The Evolution of J.R. Smith


Sometimes all someone needs is a change of scenery.  In the case of Cleveland Cavaliers  guard J.R. Smith, maybe four changes of scenery is more like it. Smith has garnered a reputation as an undisciplined gunner that has no filter when it comes to shot selection.  In other words Smith was known as a knucklehead around the league. The reputation was warranted because he did knucklheaded things like messing with people’s shoes or jacking up an NBA record 22 three pointers in one game or posting NSFW pics on Instagram.  

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This reputation  was conceived in 2004 when Smith was a rookie with the New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans). This proverbial monkey on his back followed him all the way up to the culmination of his three year stint with the New York Knicks.  Suddenly on January 5th something changed. Something clicked in the psyche of J.R. Smith that has changed his career for the better.

On that January 5th date, Smith along with Iman Shumpert were traded to the Cavaliers as part of a three team, six player trade with the Knicks and the Oklahoma City Thunder.  Cleveland relieved themselves of  Dion Waiters, Lou Amundson and Alex Kirk. Since that time Smith has been a completely different player. He has evolved into the ultimate role player that’s no longer a human black hole who jacks up shots that would even make Kobe Bryant blush.

J.R. Smith 2.0 is one of the deadliest shooters the game has today. He has done it in a variety of ways, exhibiting a new-found efficiency in the process.  This J.R. Smith is scoring in a variety of ways: off the pick and roll, catch and shoot and off the dribble. He’s lethal and a big reason why the Cavs are the best team in the NBA since January 15th.

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  • If you compare Smith’s scoring numbers with Cleveland and his numbers in the beginning of the season with New York, you”ll see the evolution.

    Let’s start with with his potency off the pick and roll. While with the Knicks, J.R. was far less efficient operating the pick and roll. In New York ,teams were less likely to pay attention to the roll man simply because they weren’t offensive threats. It was mainly the likes of Quincy Acy,  Jason Smith or an uninspired Amar’e Stoudemire.  As a result, Smith was given less room to operate coming off a screen — he had to deal with one or two defenders in his face.

    In Cleveland, it’s a different story. This time he has the likes of Kevin Love, Timofey Mozgov, Tristan Thompson and James Jones setting screens for him. Love and Jones are threats from deep and Mozgov and Thompson are great outlets rolling to the basket either on a bounce pass or the lob. The fact that Smith’s screeners are offensive threats now has given him more space to operate and unleash his deadly jump shot. According to bballbreakdown J.R. actually runs the pick and roll more in Cleveland and his effective field goal percentage is around 60% with Cleveland compared to about 55% with New York.

    Let’s move to catch and shoot situations where Smith has put himself in the elite category with the likes of Kyle Korver or the Atlanta Hawks and J.J. Reddick of the Los Angeles Clippers. In Cleveland about half of Smith’s shots are coming off catch and shoot opportunities. This is a 15% increase from his time this season in NYC. His eFG% is up from 50.8% to 60.5%.  He is able to be better on the catch and shoot mostly due to the great penetration of Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. J.R. once again finds himself with more open shots.

    Another key element to this new life for Smith comes from situations when Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James run sets with all three starting on the same side. Love sets a screen for the ball handler (either James or Irving) forcing the defense to help off of J.R. who is standing on the weak side. The result is another chance for him to shoot with zero dribbles.

    Smith’s percentage of unguarded shots has more than doubled since his arrival in Northeast Ohio.

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    Stats per

    * Effective field goal percentage adjusts for the fact that a 3-point field goal is worth one more point than a 2-point field goal (per

    There is plenty of credit to go around for this great turnaround in Smith. Coach David Blatt deserves credit for drawing up sets and putting Smith in situations where he can use his best skills. You could thank Cavs GM David Griffin for listening to his start player and bringing in Smith.

    You can also give credit to his skilled teammates, especially the big three. They have made his life much easier.  They’ve also taken away isolation chances from J.R. that would enable him to take those crazy hero shots he was known for elsewhere.

    Credit also needs to be given to J.R.  himself. His willingness to accept his role as a spot shooter has payed big dividends for the Cavs. It’s not all about what J.R.  anymore. He has something to play for and, come playoff time, he will be even more valuable for Cleveland’s title run.

    Next: Cleveland Cavaliers: Relax People