Knicks shooting guard J.R. Smith’s career is a paradox, so it should come as no surprise his regular season ended with a bit of irony, as he was named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year on Monday.
Smith publicly bristled at the start of this campaign when head coach Mike Woodson declined his pleas to start while regular shooting guard Iman Shumpert was rehabbing from a torn ACL.
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When Smith took to the podium, the usually affable and fun-loving player was humbled and said he was “speechless” as to all the attention and respect given to him via the award. But he was able to thank everyone, including team owner James Dolan, team president Glen Grunwald, his teammates, family and the guy who made him a reserve in the first place.
“We bumped heads time to time, but I appreciate everything that he’s done for me,” Smith said about Woodson, followed by a mischievous smile. “I’ve been known as such a selfish player for so long, I just wanted to show everybody that I can be a team guy and it’s all about team.”
Smith, who averaged 18.1 points off the bench to lead all NBA reserves, was the team’s second-best offensive option, one of their most durable players (playing 80 games and only sitting because Woodson rested his starters down the stretch) and sometimes the team’s calming influence.
Woodson acknowledged all wasn’t rosy in the player-coach dynamic, but credited Smith for coming around and accepting what was best for the team.
“I just felt that what was the best for this team was for J.R. coming off the bench. Before the season, J.R. and I had a long talk about his role this season and J.R. accepted the role in grand style. He did everything he was supposed to do,” Woodson said. “It’s not about winning individual awards, it’s about the team winning, and J.R. had a lot to do with that by his play coming off the bench.”
Woodson finished his portion of the press conference sounding like the proud father figure he’s become to his player.
“J.R., he could’ve started for a lot of teams, but he’s accepted his role and as a result we benefited as a team. I couldn’t be more proud of him. It’s a beautiful thing,” said Woodson.
Many who dealt with Smith in his earlier years may do a double-take at all the praise being heaped on Smith, considering the ultra-athletic guard rarely combined savvy and good decisions on or off the floor. Yet, here is Smith, now 27 years old and a nine-year veteran, as one of the most important players on a championship-level squad.
Teammate Kenyon Martin was with him during his wild Nuggets days and said the teenage Smith he played with then and the man he plays with now is like night and day.
“It’s huge. He’s been playing great all season. It’s just a testament to all the hard work he’s put in all year and keeping his head on [straight] the way he has all year,” Martin said, smiling when recounting the younger Smith. “I played with him nine years ago when he was just a kid, but he’s turned into a grown man now. I think he has some better people around him, which is huge. And he’s learning. He learned on the fly, but that’s all you can do when you get in this league.”
Shumpert, one of the younger guys still learning on the fly, said he has nothing but respect for Smith and the way he’s helped Carmelo Anthony lead this team.
“He deserved it. He’s been working hard all year, doing the little things like coming in early and getting shots up, or staying late and getting shots up,” Shumpert said. “And when Melo went down he came through and led us every time we needed him. ... And he accepted whatever role and did anything that was asked of him [like] coming off the bench and getting big baskets for us all year. My hat goes off to him.”
Martin noted one of the biggest factors in Smith’s ascension to top-flight NBA talent is the maturity he’s shown in the actual games.
“He’s been attacking the basket. He’s not settling for the jumper, even though he’s one of the best shooters in the league,” Martin said, recalling one of Smith’s most memorable accomplishments. “He’s tied the NBA record for most 3s in a game, but the most important part of his game now is getting to the line. He’s making it easier on himself.”
Thankfully for Woodson and the Knicks, Smith made it easier on all parties involved to become a reserve and, at least temporarily, let go of his starting aspirations.
Knicks notes ...
» Smith received 484 of a possible 1,084 points, including 72 first-place votes. He easily beat Clippers shooting guard — and former Knicks’ guard — Jamal Crawford (352 points, 31 first-place votes).
» Smith led all NBA reserves in 30-point games (seven) and 20-point games (29). He also became the first player with four 30-point games off the bench in the same month (March) since Ricky Pierce did the same in November 1990.
Follow Knicks beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.