By the time you read this, J.R. Smith will be a Denver Nugget. As regular readers of FreeDarko’s Executive Quarters may remember, Smith is one of my prize NBA phantoms, an explosive castoff who would currently be gearing up for life as a college junior. This transaction will mark the second time the young gunner has changed employers in the past month, having been dealt from New Orleans/Oklahoma City to Chicago several weeks earlier. For Smith, this two-phase exodus could not have been more welcome. At New Orleans/Oklahoma City, his undisclosed strife with coach Byron Scott had seen him go from future star to benchwarmer; the Chicago trade may have dragged him out of the doghouse, but coming to Denver puts Smith in line for an early-career redemption.
The Nuggets have yearned for a shooting guard for a long time, and Smith’s vast range and taut athleticism are useful in themselves. Yet, cruelly, the city of Denver seems intent on rejecting this boon of talent that has landed on its snowy doorstep. On July 18, Rocky Mountain News columnist Dave Krieger dismissed Smith as yet another “shooting guard who is not a shooter,” and said that Smith’s lifetime shooting percentage “makes [former Nuggets offensive stumbler] Greg Buckner look like Ray Allen.” Krieger advised readers to “ignore the hype” and take Smith’s low trade value as a sign of worthlessness, not circumstantial devaluation.
To anyone familiar with J.R. Smith’s journey through basketball, these remarks come as something of a sour shock. Smith was selected 18th overall in the 2004 draft, after Atlanta’s Josh Smith and before Miami’s Dorell Wright. At the time, what distinguished J.R. from his fellow high schoolers was his shooting. Josh Smith and Wright were known primarily as raw athletes with limitless, if nebulous, potential. But J.R. Smith’s pro prospects had been cemented by his 3-point-happy performance in the McDonald’s All-American game; he was considered the quintessential scoring guard, one capable of stalking inside and outside with equal aplomb. Yes, there is some transition from high-school shooter to pro deadeye, and Smith’s on-paper percentages have waned at times. Still, if Josh Smith can overnight become a deep threat, certainly a man who came into the Association with this skill can round into form if given playing time.
It’s not hard to see why Krieger would mistakenly read Smith as a nonshooting shooting guard. This is a player who participated in a dunk contest, skipped college, fell out of favor with a successful coach, can “jump out of the gym,” and is best suited to scoring, not helping others. For many, Smith embodies everything that’s wrong with the NBA: he’s a walking pathology, the sort of player commissioner David Stern would love to make a coelacanth of. Why wouldn’t a columnist desperately seeking a shooter (not a scorer, or some combination of the two) come down hard on this fledgling performer, who has background strikes against him and streaky statistics? God forbid he should have actually seen Smith play and evaluated this 20-year-old on the direction he seemed capable of taking. Although it seems like ages ago, there was once such a thing as Jermaine O’Neal or Tracy McGrady taking several years and a new building to fully unlock their abilities.
Two days before Krieger’s column dropped, and even preceding the hard rumors of the Denver trade, Smith enjoyed what was arguably his boldest exposure so far. Like many hip-hop-tinged NBAers, Smith has made some visits this summer to the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic, an annual streetball tourney held at Harlem’s supra-legendary Rucker Park. It’s not unusual to see All-Stars turn up there; in particular, the presence of New York die-hards like Ron Artest and Stephen Marbury has become as constant as the scenery. But that weekend, Smith unleashed a truly ruthless double-crossover tomahawk dunk that made a despined orphan of his hapless opponent. Fans stormed the court, and it took over 15 minutes for play to resume. ESPN featured the clip prominently, and by Monday J.R. was best-known for this single move and all it augured. No one knows for sure whether Krieger saw this footage, but the public’s reaction to it seems consistent with the subtext of his column.
That J.R. Smith might not fit one man’s rigid interpretation of the shooting-guard position is hardly news. It says more about Krieger’s basketball politics than his attitude toward the player Denver has acquired. It isn’t inherently unjust to observe that Smith might have flaws; for starters, he lacks the kind of shattering midrange game that has made Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade the great guards they are. I fail to see, however, what Krieger and his faithful readership gain from inaccurately typecasting Smith. No, J.R. Smith will not make the All-Star team. And, yes, he might be possessed of some superficial traits known for their negative resonance. But fatalism that embraces clichés leaves little room for the surprises and variations that draw many to the National Basketball Association. Smith is not the known quantity Krieger knows himself to want. I myself would prefer to watch an individual unfurl within the parameters of time, chemistry, and influence.