Through three games the Knicks have been dominant, the last remaining undefeated team in the NBA. A big part of that has had to do with the effectiveness of their bench, mainly J.R. Smith.
J.R. Smith, for many understandable reasons, is a polarizing figure in the NBA. He is covered in tattoos; he’s had numerous run-ins with the law; he has almost unparalleled athleticism; he likes to take shots that the majority of players and fans all know shouldn’t be taken. Yet when Smith is at his best, he can be a game-changing threat for his team.
These things are all known – J.R. Smith can ‘shoot you in or out of a game’. This season it’s been the former through three games. His performance against the Miami Heat was a little shaky – 11 points on 3-11 shooting – but in the two blowout wins over the Philadelphia 76ers, Smith was terrific. For the season, Smith is averaging fantastic numbers in his 34 minutes off the bench: 16 points per game, 43.9% FG, 61.5% 3FG, 6.3 rebounds per game, and 4.3 assists per game.
Smith’s advanced numbers tell an even better tale for the Knicks. In the three games – a tiny sample size to be noted, for sure – he is posting career-highs in PER, Total Rebound Percentage, Assist Percentage, Offensive Rating, and Defensive Rating, according to Basketball Reference. Where we’ve seen the good J.R. Smith, Dr. Jekyll, is when he’s behaved on offense. According to Synergy, Smith’s two most efficient forms of shooting have come on spot-ups and coming off screens. He’s taken ten shots on spot-ups, making six of them, and averaging 1.8 points per possession – his highest of any form of scoring. He’s only taken four shots coming off of a screen, but he’s made three of them and is averaging 1.5 points per possession on those plays.
His 4.3 assists per game is a career high and his career high assist percentage, 20.5%, and his lower usage percentage indicates that Smith has been more willing to make the extra pass or play within a system. His knack for breaking up plays by looking for his own shot has decreased, but it does still remain.
The bad Smith, Mr. Hyde, has been seen in his typically heavy isolation tendencies where he’s taken 15 shots (the most of any type listed on Synergy) and only made five of them, good for 33%. Last season with the Knicks, Smith’s most frequent shots also came in isolation, in which he only shot 35.6%. Perhaps the one positive of Smith’s isolation plays this year is that his turnover percentage is down from last year. At times, an isolation play from Smith can be the best option if his shot is falling, if he has a mismatch, or if it’s late in the shot clock. The trend to look for, however, is if the number of shots he takes in isolation go down compared to his spot-up attempts where he’s much more efficient.
As mentioned, in 2012-13, Smith’s Defensive Rating – a stat that measures the team’s points allowed per 100 possessions with the player on the floor – has been significantly lower than his career average – 93 this season compared to 108 for his career. On defense as a whole, according to Synergy, Smith is allowing just 33.3% FG shooting to opponents he begins a play guarding.
Smith has the ability to be a hugely impactful player, and something about this team and Mike Woodson’s guidance appears to have gone through to Smith. Though three games is a very small sample to measure, if Smith can keep up this production, we could see him start to tap into that oft-discussed potential to be a consistently game-changing player.
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