J.R. Smith maturing under Mike Woodson's guidance
J.R. Smith is a night owl who treats sleep as if it's optional. He tweets his followers when most people are sleeping, organized a 2 a.m. bike ride through Manhattan last summer and has closed more than his share of clubs.
Few NBA players have more fun than Smith. Few have exasperated and maddened their coaches more than the freakishly athletic, enigmatic Smith, too.
For the first time in his NBA life, though, Smith seems to be thinking of his coaches and teammates as much as he does about himself.
Smith said the New York nightlife got to him last season. Now he feels an obligation to Mike Woodson and the Knicks to go out less and give more to his team, and he is enjoying the most productive and gratifying season of his nine-year career.
"More than anything," he said, "if I go out and do something I'm not supposed to be doing and not preparing right for the game, not only do I feel like I let my teammates down, I feel I let my coach down. It's the first time in a long time I really care about not letting my coach down."
Immature teenager in NBA
In 2004, he was a 19-year-old right out of St. Benedict's Prep in Newark when Scott coached him with the Hornets. Smith was immature and needed guidance, but Scott reportedly didn't communicate much that second year they were together.
Scott, now the Cavaliers' coach, has seen a change in Smith, telling the Akron-Beacon Journalin 2011 that he's seen "how far he's come. The biggest thing when I coached him was a lack of maturity. He was young and wanted to do it his way."
In Smith's five seasons with the Nuggets, he thought Karl communicated too much -- with the media. Karl criticized Smith to reporters. Smith now admits he would do things to "[tick] George off" and says, "I'm just glad to get out of there."
Smith, 27, has had his share of off-court issues, too. He served 24 days in jail in 2009 after pleading guilty to reckless driving in a 2007 crash that killed his best friend, Andre Bell.
But the attention the tattoo-covered Smith is getting now is for his on-court play, and he's had some electrifying moments this season -- two game-winning jumpers and a ridiculous alley-oop reverse slam that defied the law of gravity.
The 6-6, 220-pound Smith still takes crazy shots that would make Woodson want to pull his hair out if he had any. But Smith is averaging 16.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 33.4 minutes. He's the Knicks' second-leading scorer behind former Nuggets teammate Carmelo Anthony and a Sixth Man of the Year candidate who leads all non-starters in scoring average.
Woodson's positive influence
Having so many veterans around him has helped Smith mature, but those closest to him say Woodson's influence is the biggest reason he's become a more reliable contributor than ever.
"He's changed in a lot of different ways," said Earl Smith Jr., J.R.'s dad. "The main thing is because of Woodson -- telling him how to dress, telling him how to be a professional, in your ear all the time."
Woodson is demanding, and he made it public that he wants Smith, the father of two young daughters, to be more professional and dress differently. But he's also shown Smith the respect and love he apparently needed and craved.
"I believe in him," Woodson said. "I like what he brings and that's why I'm investing my time."
Earl Smith, who frequently attends games at the Garden, called it "a friend-father-player relationship" and thanks Woodson every time he sees him.
Woodson has given Smith the freedom to express himself on the court and won't pull him when he messes up. In turn, Smith wants to reward his coach for his faith in him.
"I just look at the game totally different," Smith said. "A lot of times, I was trying to score as many points as I could just because I knew that would [tick] George off and do certain things I knew would get him mad. But at the same time, I couldn't look at it that way because I wasn't winning that situation, anyway, which I didn't.
"I'm playing defense harder and just trying to please Woody as much as I can. That's what makes me feel good, because I know he appreciates that."
Finally settling down
Smith takes some responsibility for what happened with his other coaches. He said he could have done things differently and been who they wanted him to be, but added, "That's just not me."
When reached recently, Karl noted in an email that Smith "seems to have taken the bad out of his game, the mistakes out of his game."
When the Nuggets visited the Garden last month, Karl said, "I think J.R. and I will probably play golf someday and laugh and giggle about all the crazy things we went through and the turmoil I caused him and the turmoil he caused me."
Smith was disciplined last season, his first with the Knicks, for posting an inappropriate photo of a woman on his twitter page. The league fined him $25,000. But Woodson remained in Smith's corner, challenging him to be a better player and professional. Their relationship led to Smith's decision to re-sign with the Knicks for $5.7 million over two years.
"I just see something," Woodson said. "You get players that other teams think are a problem child or trouble players. I don't view guys like that. I just don't. I think every player wants to be coached. To me, it's a matter of pushing the right buttons and finding the right things to say to these guys to make them want to play for you."
Earl Smith also credits Knicks assistant general manager Allan Houston and director of player personnel Mark Warkentien, a former Nuggets executive, for supporting and caring for J.R.
Former Nugget Marcus Camby noticed a "night-and-day" difference in Smith almost immediately after they reunited this season.
"He's settled down a little bit," Camby said. "With Woody and J.R., it's almost like a father-son relationship. Woody is kind of hard on J.R. just because he knows his limitless potential. He wants J.R. to be the best basketball player he can be. J.R. respects that coming from a guy like Woody."
In Phoenix on Dec. 26, Woodson was all over Smith for not making the right plays, to the point that the coach said Smith "didn't know if he was coming or going." But on the last possession, Woodson designed a play for Smith -- and he made the winning shot.
"I'm more comfortable being who I am," Smith said. "Before, I couldn't be who I am and who I wanted to be. When a coach gives you confidence to play your game, it makes it so much easier."