The New York Knicks guard JR Smith won the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award today.
It’s a remarkable achievement for a couple of reasons, and none more so than this: Smith was stuck playing in China 15 months ago.
When the NBA locked out the players in the summer of 2011, Smith was one of a handful of NBA players who signed contracts to play in the Chinese Basketball Association. At the time it looked like the entire 2011-12 NBA season would be cancelled, so playing in China looked like a smart way to earn a paycheck.
But when the lockout abruptly ended in December of 2011, Smith and others were stuck in binding contracts. While the NBA kicked into full swing last winter, Smith was grinding it out with the Zhejiang Golden Bulls.
He finally returned to the US in last March and signed with the Knicks. Even though he played well, his lengthy absence from the league cost him big-time when he was a free agent last summer. He only got a two year contract worth $2.8 million when he re-signed with the Knicks, less than every other comparable guard on the market.
Smith has always been a flawed player — a born scorer who all-too-often subverts himself with terrible shot selection and defensive lapses. But $2.8 million is a steal for a guy who can put up 30 points on any given night, so it’s clear Smith time off the NBA grid diminished his value.
This year — perhaps in direct response to that disappointing free agency spell — he had by far the best year of his life. Off the court, he stopped going out in NYC so much (seriously) and didn’t get in any trouble. And on the court, he made a conscious effort to replace those awful step-back jumpers with efficient drives to the hoops.
Now, a year after being exiled in China, he’s the best bench player in the league and a key piece of a team that has a legitimate chance to make the Eastern Conference Finals.
Here’s Smith killing it in China:
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