J.R. Smith, Nuggets Both Want a Re-Signing Next Summer
J.R. Smith says he wants to re-sign with Denver next summer as a free agent. And the Nuggets want to bring him back.
That would be the J.R. Smith who has conjured up memories at times of J.R. Rider. The one who has clashed with Nuggets coach George Karl for four-plus seasons and who as recently as Nov. 15 was benched after being late to a shootaround for that night's game at Phoenix.
But Karl was raving about Smith on Wednesday, saying he has made great strides since the Phoenix game. That began a week in which Smith didn't play in two games and got just one minute in a third.
"J.R. has been great,'' Karl said before a 105-94 home win over Milwaukee, and reiterated his comments after the game. "This is the longest strength of time that I think J.R. has come (in) game day or practice day with a total committed attitude ... His energy on the court has been good. His practices, he was the best player on the practice court (Tuesday).''
Smith, who has averaged 25.0 points the past two games, told FanHouse before totaling 20 points and 10 rebounds against the Bucks about his desire to remain long-term with the Nuggets.
"I want to stay here the rest of my career ... Yeah, sure,'' Smith said about hoping to re-sign with the Nuggets next summer. "I wouldn't want to play for anybody else.''
The desire is reciprocal. Nuggets executive vice president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri is a big fan of Smith's.
"That's what we want,'' Ujiri told FanHouse when informed about the guard's desire to re-sign. "We like J.R. I told you that in training camp.''
Ujiri was referring a FanHouse story in September in which he said he had "confidence'' Smith would not be dealt by the Feb. 24 trade deadline.
Ujiri isn't the first Nuggets executive to believe in Smith. Mark Warkentien, let go by Denver last August, traded for Smith in 2006 and signed him to a three-year, $16.5 million contract as a restricted free agent in 2008.
But the relationship between Karl and Smith has been another story. Karl often has believed Smith cheats the game with mistakes made on and off the court and sometimes hasn't taken advantage of his tremendous talent and athleticism.
"When you bring intensity and professionalism to his game, we can then work around some of the other mistakes,'' Karl said. "It's when he has a lack of commitment, professionalism combined with the crazy mistakes he throws on the court. It's difficult to manage. There's no one in this organization who doesn't think J.R. is talented. But the thing is, can we turn him into a ... a good player every night and a great player half the time.''
Smith's Denver tenure has included Karl in 2007 becoming so exasperated with his erratic play in a first-round playoff series against San Antonio he declared, "He's done.'' Smith didn't play in Game 5, which the Nuggets lost to drop the series 4-1.
Not long after that, Smith ran a stop sign in his native New Jersey and his vehicle was struck by another, killing Smith's passenger. Smith eventually pleaded guilty to reckless driving and spent 23 days in jail in the summer of 2009.
FanHouse reported last summer Smith had an altercation with a former D-League player at a Pepsi Center pickup game, although no charges were filed. And the latest incident was Smith being late for the Nov. 15 shootaround.
"I came late,'' said Smith, making a base salary of $6.03 million in the final year of his contract. "I just overslept.''
But Smith said he learned from that incident, which resulted in virtually a week of not playing. That's when he told himself he must be more responsible.
"Yeah, of course,'' said Smith of turning things around. "I missed it by accident. It was just something that I had to be on top of and something I can control ... (Now Smith is) just getting up early. Start my day earlier. Just come in (to the Pepsi Center) with a more positive attitude.
"I just try to walk in here with a positive head every day. Try to do positive things, and come in and work hard and have fun when I'm playing basketball.''
There have been times Karl and Smith wouldn't even talk, with an assistant coach dealing with Smith. Smith said he and former Nuggets assistant Tim Grgurich, who is now with Dallas after leaving behind his role last summer of being Smith's primary mentor, still communicate about once a week. That prompted Karl to crack, "I'm sliding (Grgurich) some illegal money under the table.''
"Yeah, they're pretty good,'' Smith said of how his relationship with Karl has improved lately. "There are ups and downs, but for me personally this is one of the times where it's going up.''
Smith eventually worked his way out of that stretch of playing one minute in three games. He came up big last Sunday against Phoenix, scoring 30 points when the Nuggets were without flu-ridden star forward Carmelo Anthony for the final 45 minutes.
"I wasn't playing the way I wanted to play,'' said Smith, who had gotten off to a slow offensive start, with the Suns outburst being his first game this season with more than 13 points. "Fortunately, for me I always find my game later on in the season and really (Smith found it at) the most important time when we needed it.''
Anthony returned from his illness against the Bucks, but was ejected with 2:40 left in the third quarter after picking up his second technical. Smith then scored nine of his points and grabbed eight of his rebounds the rest of the way.
"George really came in at halftime and emphasized we had to rebound,'' Smith, who raised his seasonal averages to 10.7 points and 4.2 rebounds and shot 8-of-16 to up his field-goal percentage to 40.2, told reporters after the game. "(Smith took) upon myself to try to get as many rebounds as I could.''
Smith is listening more intently these days to Karl. The coach has emphasized it's not all about scoring and he has to use his athleticism better in all facets of the game.
"He was great,'' Karl said after Wednesday's win, giving Smith an "A-plus.''
"He was very good. I was thinking about starting him at halftime. He was into the game ... I thought he got a little wild and crazy after a few spurts. I don't think he's ever going to go a whole game without doing something like, 'Why did he do it.' That's just part of the game ... I thought J.R. made some good defensive plays (Wednesday) and his rebounding was good.''
Ujiri said he's pleased with how Karl and Smith have been getting along recently, and is hopeful it will continue. Karl is being cautiously optimistic.
"I still think I'm at the day-by-day stage, but I'm optimistic,'' Karl said. "I don't think three weeks should take away from ... four years.''
If Smith and Karl can stay on the same page, that's certainly good news for the Nuggets (11-6), who have won five straight after an injury-plagued start to the season. Yes, the possibility of Anthony, who has yet to sign a three-year, $65 million contract extension, being dealt by the Feb. 24 trade deadline remains. But at least forward Kenyon Martin, who has yet to play this season following offseason knee surgery, appears somewhat close to returning.
Martin visited the doctor Monday, and got positive news about his progress. But Martin, despite Karl having projected he will be back by Jan. 1, won't go public with any possible return date.
"I know, but I ain't telling nobody,'' said Martin, who said during the first week of training camp he wouldn't rush back because he's in a contract year and wasn't pleased the Nuggets didn't offer him a contract extension last summer.
Martin becomes a free agent next summer. But Smith might have a better chance of remaining with Denver.
"I just really took it upon myself,'' said Smith of becoming aware after the incident in Phoenix he needed to improve his lot and saying he hopes any changes will his help chances of re-signing with the Nuggets.
And, yes, you just read that correctly.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@christomasson