Knicks J.R. Smith: From High School To The NBA; An Interesting Journey
Grantland’s Jonathan Abrams with an in-depth feature on the interesting career path of Knicks guard J.R. Smith:
Earl Smith Jr. found salvation in his jump shot. Smith could always shoot, and in basketball a shooter can live forever. In college, he clashed with his coach at New Jersey’s Monmouth University, unable to understand why the second team remained the second team, even when they were routinely drubbing the starters in practice. When he’d finally had enough, he confronted his coach, said everything he wanted to say, and stormed off. That was the end of Earl’s college career. But his shot never left him. He frequented Belmar’s Jersey Shore League for the next decade, making cameos in other semipro leagues, popping up whenever a team needed someone who could stretch a defense.
In 1985, Earl passed on his genes, his basketball acumen, and his name to his first son: Earl Joseph Smith III. He placed toy hoops in every nook of the house. He taught the boy to bend with his knees and push with his arms as he shot. By the time the boy turned 3, he could sink free throws on a regular basis. Earl instructed the boy to do push-ups — not too many, but enough to build strength — and to use the form as an inverted model for his jump shot. When another son arrived two years later, the brothers practiced plays coordinated to numbers. They gave and went on one. They picked and rolled on two. They jabbed and back-doored on three. “Defense was the last thing I taught them,” Earl explained, “because you can make it without defense.”
Earl wasn’t wrong. The elder of the two brothers now admits that his father “taught me every fundamental that I know, especially my shooting technique.” That jumper sustains his NBA career — but it doesn’t define a successful one. You know the boy as J.R. Smith, a perplexing, polarizing player and personality. Smith is one of the last members of the NBA’s much-debated prep-to-pro generation.
He’s made money in bunches, more than $25 million in his career, and he will find a team long after his athleticism erodes — like his father, he will always be able to shoot. But he’s also defined by something that isn’t tangible: untapped potential. Eight years into his star-crossed career, coaches and fans still don’t know what to make of J.R. Smith.
Even today, Earl Smith Jr. remains confident that the NBA would have beckoned if only his path had veered a little differently. He measured himself against NBA players like Vinnie Johnson, Eddie Jordan, and James Bailey while holding his own in the Jersey League. His association with those players linked him to a rapidly evolving NBA during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Larry and Magic brought the NBA to the masses. Television ratings swelled, contracts ballooned, players flew first class. Free agency ensured that rosters became less fluid from year to year. Salary discrepancies between stars and bench players had been thrown out of whack. “The new salaries had made it more difficult,” David Halberstam once wrote in The Breaks of the Game. “It had heightened natural tensions between teammates as it increased the differences that always existed.”
That same period laid the groundwork for the basketball philosophies of several other basketball lifers who would shape the education of Smith Jr.’s oldest son. John “Pott” Richardson began his climb to more than 400 wins while coaching the Piners of Lakewood High School in New Jersey. Dan Hurley started honing his game under the tutelage of his father, Bob. Byron Scott capped a successful collegiate career and became a fixture of the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers under Pat Riley. Meanwhile, George Karl coached the CBA’s Montana Golden Nuggets, stealing bit by bit from mentors Larry Brown, Doug Moe, and Dean Smith. And Mike Woodson launched his NBA career under the Knicks’ Red Holzman after playing for Bobby Knight at Indiana. They would all eventually cross paths with J.R. Smith. Their inability to make a lasting impression remains the most confounding thing about a confounding career.
Richardson first noticed J.R. Smith when he dominated the Lakewood youth leagues as a 12-year-old. He called him “a court rat.” Smith eventually landed at Lakewood after pit stops at Steinert High and McCorristin Catholic High — a red flag, in retrospect — as people quickly noticed Smith’s body didn’t resemble the body of a typical high school kid. Richardson remembers the Camden High kids, from Milt Wagner to his son, Dajuan, always seeming more physically mature. Like men playing against boys. Now he had one for himself.
“He’s the only guy I ever coached,” Richardson said, “that had that [physical] structure and could play outside, face the basket at six-five, six-six.”
The second thing everyone noticed? Smith’s jump shot. With a simple flick of the wrist, Smith could drain 3s — or as Richardson called them, “4-pointers” — from laughable distances. The coach started pushing his young star, demanding that he finish first in sprints and stay late to work on that jumper. Smith obliged, never challenging his coach for fear he’d be benched. Richardson still laughs at Smith’s athletic prowess — like his ability to throw down putback dunks in one seamless motion, or the bombs he launched that were closer to half-court than to the 3-point line. Smith also prospered on Lakewood’s football team, where he played all over the field — wide receiver, linebacker, cornerback, safety, even quarterback — saved two games with field goal blocks, scored a deciding touchdown on a blocked kick, and routinely caught touchdown passes on soaring fade routes with one hand.
“He obviously made the right decision to concentrate on basketball,” said Nick Eremita, Lakewood’s coach at the time. “But I coached high school football for over 20 years and without a doubt, he’s an NFL-type player.”
Clemson offered Smith a football scholarship based solely on watching his game film, something that didn’t surprise his coaches. Dave Oizerowitz, Lakewood’s offensive coordinator at the time, likened Smith to “a more athletic and probably a faster Plaxico Burress.” Oizerowitz added, “He was really just scratching the surface. But the best thing about him? He was a great kid. He always had this big smile on his face and was always popping into the office, asking, ‘Coach, how are you doing?'”
Smith gave up football after transferring to St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, where he repeated his junior year and played against better competition. “I graduated high school when I was 16,” Earl Smith Jr. explained. “I said my sons ain’t gonna do that. If I can get that extra year out of them, it makes a world of a difference.”
Even though it would be Smith’s fourth high school in three years, Randy Holmes, an assistant to Richardson and one of Smith’s mentors, agreed with the move. He admitted that “in order to get where [J.R.] had to get in life, he had to leave Lakewood. He had to. He could have scored 50 points at Lakewood, but that wouldn’t have really done anything for him. He would have been All-State. I don’t know if he would have been able to go to North Carolina or the NBA. The critics would have said, ‘Who has he played against?'”
Richardson learned of the transfer while reading the local newspaper. The Smiths never discussed the decision with him, though he knew it was inevitable.
“They weren’t forthright about it,” Richardson says. “But it’s OK. All is forgiven. It’s in the past.”