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Golden Nuggets: Can Denver lean on J.R. Smith?

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J.R. Smith's teammates often look on in awe of his talents. But his heady play as also been impressive this season.
J.R. Smith's teammates often look on in awe of his talents. But his heady play as also been impressive this season.

The last Nugget I recall wearing No. 5 was Rodney White. The talented White played for the Nuggets from 2002-2005 and was known best for being a player that never realized his full potential. Potential is a word that J.R. Smith fans know well. How about this ... J.R. is potentially having his best season as a Denver Nugget. Scratch that, J.R. is enjoying his finest season as a pro.

Rodney White was a guy who Kiki Vandeweghe took a gamble on. White was the 9th overall selection of the 2001 NBA Draft by the Detroit Pistons and after just one season he fell out of head coach Rick Carlisle's favor (now the coach of the Dallas Mavericks) and was traded to the Nuggets. With the Nuggets White averaged 9 points per game his first season, 7.5 points in his second season and just 5.6 points in his last season before he was traded along with Nikoloz Tskitishvili to the Golden State Warriors for a package that included Eduardo Najera.

White looked like a good fit, at times, at small forward for the Nuggets. He had range from three-point land and when he put his mind to it, could get to the rim and finish with power. Standing 6'8'' or 6'9'' White was quickly pushed aside by Carmelo Anthony and would either have to adjust to playing shooting guard or be resigned to being Melo's backup. Never a guy who gave much effort on defense, the Nuggets included White in a trade for Najera to upgrade their team on the defensive end and to get a player who played bigger than his 6'8'' frame (in Eddie) for a playoff run.

When White left the team, with him went that younger player with untapped potential that teams need to blossom in order to keep moving towards title contention. Either through free agency or the draft teams must find young guys who can step up and eventually turn from rough prospects into diamonds that earn their roles with the team. When Mark Warkentien took over for Vandeweghe he took his shot with a young player that fell out of favor quickly with the team that drafted him.

J.R. was the 18th pick of the 2004 NBA Draft by the New Orleans Hornets. He played just two seasons for coach Byron Scott before he was traded to the Chicago Bulls. Before ever playing for the Bulls, Warkentien was able to pry him away for Howard Eisley and two second-round draft picks.

Wark had this to say on Nuggets.com about the trade back on July 20, 2006, "J.R. is an athletic young talent who can really shoot the basketball. He still hasn’t seen his 21st birthday and his potential excites us." 

It really doesn't seem like J.R. Swish has been with the Nuggets for, going on, five seasons now. His three-year $16.5 million deal that he signed in 2008 is in its last season and J.R. has been showing this season that he is a player his team can lean on.

Guys tend to play well in contract seasons. Look no further than Erick Dampier's career season during the 2003-04 campaign. Damp put up 12.3 points and 11.9 rebounds that season with Golden State and after he was traded to the Dallas Mavericks in 2004 he went back to averaging roughly his career numbers of 7.5 points and 7.2 rebounds. His lone double-double season earned him a seven-year $73 million deal from Mark Cuban. But if you look at Swish's numbers ... he's not playing out of his mind stat wise, but he is making it a point to be a better overall player on the court and it's showing. So, while we know of the dangers of guys like Dampier, I don't think J.R.'s improvement on the court is just for show.

During the 2007-08 season J.R. attempted 10+ three-point shots in a game 7 times out of 74 games. 
In the 2008-09 season he took 10+ three-point shots in 7 out of 81 games.
In the 2009-10 season he took 10+ three-point in 12 out of 75 games.
Thus far in the 2010-11 season he's only attempted 10+ three-point shots 4 times in 70 games.

George Karl talks a lot about respecting the game and J.R. seems to be doing that by cutting down on his long-bomb attempts. We all know that J.R. likes to put on a show for the fans whenever he steps on the floor. And he sometimes likes to do so by hitting long shots when the game is out of reach. The fact that he is cutting down on his three-point attempts shows that not only is he respecting the game, but that he's also finding new ways to help his team other than just shooting from downtown.

Consider J.R.'s three-point shooting this season: he is only attempting 3.9 three-pointers a game this season and he's making 38.8% of them. In the 2009-10 season he averaged 6.2 three-point attempts per game and only connected on 33.8% of them. In the 2008-09 season he averaged 5.6 three-point attempts per game and he's a career 37% three-point shooter. I have always thought that J.R. would never be a very impressive percentage shooter from deep because he takes a lot of shots when the game is out of reach. And that is only hurting his own numbers. This season we may finally be seeing a truer three-point shooting percentage from Swish as he's much more selective on when he pulls the trigger from behind the arc.

Smith also is a more productive player when he is on the floor. He's averaging less minutes this season than he did in the previous two seasons (24.7 minutes per game this season and 27.7 mpg over the last two seasons), but his defense, shot selection, awareness and ability to handle the ball are all very valuable to this team. While J.R.'s scoring is down (12.1 points per game this season compared to over 15 ppg the last two seasons), he's actually doing the little things that his team needs in order to collect wins.

At 6'6'' Smith is a good rebounder and his 4.1 boards a game are a career-high for him as he averages just 2.8 rebounds per game for his career. I can think of numerous times where the Nuggets needed a big rebound and guys like Smith, Raymond Felton and Arron Afflalo have gobbled them up for Denver. When the guards are helping out on the boards, it's almost impossible for the opposition to get second-chance opportunities. Those key rebounds could result in playoff wins in just a matter of weeks for the Nuggets.

Another area where the Nuggets need to continue to improve is taking care of the ball. Denver currently ranks 15th in the NBA with 14.04 turnovers per game. The Pistons lead the league in taking care of the ball as they turn it over just 12.77 times per game. Minnesota leads the league with 17.16 turnovers per game ... so you can see that the Nuggets are a middle of the road team in terms of taking care of the ball. There is room for a little improvement and a key turnover here-or-there can result in a painful playoff loss (we know all about key turnovers as Nuggets fans). Smith is only averaging 1.2 turnovers per game and that's down from his career average of 1.5 a game and 1.9 turnovers per game last season. Smith handles the ball a lot for the Nuggets when he's on the floor and he's as good as Ty Lawson and Felton at running the pick-and-roll and often threads the needle to get the big man cutting to the basket an easy look.

The biggest improvements for J.R. have come post-trade this season. Since Melo and Chauncey Billups were dealt he's averaging 25.3 minutes per game, 15.1 ppg, 4.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, just 1.2 turnovers and 1 steal. His field goal shooting is up A.M. (after Melo) as he's hitting 45.9% (85-185), up from his season average of 43.4%. And his three-point shooting is up from 38.8% to 47.8% A.M. (44-92).

The only area where I continue to be highly critical of J.R.'s game is at the foul line. He's just a 74.2%  career shooter from the freebieland and only shooting 74.1% this season (70.7% A.M. going 29-41). He's only averaging 2.8 free throw attempts this season and he doesn't attack the rim as often as he could/should. J.R. has developed a killer crossover, but instead of using it to drive to the hoop ... he has grown comfortable using it to take a pull-up jumper (often from the area around the top of the key). I recall hearing during a game that players that struggle from the foul line will get into the habit of not attacking the basket out of some type of fear for not wanting to get fouled. With J.R. athletic ability I hope that is not the case with him. Drives to the hoop can result in injury and as players age they need to develop more of a mid-range game. So, while J.R. is not attacking the hoop as much as this idiot blogger would like, he is adding more to his game than just launcing threes and driving to the rim.

Smith is one of the most exciting players in the league and is very important to what the Nuggets do. His scoring, defense (he gets some nice steals by anticiapting passing lanes), ball handling, passing and even his cheerleading from the sidelines are all making him a more complete player and good teammate. J.R. is often up off the bench rooting on his fellow boys in blue and he has great interaction with the fans. Easily one of my favorite Nuggets it's nice to see his game at a higher-level.

The Nuggets don't have a ton of playoff experience on their roster and J.R. is going to need to be more than a spark off the bench down the stretch and in the post-season. But he's proving to be a player the Nuggets can lean on.

 

 

The Links ...

Nuggets.com
A race between Aaron Lopez of Nuggets.com and Benjamin Hochman of the Denver Post. Steve Hess judges the winner.

Nuggets First-Round Playoff Tickets Go On Sale April 2 - Nuggets.com
Thanks to reader Throwitdownbigmanthrowitdown for providing this link and the details to how to get your playoff tickets.

RenKnowItAll - Twitter
The guys at Elephants in the Room get a picture of our Andrew Feinstein at the Pepsi Center for the Mile High Dreams Gala ... nice suit Andy! Check the picture by clicking the link above ...

Post-Ups: NBPA looks to learn from NFLPA's decertification tactics - Ken Berger, CBS Sports.com
A good article on the labor mess. A note after the article on Chauncey Billups' future with the Knicks as well as coach Mike D'Antoni's. Some other good points in the article as well at the end (bullet points).

Anaheim is after NBA Kings: OKs $75 million - Eric Carpenter, The Orange County Register
More moves made by the city of Anaheim to add a third team to the Los Angeles area. Do the Kings have Blake Griffin? Do they have the Lakers bandwagon capability? Maybe they can be the Anaheim Little Mermaids ... a whole neeeewwww world! (Is that song even from Little Mermaid?)

Lakers a 'long shot' to catch Spurs - Dave McMenamin, ESPN Los Angeles
... not if David Stern has anything to say about it! Lakers vs. Celtics ... can you vomit it?!?

2011 NBA draft early entries - Staff Report, Sporting News
Go check out some names that are leaving school early to try to earn some big bucks in the pros. There is a kid from Ohio State who is apparently staying around ... (like I predicted he would!) 

NBA Will Investigate Jay-Z's Contact With Kentucky Players - NetsDaily
A slap on the wrist coming for HOV?

Nets assistant Larry Krystkowiak in mix for Utah coaching job - Lya Wodraska, The Salt Lake Tribune
Have fun with that last name Utah writers and fans ...

Ancient Subatomic Signature Discovered Spanning the Universe (A 'Galaxy' Most Popular) - The Daily Galaxy
Expand your mind basketball people.

 

From the vault:

Nuggets Acquire Najera, Flores, First-Round Pick From Warriors - Nuggets.com (Feb. 24, 2005)
Remember when the Nuggets dumped Skita and White for EDDIE EDDIE!?!

 

 

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