Establishing a new identity

Smith set to make his season debut Tuesday night in Chicago

Consider him the shooting guard formerly known as J.R.

The two letters never really stood for anything, anyway. They were simply short for Junior, a name that stuck when he was growing up as Earl Smith III.

J.R. was always loaded with talent and potential, but prone to head-scratching mistakes on the court and life-altering decisions off it. In a symbolic move a few weeks ago, Smith told Nuggets equipment manager Sparky Gonzales to lay J.R. to rest.

In short: My name is Earl.

Earl Smith Jr. makes his 2009-10 debut Tuesday night against the Chicago Bulls. He missed Denver's first seven games while serving an NBA-mandated suspension handed down after he pleaded guilty to reckless driving. The court case stemmed from a 2007 car accident that killed one of Smith’s closest friends.

Smith spent 24 days in jail as part of his plea agreement, and he emerged with a new outlook on his life, his image and his career.

“J.R's kind of crazy,” Smith said in a phone interview before practice Monday. “J.R was involved in knucklehead activities. Earl's more grown up.”

By any name, the Nuggets are counting on the 24-year-old Smith to take another step forward mentally and physically this season. He averaged 15.2 points off the bench in 2008-09 and finished second in the voting for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award.

When starting shooting guard Dahntay Jones left Denver as a free agent during the summer, it was widely assumed Smith would step into the starting lineup. Coach George Karl prefers to have an explosive scorer off the bench, and Smith's willingness to accept the assignment without complaint is a sign of maturity in itself.

“(I'll) have the same role I had last year, with more impact on the second unit, be the leader – the captain – of the second team. That's my goal this year,” Smith said. “We have three, four, five leaders on the first team. Just be the captain coming off the bench.”

Smith is itching to play alongside rookie point guard Ty Lawson, who averaged 11.4 points and 2.9 assists in his first seven NBA games. With Lawson's ability to get into the paint, Smith is sure to get plenty of open looks behind the three-point line. In preparation for the opportunities, he took about 500 shots per day during his suspension.

“I don't worry about rust too much,” Smith said. “I got a lot of work in. Hopefully I'll be right in rhythm.”

Smith accompanied the team on its current six-game road trip, but he watched the first four games from the hotel because NBA rules don't allow suspended players to be in the arena during games. “I yell at the TV all the time,” he said.

The past two games were particularly difficult to watch as the Nuggets fell behind by 20 points in the third quarter against Miami and Atlanta.

“It's hard because you can’t go out there and help the team,” Smith said.

That changes Tuesday night in one of Smith's favorite arenas: the United Center. He made seven three-pointers in the fourth quarter and finished with 43 points in a tough road loss to the Bulls on Feb. 22, 2008.

“It's a great arena. I look at it as one of the places that Michael Jordan put on a showcase his whole career,” Smith said. “I've always wanted to play in Chicago. Every time I have the opportunity, I want to showcase my talent in Chicago because of the history there. Plus, they (the Bulls) traded me for nothing.”

That trade took place in 2006, when J.R. Smith was an unknown commodity. More than three years later, Earl Smith Jr. is ready to pay consistent dividends.