At the seven-minute mark of the first quarter J.R. Smith jogs to the scorer’s table to check-in for the Knicks. At this moment, the MSG crowd catches a glimpse of New York’s sparkplug and a chorus of cheers are heard across the arena.
This is Smith’s time.
Not at the opening tip but he’s there right at the moment when a scoring spark, a defensive stop, a jolt of energy, or maybe a momentum changing play is needed.
He is the Sixth Man.
On Monday afternoon, the NBA announced Smith as the 2013 Sixth Man of the Year at MSG Training Center. Smith is the third Knick to earn the honor, joining Anthony Mason and John Starks in the Knicks fraternity of impactful players off the pine.
Smith returned to New York prior to the start of the 2012-13 season with a renewed focus on shedding his basketball persona as the sixth man. The respected veterans inside the Knicks locker room convinced him otherwise.
“At first I wasn’t embracing the role when coach Woodson first told me,” Smith admitted. “It was tough for me to get over not starting because that was going to be my goal pretty much the whole summer, working out and all that. My teammates from Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace, Kurt Thomas, Marcus Camby, they really put in my head this is a better situation for us as a team. Once I got that through, I was fine.”
Smith made the ultimate sacrifice for the betterment of the team while finding his niche role playing starter minutes. This season, Smith led all reserves in scoring, averaging 18.1 points per game. In addition to the prolific scoring, Smith grabbed 5.3 rebounds, dished out 2.7 assists, and snatched 1.3 steals per game in 33.5 minutes of action. He registered seven 30-point games, hit two game-winners in the same week, and New York boasted a +5.3 score differential with him on the court. Meanwhile, the Knicks soared to their best year since 1994 by earning the No. 2 overall seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
“We needed that powerhouse off the bench and I think that’s what makes us have one of the better benches in the NBA,” Carmelo Anthony commented on his sidekick.
Smith slipped on a New York uniform after stint in China during the lockout. His debut appearance at the Garden in 2011 was a glowing example of how his career eventually hit the pinnacle on Monday. In that contest against the Mavericks, Smith buried three long bombs in the first quarter while helping the Knicks topple the Mavericks 104-97.
The 6-6 shooting guard matured on and off the court to reach a point where he could become a consistent go-to option for a contending team. The straight out of high school prospect always owned immense talent but this season he combined elite skill level with work ethic and an intelligent, efficient approach to the game.
“Unfortunately, it took 10 years later,” Smith laughed. “It’s all coming together at the right time and the right place.”
Last year’s Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler spoke highly of Smith’s dedication, “We can see it, he’s a lot more focused on his craft. He’s been a professional this year, he has showed up ready to work, on time and early getting his shots, staying after getting his shots, and it’s paid off for him. You like to see that. Somebody dedicates themselves the way they’re supposed to, it’s good to see things work out in their favor.”
New York and Smith seem to be a match made in heaven. Knicks history is littered with famous off the bench stars, dating back to Dr. Ernie Vandeweghe, Cazzie Russell on the 1970 championship squad, Jerry Lucas and his contributions behind Willis Reed and Dave DeBusschere. And, of course, Mason and Starks are revered to this day.
“Greatest feeling in my life. Greatest place to play, greatest fans in the world,” Smith exclaimed when speaking about the Knicks history and his name next to the legends.
On a day when the Sixth Man was celebrated, J.R. Smith was the lone man in the spotlight after a spectacular 2012-13 campaign.