Even as late as February of 2008 if there was one player that most Nuggets fans loved to hate it was J.R. Smith. He was a spoiled kid who had all the ability in the world, but that ability seemed to be wasted by a feeble mind. He was disliked because he made it easy to dislike him. He was embodied everything many fans dislike about the NBA. He never went to college, did not seem work hard, only cared about making threes and dunking when he was on the floor and then toss in the unnecessary tragic death of his best friend last summer and he had the complete package.

It was not just fans who were down on J.R. Despite all of his natural talent, his prototypical shooting guard size and athleticism and endless range the Hornets gave up on him after just two seasons when they traded him to the Bulls. Chicago did not even entertain the notion of keeping him as they sent him to the Nuggets for Howard Eisley’s non guaranteed deal and two second round draft picks. (Has a team ever completely botched a deal as badly as the Bulls did the Tyson Chandler to New Orleans trade? Not only did they ship out one of the best young centers in the league, not only did they fail to utilize P.J. Brown’s expiring contract and trade for someone like say, Kevin Garnett, but they dumped J.R. as quickly as possible for virtually nothing. At least they were able to sign Ben Wallace to replace Chandler. Ummm…yea.)

At the time John Hollinger proclaimed that the Nuggets acquisition of J.R. for such a pittance had the potential to be one of the great heists in NBA history.

However, when he first arrived in Denver, Smith displayed many of the qualities that we already cited and caused two teams to give up on him at the age of 20. He had horrible shot selection, showed no interest in playing defense and was a general knucklehead on and off the court. By the time he was benched during the 2007 playoffs against the Spurs his time in Denver seemed to be running out.

Then, thanks to some bad luck, things started to turn around.

When both Anthony Carter and Chucky Atkins were injured before the 2007-2008 season started the Nuggets needed someone to play point guard for a few minutes a night. Mike Wilks proved to be a poor option and so George Karl turned to J.R. The results were not overly impressive, but Smith definitely took the job seriously and he began to look to set his teammates up. As a result his shot selection improved a great deal and J.R. started to think thoughts other than “must jack up long three pointer” when he had the ball in his hands.

Another positive development was his increased effort on defense. He still did not show the proper understanding of positioning and rotations, but his effort was noticeably better.

Anthony Carter returned in November and J.R. found himself back on the bench soon after. He would get 12 minutes here, DNP-Coach’s Decision there. Then on February 10th in Cleveland something happened. J.R. made three three pointers in the last half of the second quarter to help blow the game open and then made three more in the fourth quarter to complete the 30 point romp of the defending Eastern Conference champs.

Two days later in Miami Smith hit eight more threes to help push the Nuggets to a one point OT win in Miami.

J.R. had arrived. After the Cleveland game J.R. never played more than 20 minutes without scoring in double figures. He shot 97-227 from downtown good for 42.7% and was two three pointers shy of averaging three per game during that span even though he was only playing about 21 minutes a game.

The most encouraging thing during that time is that he was not just a one dimensional player. He developed a pretty good pull up jumper from inside the three point line, he was amazing driving to the rim and finishing or dishing to an open teammate and his defense continued to improve. He even showed some comprehension of defensive rotations. I chronicled some of his impressive advances in the Pickaxe and Roll Film Room.

In a matter of a couple of months J.R. went from a frustrating player starring in the role of lightning rod for the anger of Nuggets fans everywhere to a potential franchise shooting guard. J.R. even won the 7th man award for the best player who averaged under 24 minutes a game from a panel of highly esteemed bloggers, which I am sure he cherishes.

J.R. went on to raise his game to an even higher level in the Nuggets abbreviated playoff appearance. He averaged 18.3 points a game, but saved his best performance for the elimination game where he scored 26 points on only 12 shots. In fact, J.R. has the third highest PER out of all shooting guards in the playoffs. Better than Manu Ginobili, Allen Iverson, Joe Johnson and Rip Hamilton.

That is all great news for the Nuggets except for the fact that on July 1st J.R. will be a restricted free agent. That means he needs to get an extension, which in turn means a higher price tag for Stan Kronke. Denver could have extended him after last season for a very small amount of money. I am sure Smith and his agent would have jumped at a three year, ten million deal after last season. Heck, they may have been thrilled with a three year, six million dollar offer, but can you blame Denver for not doing that? There were enough question marks surrounding J.R. that making any kind of long term agreement like that could have been regrettable.

Now they will have to pay, but the question before us today is, how much?

Ben Gordon turned down a five year, 50 million dollar deal (which he will be very lucky to get this offseason). Jamaal Crawford makes around eight million dollars a year. Marquise Daniels makes around seven million a season. Devin Harris is going to be making between seven and eight million a year. Steven Jackson will make over seven million in 2008-2009.

Looking at those numbers, would anyone feel bad about giving J.R. a three year, 20 million dollar contract? He does not have the track record of any of those players, but would you be surprised if J.R. outperforms all of those guys next season? It is short enough that he can cash in on big deals two more times during his career, but it is enough money to set him up for a long time. Fortunately for Denver no team seems to be in a position to offer J.R. more than the midlevel exception. They do not need to worry about someone swinging in and dropping a ten million dollar a year offer in his lap that they have to match.

Of course, Denver does not have to extend him now. The other option would be to simply let him sign the qualifying offer and allow him to become an unrestricted free agent after next season. Depending on what the Nuggets do with AI letting J.R. dangle for a season might be a good financial decision. If Denver does not extend AI, his contract will expire after next season along with Chucky Atkins’ deal. That would clear up over $25 million dollars some of which could be used to pay J.R. Of course, the risk is as an unrestricted free agent he signs with someone else and Denver gets nothing for one of the top young shooting guards in the league.

That is a risk I am not willing to accept.

The downside of signing J.R. to an extension is that it may mean saying goodbye to another rotation player. It is entirely possible that in order to afford paying J.R. Denver will have to let Eduardo Najera walk. I have gone on record of saying Denver needs to resign Eduardo if they are going to compete next season, but retaining J.R. for the long term has to be Denver’s number one offseason priority. If that means saying goodbye to Najera or trading someone else to reduce the payroll, then that is what they have to do.

I am sure many of you reading this still think J.R. is a chucker who needs to play for someone else. I will leave you all with one thought. John Hollinger has a system that takes a player’s physical qualities and statistical output and matches him with another player that his career is most likely to mirror.

The player most similar to J.R. Smith heading into last season (before he broke out during the second half of this season)…none other than Kobe Bryant.

He may never reach his full potential, and yes becoming Kobe Bryant may be a little bit pollyannaish, but at this point the Nuggets better be sure they are the team that J.R. either succeeds or fails with.