. His game is John Starks circa '93, but his skillset is Ray Allen circa '99.

All statistical measures aside, J.R. Smith's style of play is aesthetically pleasing. Not so much for the casual fan -- more so for the NBA junkie. This is probably his greatest contribution to the game at this stage of his career. The casual fan sees another athletic specimen, the dime-a-dozen shooting guard. The NBA junkie appreciates the details. The fluidity with which he catches & releases, the purity with which his shot breaches nylon, the skip in his step after consecutive baskets, the playground scowl that's been refined and institutionalized. Basketball is a team sport, but the individualism is what makes this game so beautiful.

These next few years is where J.R. will cement himself as a premier sixth man or blossom into a bona fide star. He's got all the tools -- the athleticism, vision, stroke, and brashness -- to be elite. However, only the most special of players, those possessing the skills, work ethic, and borderline obsessiveness, harness their abilities to enter the upper echelon of the league. Time will tell if the maturation process will continue, if his psyche will allow him reach his full potential as a basketball player. I'll be watching.


KneeJerkNBA said...

JR Swish has flourished in the playoffs against mediocre competition. I wanna see what he does against Cleveland or LA before I consider him a finished product. His shot selection is still dreadful, possibly the worst in the league.

Walton's Wisdom said...

In a strange way, that's why I love him. And he's certainly nowhere near a finished product.