Can JR Smith put the Lakers over the title hump?

One of the more intriguing questions around the Los Angeles Lakers possible run to the NBA title is just how much basketball juice does guard JR Smith have left in his tank? Apparently, enough for the Lakers to sign the longtime sharpshooter. But then the second question is will Smith be enough to replace Avery Bradley, who decided to opt-out of the league’s restart plan in Florida? 

So far, Lakers coach Frank Vogel, likes what he has seen from Smith.

“Watching him workout, both when we almost brought him in a few months back and then watching him workout yesterday (July 5) and today (July 6)…the two days that he was in, it’s clear that he’s done a remarkable job of keeping himself in shape, and staying ready,” Vogel said during a Zoom conference call with reporters.

“I think that this is really a great story when you look at a guy who potentially could be out of the league, was a starter on a Finals team a couple of years back, a champion,” Vogel continued. “For him (Smith) to have the perseverance, to stay ready, and to give himself this opportunity, I think it’s to be commended.” 

Judging by the numbers between the two guards, there’s not too much difference. Bradley, who has been in the league since 2010, has put up 11.8 points per game in his career. Smith, averages just a tad over 12 points (12.5 points) per game. Defensively, Bradley has the edge. But in real-time, offensively, Smith comes up with the advantage. 

When he is playing in a zone, Smith can light it up as he did against the Sacramento Kings when he put up 45 points as a member of the Denver Nuggets. That has been over a decade ago, but Smith still has enough moxie to help a team like the Lakers to make that final push to win a title as he did with LeBron James when he played for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016. 

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Los Angeles Lakers guard JR Smith during a workout. Photo credit: Lakers.com

The caveat here is that although he’ll be reuniting with James, Smith admits he expects there will be some challenges as far as getting up to speed on playing with a new team.

“it’s definitely going to be a challenge because obviously I haven’t played with these guys,” Smith said. “I haven’t been around them as much. I watched…obviously, I’ve watched the games, and been to a few games and seen them play. But it’s different once you get out there knowing guys’ tendencies, knowing where guys are going to cut or where they like to shoot the ball and stuff like that. That’s a little bit different, but for me it’s fortunate. I’ve never been the guy to try to set up guys anyway. That’s pretty much (Le) Bron and …it’ll be A.D.’s (Anthony Davis) job. So, for me, it’ll get to the corners, space the floor, play defense as much as possible and try to stay out the way.”     

As good of a compliment player that he is, the Lakers, however, are taking a risk with Smith. Smith played just 11 games during the 2018-19 season before being waived by the Cavaliers during the summer of 2019. So, it’s been a minute since Smith has worked in fluidity with a ballclub. Fearing his NBA career might be over, Smith said he went into a long depressive funk.

“I went through a very depressed state for a long time,” Smith said. “It lasted for a few months where…I’m a big video gamer and I didn’t want to play (NBA) 2K anymore. I don’t want to hoop. I don’t want to workout. I don’t want to play 2K. I don’t want to do anything with basketball anymore. It was like a depression because something that I loved and what I enjoyed for so long is…from my aspect of going from playing at the highest level, especially when you feel as though your career is not-quote on quote over and still premature. It was tough. It was extremely tough.”

Smith said he owes his breakthrough from his depressive state to his parents.

“Fortunately, I’ve got a great foundation with my parents,” said Smith. “My dad has always been on me and on me and on me about what I’ve accomplished and what I still have left in the tank and stuff like that. So, fortunately, if it wasn’t for them, I’d probably be still in that situation.”

Despite his longtime inactivity, the Lakers announced July 1 that they had signed the 2013 NBA Comeback Player of the Year, a move that will no doubt bolster the team’s chances of winning it all. Not only does Smith give the Lakers a lethal scoring option off the bench, but he also brings postseason credibility with him as well. 

Smith has played in 130 NBA playoff games during his career, averaging a shade over 11 points (11.3) per game. Smith said that experience has proven to be beneficial when players, coaches are in the heat of competing in a highly-charged environment like the postseason. By having gone through the playoff process multiple times, Smith said the experience allows him to help his teammates.    

“Just being there before and not being surprised by anything, being able to…especially as you get older in your career, to be vocal with your teammates, and try to get them to understand certain situations in that crunch and try to calm guys down because a lot of guys like to get too pumped up for the moment, and sometimes, it kind of takes away from them. Just as much as the experience goes on the court and being in the right situations, it comes on off the court as well.”

The Lakers can certainly benefit from Smith’s postseason experience. Now how will Smith help James, Anthony Davis or even Kyle Kuma get their points? Spacing. With Smith out on the floor, teams will be taking their chances of getting burned by James, Davis, and Kuzma’s inside play or getting lit up by Smith, a 37 percent career shooter from beyond the arc. 

Either way, it could prove to be a win-win for the Lakers.      

“Watching him workout…his nickname is ‘Swish’ for a reason,” Vogel said. “He’s a shot-maker, right? A big-time shot-maker. And like I said, he looks like he’s in terrific physical condition, and like we’ve said all along, I think he’s really going to help us.”  

Editor’s note: Feature image of Los Angeles Lakers guard JR Smith appears courtesy of Lakers.com

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