J.R. Smith, the reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year, is one of the New York Knicks’ most exciting players, but he can also be one of the most frustrating. Smith is immensely talented and extremely athletic, but over the course of his career, he has driven coaches mad with reckless and intermittently lazy play. In his time with the Knicks, he has made major strides toward being a more consistent player and a better teammate.
Smith’s efficiency stats may not jump off the page (due in large part to a slump in December and January, when he shot just 38.2 percent from the field and 27.8 percent from three over a 28-game stretch), but he was solid for much of the season. An overall field goal percentage of 42.2 may be a bit low, but for long stretches, he was tasked with carrying the Knicks’ second unit as the lone shot creator. After breaking out of his slump, Smith played some of the best basketball of his career. He looked to attack the paint far more often, posting his highest free throw rate since 2008-2009, and he got away from some of the highly-contested midrange jumpers that were dragging him down before. He also traded some bad off-the-dribble threes for spot-up looks. He hit 45.5 percent of his field goal attempts and 37.9 percent from deep after the All-Star break, and put up a PER of 17.6, the second-highest of his career; his career high came in 2007-2008, when he played less than 20 minutes a game.
Smith even showed a little bit of creativity in the pick-and-roll and, at times, initiated the Knicks’ offense. He showed especially nice chemistry with Steve Novak, who is no longer with the team. His ball handling isn’t good enough to consistently weave through help defense, but he’s unselfish enough to hit open shooters when they’re available.
Defensively, his performance comes and goes. He has a tendency to get beaten by backdoor cuts, due to a bad ball-watching habit, but when he’s fully engaged, his athleticism allows him to make big plays with his help defense. He’s also a fairly capable man-to-man defender, but, like many of the Knicks’ perimeter players, he has trouble working around screens and communicating in the pick-and-roll.
Perhaps the most surprising strength in Smith’s game is his rebounding. Last season, he was one of the best rebounding guards in the entire league, pulling down 5.7 boards per 36 minutes. He hustled hard, and did a fantastic job protecting the defensive glass. Because the Knicks employ small-ball lineups so often, it’s important that their guards help Tyson Chandler and the other bigs on the glass, and Smith provided fantastic rebounding support.
While Smith may have ended the regular season on a high note, his postseason was a mess. A fairly slow start quickly got much worse, after being ejected for throwing an elbow at Jason Terry. His playoff numbers – 33 percent from the field and 27 percent from three, with below average shooting from nearly every spot on the floor – were a mess. It’s unclear how much of it could be attributed to his mindset and how much was caused by injury (he had knee surgery this offseason), but regardless, it was enough for the Knicks to re-sign him at a discount.
With the Eastern Conference set to be tougher than it has been in a long time, the Knicks will need a healthy, consistent Smith to be able to advance in the playoffs. He’s one of the team’s most dynamic players, and he’ll need to be at his absolute best.