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Fran Blinebury

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The often-enigmatic J.R. Smith is learning to do the little things on the court.
NBAE via Getty Images

Bench stint helps Nuggets' Smith focus on reaching potential


Posted Dec 15 2010 7:18PM

DENVER -- So it took George Karl an extra couple of nights to finally claim the 1,000th victory of his NBA coaching career.

That's OK. It could take him another 1,000 to figure out J.R. Smith. Or maybe get halfway there.

The season wasn't a month old when Karl and Smith did their usual tango, full of emotion and passion and everyone around the Nuggets simply shrugged and nodded their heads.

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It's become one of those traditional rites of autumn, like sipping hot cider and watching the leaves turn colors and fall. One day or night the 6-foot-6 guard does something silly or selfish and Karl's face turns colors and Smith falls into disfavor.

This time it was poor judgment and bad decisions on the court followed by being late to a morning shootaround that got Smith a seat on the bench for all but one minute during a three-game stretch in mid-November. There were two DNPs versus Phoenix and Portland wrapped around a cameo appearance against the Knicks.

That was all followed up by a reborn, rededicated Smith back in the Nuggets' lineup ready to take the next step forward in his career.

Again.

He's naughty and nice coming down the chimney wrapped in the same package with a pretty bow, the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

"This is the longest stretch of time that J.R. has come into this building -- game day or practice -- with a total, committed attitude," Karl said when Smith put up back-to-back-to-back games of 30, 20 and 21 points against the Suns, Bucks and Clippers.

There was the usual assortment of mindboggling and rim-bending dunks and a blizzard of 3-point shots falling out of the sky. But there was also an understanding of doing the other things -- rebounding, defending, running the floor consistently -- that are necessary to win.

"When I got those DNPs, it really set into my mind that I just have to change the way I look at things," Smith said. "When I wake up in the morning, just try to stay as positive as much I can, come in here with my head up and work hard. That's all he (Karl) asks for -- two to three hours a day. That's the least I can give him."

There have been too many times over the past four seasons together that the least is exactly what Smith has given Karl, which is why the coach and everyone else in the organization remains hopeful while waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"When you bring intensity and professionalism to his game, we can work around the other mistakes," Karl said. "It's when he has a combination of lack of professionalism combined with crazy mistakes on the court that it gets difficult to manage.

"There's no one in this organization who doesn't think J.R. is talented. The thing is -- can we turn him into a good player every night?

"I'm still at the day-by-day stage with him. I'm optimistic, but I don't think three weeks should take away three years."

The question, as usual, is whether Smith, now 25, will ever stop kicking and fighting at the coaching and direction offered by Karl and embrace it for the kind of instruction and guidance that could make him an upper echelon player in the league instead of the punchline to jokes. The Nuggets have seen him do it all before, from singlehandedly taking over a game and making all the necessary plays for a win to letting them down with his willfulness and poor decisions.

"I know what he can do when he just focuses in and does all the right things," said Carmelo Anthony. "As far as the way he's playing his game right now, we can see it in practice. I can see just a different focus. It's showing up on the court.

"I say it a lot, but I think he gets it now. The older you get, you start to get it. I hope he's starting to get it ... You can see it in practice. He comes in early, seems like nothing is on his mind right now."

But since that three-game explosion at the start of the month, Smith has shot 24-for-64 (37.5 percent) and averaged 11.5 points.

With speculation continuing to swirl around Anthony's future in Denver and whether he'll still be with them past the February trading deadline, it's even more critical for the Nuggets to try to find out once and for all what they have in Smith. His quite affordable $6.7 million expiring contract would seem to make him a rather easy chip to deal.

Smith says that his desire is to re-sign with the Nuggets next summer when he becomes a free agent. General manager Masai Ujiri insists the team wants to keep J.R.

There are, after all, those games and those nights when his play can practically crackle like electricity through a power line.

"I'm still thinking and believing the Melo is going to be on this team all year," said point guard Chauncey Billups. "That means we have most of the pieces that went to the Western Conference finals two years ago. J.R. is one of the guys -- when he's completely on his game -- who can take us from a playoff team to a real championship contending team.

"Is what we're seeing now maturity? I think so. Certain things affect certain players in different ways. I'm hoping that little blowup he and George had directed him this way and he can continue on this path.

"I've never seen this J.R. for this long. So I don't know. I don't think anybody knows. We're all here waiting. Hopefully we can find out."

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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