The Knicks reclaimed J.R. Smith this past summer for practically nothing. Smith came over to the Knicks as a free agent in 2012, departing a short stint in China during the lockout, had a relatively down season for his standards, and then became a free agent. It was assumed Smith would flee the Knicks during free agency as the Knicks had little money to re-sign him. However, something about the Knicks – New York’s proximity to his home state of New Jersey, the teammates he’d grown close with, the nightlife… – brought Smith back for the 2012-13 season at only $2.8 million, with few other suitors around the league.
Thus far, it’s been arguably Smith’s best season in the NBA. Smith is averaging a career high in points at 16.5 per game, rebounds at 5, assists with 2.8 per game, and while his shooting percentages are slightly lower, he’s been around his career averages from the field and three-point range. Furthermore, with an increased role off the bench, Smith is playing starter’s minutes and positively impacting the game for the Knicks, putting him in contention for the Sixth Man of the Year award.
However, Smith’s improvement goes beyond his simple statistics. There’s been a noticeable difference in his willingness to pass the ball and to defend. The Knicks’ coaches credit Smith’s improved defense to his resistance to gamble on defense and try to get the steal. On defense this season, Smith is holding his own, allowing .93 points per possession (PPP) when he guards plays that end in field goal attempts, turnovers, or free throws, according to Synergy. While that number ranks him at only 257th in the NBA, he is still only allowing 40% FG on those plays. He’s been even better on isolations where he’s allowing .86 PPP (96th in the NBA), guarding the pick-and-roll where he’s allowing .89 PPP (132nd in the NBA), and chasing players off screens where he’s 18th in the league, allowing just .79 PPP. Smith is nowhere near an NBA First Team defender, but his effort and energy have reflected his increased willingness to play defense.
Smith’s offensive contributions have helped in making the Knicks second in the NBA in offensive efficiency. Part of this has been Smith’s increased scoring, but his passing has helped, too. As mentioned, his 2.8 assists per game is tied for the best in his career (even such a lowly number is a success for Smith, never known as a passer). And while some of Smith’s advanced numbers are oddly down, like assist rate and assist percentage, other numbers like his weighted assists (which factor in three pointers) are up, as well his assist to turnover ratio. In fact, Smith’s turnover rate has plummeted from past seasons to 7.6% this year from double-digits in previous years.
However, it’s been shooting the ball – Smith’s favorite on-court activity – where he is reaching new heights. As mentioned, Smith’s scoring is way up from last year and at career-high levels despite shooting the ball lower than his career averages. Smith began the season hot, jumping out to his best ever start before he cooled off at the end of November and beginning of December. Smith busted out of that slump with a 16-point performance against the Brooklyn Nets and has been soaring ever since.
In Smith’s last 11 games he’s averaging 21.7 points on 44.8% shooting from the field, 5.6 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game. Smith has taken on an expanded role with this team as evidenced by his career high in minutes (33 mpg), field goal attempts (14.8), and his third highest usage percentage of his career at 24.7%. Smith’s blend of scoring is reason for positivity, too. Smith is attacking the rim at a better pace as of late, averaging 2.5 attempts per game. He’s also taking more attempts from 3-9 feet, 10-15 feet, and 16-23 feet while taking less attempts from three-point range. It would actually be ideal if Smith cut down on his attempts from 16-23 feet (he’s taking 4.8 attempts from that distance) in favor of more efficient shots closer to the basket and more three-pointers where he’s one of the Knicks’ best threats. However, his otherwise increased attempts per game closer to the basket is a good sign.
In the last six games, Smith has taken on an even larger role for the Knicks with injuries to Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton, combined with Ronnie Brewer’s struggles on the court. In the previous six games, Smith is putting up All-Star numbers, averaging 25.5 points per game on 44% shooting from the field, 7.3 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2.3 steals. However, it is worth noting that in these six games, the Knicks are just 2-4 – odd considering Smith’s productivity. In Smith’s defense, though, the problems that have caused the Knicks to lose have rarely stemmed from Smith’s time on the court.
To begin the new year – albeit in a loss to the Portland Trailblazers – Smith put up 28 points on 10-22 shooting, with 11 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals. If Smith can continue his hot play when the Knicks return to full health, it could prove crucial for a strong, promising 2013.