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Friday, September 21, 2012
Where did J.R. Smith go wrong?

By Henry Abbott

Son of a coach who learned to make free throws by the age of three. A player whose teammates loved him, who won like crazy, and who got to practice early and stayed late. A player who'd give you the shirt off his back. A player who not only never missed a curfew, but who was beloved by teachers and never got in trouble -- but for once, when he snuck off campus to get a haircut to look sharp before a big game. A player who was raised with such a laser focus on long-term professional goals, at the instigation of his parents, that he wasn't even allowed to go his high school prom.

How did the NBA turn that guy into one of the league's cautionary tales?

Jonathan Abrams does an amazing job of digging into that question in an eye-opening J.R. Smith profile on Grantland.

There's a knee-jerk theme in the Knick's career -- namely that somebody should have been tougher, more direct, more controlling of his early NBA life. (One way of saying that: He should have gone to college, where they have coaches like that.)

I don't know J.R. Smith, and I don't know what would have worked. But having read Abrams' story, I'm open to the idea that the opposite may also be true. Maybe the callousness, controlling, "my way or the highway" nature of his early NBA coaches, especially Byron Scott, were exactly what touched off a war with his coaches.

When Smith talks about Scott, you can hear that Scott broke his heart. Smith was determined to not only have a decent relationship with his coach, but a great, close one:  "When you can't communicate with the head guy, something is wrong. I come in early, stay in late, and if that don't work, I don't know what will. So there is nothing for me to do. I've approached him numerous times, tried to call, set up meetings -- no communication. Every team I've been on, I've always been friends with the head coach."

In other words, maybe the problem isn't that Smith was too bad off the court, it's that he was too good.

"The perception," Smith says, "is I'm a sex, drugs, and rock and roll type of person. The reality is I'm kind of like an ocean. Everything is calm, calm, calm. I'm good."

He expected there to be friendliness and partnership and trust. The process of losing trust you deserve makes people bitter.

Imagine, say, getting great grades in school for years straight then having a new teacher accuse you of not doing your homework. Or imagine an overbearing new boss keeping all the office supplies under lock and key, implying you might steal them. That's how the good, trustworthy students and workers can quickly become anti-teacher and anti-boss.

Abrams quotes former NBA head and assistant coach Jim Cleamons on what happens to players straight out of high school like Smith:
We're talking out of both sides of our mouths, and [young players] are caught in the middle because they are impressionable, because they want to play and they want approval. We want to talk about them doing things and then when it doesn't happen, we want to throw them under the bus and say, "They haven't done this. They haven't done that."

Well, is it their fault? Or is it the way we teach them? Is it our expectation of what we want from them? It's the whole kit and kaboodle. It's pure unadulterated American capitalism vs. coaches who are trying to win ballgames and championships -- and the kids are caught in the middle.

Smith is a story that can prove whatever moral you want: He has played a ton of minutes, made a ton of money and scored a ton of points. He proves straight-from-high-school players are valuable. He's also not an All-Star, despite a pre-NBA pedigree that suggests he ought to have been by now. Maybe in that he is a cautionary tale.

Most devastatingly, he was behind the wheel, and at fault, in the car accident that killed one of his best friends. He is responsible for a lot, to be sure.

But maybe he's also a sign that when a very young, talented, hardworking player comes along in need of nothing more than some love, instruction and hand-holding, the NBA doesn't always know what to do with that.