It’s been over two years since J.R. Smith forgot how much time was on the clock in Game 1 of the NBA Finals — a mistake that cost the Cleveland Cavaliers an opportunity to steal a game from the Golden State Warriors on the road, and nearly led to a premature end to his NBA career.
Smith suited up for the Cavaliers the following season, but the dark cloud that hung over him made his margin for error almost non-existent, and he was taken out of the team’s rotation after just 11 games. He hasn’t touched an NBA floor since, and before signing with the Lakers last week, he wasn’t sure that he would ever get another opportunity.
“I went through a very depressed state for a long time,” Smith said in a conference call with reporters on Monday. “It lasted for a few months ... I’m a big video gamer, and I didn’t even want to play 2K anymore. (It was like) I don’t want to hoop, I don’t want to work out, I don’t want to do anything with basketball. Just depression because something that I love and that I enjoyed for so long, from my aspect of going from playing at the highest level (was gone). Especially when you feel your career is not quote unquote ‘over’ and it’s still premature, it was tough. It was extremely tough.
“Fortunately, I’ve got a great foundation with my parents. 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,” Smith continued. “If it wasn’t for them, I’d probably still be in that situation.”
In the early days of his time away from the court, Smith said he would constantly check in with his agent to see if there were any opportunities for him to be on a roster. After not hearing anything back for a while, though, Smith said he had to force himself to stop thinking about it.
“I just got to the point where it was like, ‘I’m not going to ask anymore,’” Smith said. “Whenever somebody calls, they’ll call me, and I’ll keep my head down and keep working.”
Last month, Smith got the call he was waiting for from the Lakers. Smith worked out for the Lakers in February, and while Frank Vogel said the team could have “easily” signed Smith then because of how good he looked, they opted to sign Dion Waiters instead because of his ability to handle the ball.
When Avery Bradley, the Lakers’ starting point guard, opted out of the NBA’s restart in Orlando for personal reasons, Smith quickly emerged as the leading candidate to replace him, and on July 1, he signed his contract with the team.
It’s unclear how much Smith, at the age of 34, can help the Lakers after sitting out for almost two years, but he seems to be making a good first impression on his new team. After Smith earned a compliment on the shape he’s in from Danny Green earlier this month, Frank Vogel echoed that sentiment on a conference call with reporters on Monday.
“That’s the common-sense concern,” Vogel said of Smith’s extended absence from the NBA, and how it could have affected his conditioning. “But watching him work out, both when we almost brought him in a few months back, and then watching him work out yesterday and today ... it’s clear that he’s done a remarkable job of keeping himself in shape and staying ready.
“I think this is really a great story. When you look at a guy that potentially could be out of the league, (and) was a starter on a Finals team a couple years back, a champion, for him to have the perseverance to stay ready to give himself this opportunity is I think to be commended. Watching him work out, hey, his nickname is Swish for a reason. He’s a shot-maker, a big-time shot-maker, and like I said, looks like he’s in terrific physical condition. Like I’ve said all along, I think he’s really going to help us.”
Smith could play a bigger role for the Lakers than most people expect him to play because of his chemistry with LeBron James and his ability to create something out of nothing on offense. It’s also possible that Smith ends up playing sparsely as a result of him not being able to keep up with the rest of them — the majority of whom have been playing together since last summer.
Whatever the case ends up being, Smith doesn’t plan on taking his second chance for granted. He’s not worried about whether he’ll be back with the Lakers next year, or thinking about the future at all.
“For me, I just take it a day at a time — literally a breath at a time because I’ve been out for a while,” Smith said. “Being around and being in an environment is so refreshing and much-needed, but I try not to focus on that part and just take it day-by-day, and enjoy the moment as much as possible, as much as I can. Because at the end of the day, I was gone for a while.
“Being someone who’s been around in the league for most of their adult life, and when that gets taken away from you, you kind of get that culture shock,” Smith continued. “Obviously, you don’t really understand what you’ve lost until it’s gone, so, for me, more than anything, I just want to appreciate the moment for what it is: whether it be next year or never again, I just want to enjoy every possible moment I get.”