Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Player Report Card: J.R. Smith

(Boulder-CO) Acquiring J.R. Smith for Howard Eisely and two second round draft picks from the Bulls was one of the smartest moves in Nugget management’s recent history. Unfortunately for the Nuggets though, J.R. Smith still has a lot of NBA wisdom to acquire. However, despite some lapses in judgment, J.R. did have the best year of his young career, (13.0 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.4 assists), showed the desire to play better defense, and did learn a few things about playing team basketball.

J.R. Smith wasted no time in showing his worth to the Denver Nuggets by averaging a combined 16.6 points for the months of November and December. He did so by shooting better than 40% from the field in both statistical categories and over 80% from the charity stripe. And what was so surprising to me, given how George Karl is such a stickler for fundamental play, was how he started out his career with the Nuggets playing nearly 30 minutes per game in the aforementioned months.

Then in the, "Little Grapple in the Big Apple", J.R. was gooned by Mardy Collins, body slammed Nate Robinson, and took a ten game break to start the new year.

Enter Allen Iverson.

J.R. was one of the Nuggets that saw their role drastically altered by the arrival of the Answer. For starters, J.R. was no longer a starter. Secondly, his minutes, three-point percentage, and scoring averages all dipped after his return from suspension and for the rest of the season. And most importantly, his confidence needed restructuring after finding an identity with the pre-Iverson Nuggets then to only have the entire dynamic of the team changed with the addition of a future Hall of Famer.

Not sure about my analysis? Here are J.R.’s numbers pre and post All-Star break. Before Vegas, J.R. was averaging 15.7 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 1.6 assists in 27.6 minutes of game time with shooting percentages of 44% from the field, 39% from downtown, and 82% from the free-throw line. After the midseason classic, J.R.’s numbers dipped tremendously to 7.9 points, 1.7 rebounds, and 1.1 assists in just 15.5 minutes per game with shooting percentages of 43% from the field, 38% from the arch, and a disappointing 69% from the foul line. Are your sure now? Of course you are, that’s why you reading this!

But aside from all the numbers, the bright spots in J.R. Smith’s game were evident during the majority of the regular season. He was learning how to play fundamental defense, taking more, better shots than in previous years, and electrifying the crowd with his high-flying act at nearly every opportunity possible.

Then he relapsed into the same player that didn’t go to college and who doesn’t understand time and possession basketball as he defied George Karl in the postseason only to find himself subsequently benched for game five against the Spurs. All that hard work, all that progression, and all that confidence that he built early in the season with the Nuggets went crashing down to ground zero. He had made the immature move of going against the game plans of one of the most notoriously stubborn coaches in the game and now faces the challenge of finding his way back into the good graces of Furious George in next year’s campaign.

But I for one am happy to have J.R. Smith on the Nuggets because he gives us a player who can come off the bench and absolutely light it up. He brings athleticism, three-point shooting, and charisma to this team, but what he needs to abandon is the immaturity of the high school game and realize that this is the NB-friggin-A. Stop holding up the “3” and spinning around when you hit one and act like you have done it a million times before. Listen to the coaching staff; they are there for reason. Use that same quickness that you break down your opponent on offense with on the defensive end to put the clamps on somebody. And most importantly, do not take three-pointers from off the dribble with large chunks of time still on the shot clock!

Now with all that said, I think that if J.R. heeds some of the advice in this player report card that he will have a long and bright future with the Nuggets. It will surely take some effort on this part, and some patience on behalf of George Karl, but I really do have the confidence in J.R. that he does want to become more than just a novelty act in this league. So, my final conclusion is this: The choice is solely up to J.R. and nobody else. He is the only person that can make the decision to evolve as a basketball player and fully realize his potential or he can choose to remain dancing to the rhythm of his own beat and surely be shipped off to be someone else’s headache in another city with another team. And Lord knows I want the first of those scenarios to play out for the Denver Nuggets!

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