J.R. Smith is the NBA’s most beloved buffoon.
Over the course of his career, he’s been known to have his worst statistical games on Sunday afternoons because of his penchant for partying, he’s been fined for untying opponents’ shoelaces on the free throw line, and has been ejected in key playoff games for throwing elbows.
But Smith has also won the Sixth Man of the Year Award and can heat up from beyond the arc out of nowhere. He’s a natural scorer and occasionally an electrifying dunker. Which is precisely the frustration of rooting for Smith and his team: his wonkiness and his magic are never too far apart — sometimes you’ll get them in consecutive possessions.
Last season, Knicks president Phil Jackson traded Smith to the Cleveland Cavaliers, in large part because he had similar frustrations with Smith.
One season later, Smith seems to have matured tremendously, in no small part because of the no-nonsense culture LeBron James has created in Cleveland.
Devin Friedman has a long profile on Smith in GQ this week, in which Smith talked about the James’ competitiveness and how it’s forced him to work harder and be more serious. From GQ:
“You would never go out and party on this team,” J.R. says in the midst of telling me how much he loves Cleveland, what an underestimated city it is. “Once you’re on a team like this, you’re just so locked in. When you see someone like LeBron in the gym around the clock? Usually it’s the guys who want to get better so they can get more playing time who are always in the gym. But if you’ve got four MVPs, two championships, two Finals MVPs…”
Friedman went on to ask about the expectations James has for him, and whether that weighs on him:
“Oh, for sure. If you’re here for any other reason than to get better and help us win, then you’re here for the wrong reason. And he’ll tell anybody that — he doesn’t care. You could be mad at him or whatever. If you’re not here to win? Time for you to go.”
Smith isn’t the first person to praise the business-like culture James has instilled in Cleveland. Cavs’ GM David Griffin expressed a similar sentiment to SI’s Lee Jenkins earlier this season:
Guys like [LeBron]. He’s one of them in almost every way. But when he’s in the heat of competition, there’s no one like him. He is a very intense human being. He’s unrelenting. It’s not acceptable to blow an assignment. He’ll let you know. And then he’ll be playing cards with you again on the plane.
So far, the high standard James holds his teammates to is paying off. The Cavs are 16-7 and first in the East, all without Kyrie Irving.
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