J.R. Smith turning into A-plus student for Karl, Nuggets

Positive outlook helping shooting guard thrive after difficult stretch

With his self-esteem extinguished, J.R. Smith turned on a new pilot light.

He doesn’t remember the exact date, but it was sometime between Nov. 15-18 when he played a grand total of 65 seconds in a three-game span for the Nuggets.

“When I started getting those DNPs, I really got to the bottom of my self-esteem and I just realized I’ve got to change,” Smith said. “Change the way I look at things and change the way I wake up and view the day.”

Instead of dreading practice, Smith tried to embrace it. Instead of thinking negatively, he focused on improving his game, his attitude and overall outlook on basketball and life.

“Every time I get up on the morning, I just try to be as positive as I can,” he said. “I’m appreciative to be able to come in here and play basketball. They don’t really ask too much from us. We come in here and work hard two or three hours a day. That’s just to be a good pro. To be a great pro, you‘ve got to work four hours a day, so I’ve just got to keep it up.”

Now in his seventh NBA season, Smith is still trying to shed the label as a gifted athlete who lacks the discipline and maturity to reach his full potential.

He went through personal tribulation when he caused a traffic accident that killed one of his best friends in the summer of 2007. He later served more than three weeks in jail after pleading guilty to reckless driving.

Humbled by the experience, Smith vowed that he was ready to get serious about his career, but he continued to have his ups-and-downs on and off the court.

The latest bump in the road occurred when coach George Karl benched him for being late to Denver’s morning shootaround in Phoenix on Nov. 15. Smith played 65 seconds the following game and didn’t play at all in Portland on Nov. 18.

That’s when something finally clicked.

His practice habits and punctuality got better, prompting Karl to reward him with more playing time, and the Nuggets started a five-game winning streak that coincided with Smith’s improved attitude and professionalism.

“I cannot say anything except an A-plus performance,” Karl said of Smith’s two-week turnaround. “It’s been the longest stretch of time since I’ve been here that J.R.’s committed every day. Hopefully we’ve figured it out and we’re ready to go in the right place.”

After scoring a season-high 30 points against the Phoenix Suns on Sunday, Smith put together another strong performance Wednesday night in Denver’s 105-94 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. He scored 20 points, tied a career-high with 10 rebounds and had two steals. Equally important, Smith played within the concepts that Karl preached throughout the game.

One of the game’s biggest plays occurred when Smith outjumped everyone on the court to corral an offensive rebound and then swished a three-pointer from the corner to give the Nuggets an eight-point lead late in the third quarter. The Bucks never got closer than five the rest of the way.

“That was kind of the last hit we needed to get the confidence to win the game,” Karl said. “It can be about making basketball plays. All my guys I love are the ones that make basketball plays. Defense, rebound, smart, clever, cute. And then if you get that with an athletic guy, it’s easy. It makes the game easy.”

Blessed with unrivaled athleticism and unlimited shooting range, Smith has All-Star talent that often gets overshadowed by bouts of immaturity and poor decision-making. The talent seems to be emerging from the shadows.

“He always plays hard, but I think he’s playing a little bit smarter,” teammate Ty Lawson said. “He’s not taking a step-back (jumper) over two people. He’s driving to the basket, either finding somebody or getting an easier look for himself. He’s using his talents more wisely.”

To help bridge the gap between physical talent and mental focus, former Nuggets assistant coach Tim Grgurich served as a confidante to Smith. The well-respected coach provided a balance of encouragement and honesty in difficult times.

Grgurich left the Nuggets coaching staff last summer, but he and Smith still talk on the phone and trade text messages.

“He’s pretty good at checking up on me, knowing when I need to talk,” Smith said. “He’ll tell it to me straight. If I’m playing like bleep, he’ll tell me I’m playing like bleep. Grg is the type that doesn’t sugarcoat it.”

Smith hasn’t given Grgurich or anyone else much to complain about lately, which is a good sign for the Nuggets as they pursue their third straight division title and another deep playoff run next spring.

“He’s been playing like that in practice,” Denver forward Al Harrington said. “Now he’s finally getting the opportunity to kind of show it on the floor. The better he plays, the better our team is playing, so we’re excited about that.”

Aaron Lopez
Aaron J. Lopez is the primary writer for Nuggets.com, providing behind-the-scenes content, including feature stories and video for the site. Before joining the Nuggets in 2009, he spent 15 years covering Colorado sports for the Rocky Mountain News and the Associated Press. Follow him on twitter @Lopez_Nuggets. Aaron's full bio...