Around here I often refer to him as J.R. Swish, but George Karl prefers, "good J.R. and the bad J.R." What to make of one of Denver's most controversial players?
Experience: Smith will be entering his 6th season in the NBA and his 4th season with the Nuggets. The crazy thing about these high school kids who entered the league ... Smith will be just 24 years-old, but is already a veteran of the NBA game (on paper anyway.)
Contract status: 2-years and roughly $11.5 million ($5.5 million this season and $6 million in 2010-11)
Overview of 2008-09 season: J.R. made huge strides last year on the court. Even before the season started we were hearing positive things about the maturing Mr. Swish ... like him practicing with team U.S.A. before they headed off to Beijing. Or news that Smith was in Las Vegas attending the low key, but NBA insider-famous annual basketball camp ran by Nuggets assistant coach Tim Grgurich. (give this article by Matt Steinmetz about last year's camp a read ... some great insight.)
Smith participated in his second NBA Slam-Dunk contest and was voted runner-up for the NBA's 6th Man of the Year award. Everything was looking great for the young rising star as he was Denver's instant offense off the bench and playing starter type minutes. J.R. really shined for the Nuggets at times in the playoffs and looked to be on the verge of putting it all together. His defense was much improved, his shot selection seemed to be improving, and George Karl even mentioned that Smith should probably be starting for the team in the 2009-10 season.
But, as is the case with Smith ... amid the good we got some bad. It was reported on February 17, 2009 that Smith was fined $1,000 by a New Jersey judge for failing to show up for his court date on January 13, 2009. Smith was playing against the in Denver on the 13th (logging 33 minutes, scoring 2 points on 1-14 shooting, grabbing 5 rebounds, and handing out 7 assists in a 99-97 win.) Smith's lawyer Greg Mordas was also fined $1,000 by the judge for apparently telling Smith he did not have to appear for the hearing, stemming from a fatal car wreck involving Smith.
J.R., much likedid, has dealt with questions surrounding his maturity and decision making. While things appeared to go well for Smith on the basketball court ... things seemed to be murky for Smith away from it at times.
Minutes: 27.7 ... career high (22.9 career)
FG: 44.6% (43.1% career)
3-pt: 39.7% ... 180-453 (37.6% career)
FT: 75.4% (75.1% career) ... career high in makes and attempts going 205-272
Steals: 1 per game... career high (0.8 career)
Assists: 2.8 per game ... career high (1.9 career)
Rebounds: 3.6 per game ... career high (2.5 rpg career)
Turnovers: 1.9 per game (1.5 career)
Scoring: 15.2 ppg ... career high (11.9 career)
Positives / What he brings: You notice that after most of J.R.'s stats the words "career high" accompany them. Smith enjoyed a very fine season for the and continues to show that he's growing and becoming more a complete player. At just 24-years old when the season will begin ... the sky is still the limit for Swish.
J.R. basically has no cap on his shooting range, showed improved ball handling, the ability to be a very creative and willing passer, and a knack for taking the ball to the rim more. If you look at Smith's first four seasons in the league you'll notice he didn't attempt more than 178 free throws in any season. Last year Smith attempted 272 free throws ... an improvement of 94 shots at the foul line. Smith also made 205 of those freebies ... nearly totaling his combined makes from the previous two seasons of 230. While he only converted 75.1% of his foul shots it was nice to see him getting there in a variety of ways. While a lot of his attempts can surely be attributed to the number of minutes he logged compared to seasons past (2,245 last year and just 1,421 in 2007-08) I think we all saw Smith become a more aggressive player going to the paint late in the season.
It also looks very easy when Smith takes the ball inside. He has great athletic ability and can jump out of the arena if need be. J.R. like a lot of his teammates is incredible above the rim and can finish plays with breathtaking dunks. J.R. also improved his mid-range game and was deadly from the top of the free-throw line. Thankfully the Nuggets tradedor else Smith would constantly be running into the former Nugget who liked to park himself in Smith's new favorite shooting zone.
Defensively Smith has shown a lot of improvement ... most notably in the effort department. Karl even commented in a regular season home win versus the NBA All-Defensive team votes and even one vote for first team (no other Nugget received a first place vote.)that Smith's defense against was key. While he isn't going to make too many All-Defensive teams quite yet ... it's interesting to note that he finished ahead of all his teammates, except for with 5 votes (no first team votes), by getting two
Negatives / What needs to improve: First and foremost J.R. Smith's maturity level. After some of the positive publicity he made before the start of last season with team U.S.A. practices and the like, we get the negative stuff about missing his court date, being sentenced to 30-days in jail for the fatal car wreck, and now his (now former) Twitter account being called into question for gang-style spellings. Both Woody Paige and Chris Dempsey discuss the Twitter stuff in recent articles for the Denver Post.
If you are not familiar with the controversy of the Twitter stuff here is a snippet from Dempsey's article:
Several recent posts by Smith on his page — twitter.com/jr_smith1 — are written in a way that is commonly associated with the Bloods street gang.
Words that would have a "C" in them are replaced with "K," or if a word has both in them, the "C" is removed altogether. Smith has nearly 15,000 followers on his Twitter page.
"Those are still little messages that are being transcended back to some of the neighborhoods," said Rev. Leon Kelly, executive director of Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives in Denver. "Not to say in no way is he promoting a gang. But people got to understand that a lot of these kids come from gang neighborhoods. Their friends are still involved in doing what they do. Just because one was able to get out of that lifestyle, many of them don't forget where they come from."
What are we to make of this? Is Smith just being ignorant or is he intentionally using this gang slang? After reading some of his recent posts it's pretty tough to imagine he's just being ignorant.
Smith has come under fire for gang related stuff before. In the thumbnail picture at the top of this post, Smith is said, by some, to be flashing gang signs. Melo faced this same criticism when he appeared in that infamous "Stop Snitching" video just a few years ago. It will be tough for J.R. to shed this image that he's creating for himself ... just ask Melo how long it is taking him. It's very tough to see a player with so much talent create these situations. Off the court incidents can start to overshadow whatever a player does on the court.
Smith has plenty of things to work on both on and off the court ... let's get refocused on his on the floor difficulties. I'd love to see J.R. pump his free throw average above 80% ... it's crazy to me that he can have such unlimited range, but then go to the foul line and shoot 54.3% like he did in the playoffs. A little more patience and a calmer approach to his free throws would seem to help ... just compare his foul shooting to Chauncey Billups' and you'll see a vast difference in approach. Billups is calm, collected, and doesn't move much. J.R. has built up a little routine and likes to bounce quite a bit before he releases the ball. Doing a little trial and error at the gym ... I wasn't very accurate at all while mimicking his stroke (but that probably doesn't mean much right!)
While his shot selection has improved, I think it can continue to get better. Swish started to realize in that Lakers series that he could get to the rim at will and that should benefit his shooting percentage as making layups and dunks is much easier than taking 30 foot bombs.
We also saw J.R.'s ability to pass the ball and I liked it. He has pretty crazy vision on the court and is able to squeeze passes into places that he shouldn't. His assist average improved and should continue to do so as he'll have plenty of touches next season.
Defensively Smith has shown more effort and ability. If he remains focused on becoming a star then we'll continue to see growth on the defensive end. He's quick enough to hang with anybody and has a pretty good knack for the ball. When he becomes disinterested on the defensive end his man can get off some easy looks and he will blow assignments, but those cases seemed to occur a little less often.
Outlook for 2009-10 season: Smith can be a 20+ ppg, 5+ assists, and 4+ rebounds a game type player. The Nuggets may need his scoring ability a little more than they did last season with's status with the team now seriously in question. He should be in the starting lineup if what Karl said was true, leaving the bench quite depleted if we also lose L.K.
Next season should be the time we see J.R. jump from rising star with potential to more of a household name. And with the controversy he's created for himself off the court, he'll have to work overtime to ensure that his name is associated with "good J.R."
(thumbnail image courtesy of AP Photos: Jack Dempsey)