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Who is J.R. Smith, really?

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He’s an enigma–a tattooed, boneheaded, naturally-gifted, free spirited shooter.

To NBA fans, J.R. Smith is an endearing character, a Charlie Kelly-like wildcard whose presence is guaranteed to make everything more entertaining.

To casual fans, he’s the knucklehead whose name they’ll remember for dribbling out the final seconds of a tie game in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, a blunder which might have cost the Cavs the game and (this may be harsh, but) the chance to be competitive in the series.

He’s also the squinting star of countless hilarious memes, most involving him looking bemused as LeBron screams at him like a father whose kid just did something illogically idiotic.

But who is J.R. Smith really?

“I’m a dolphin,” he said in an interview with the New Yorker.”That’s all people need to know.”

OK, then.

He elaborated by saying that dolphins are his favorite animal, and that they’re “graceful” and “peaceful,” but “if it goes down, a dolphin is like, O.K., let’s go.”

Not sure that clears it up.

Whether he’s riding into Finals games on a hoverboard, dapping up Jason Terry and letting his man score during a game, untying people’s shoes at the free throw line, or making regrettable social media decisions, Smith is often a punchline, whether he’s trying to be or not.

J.R. played well enough in the McDonald’s All-American Game to earn his place as a first-round pick. (AP Photo)

As a high schooler at St. Benedict’s Prep, former coach Dan Hurley says Smith was a buttoned down, hard-working kid who would do whatever it took to reach his dream. He performed well academically, at a school where kids are grouped together and pitted against each other for the top grades.

He’s also the class clown who put “Get chicks or die tryin,” as his yearbook quote.

Gifted with a 6-6, athletic frame and a range-less jump shot, Smith was recognized as New Jersey Player of the Year and a McDonald’s All-American as a senior.

A scout described his three-point range as “intergalactic.” His height and athleticism were exemplary, as well. (You can get a feel for his game at the time by watching his St. Benedict’s Prep squad take on Joakim Noah and Lawrenceville School in these highlights.)

Smith signed a letter of intent to play college ball at North Carolina, and until late in his senior year, still planned on playing for the Tar Heels. It wasn’t until the all-star game circuit was about to begin that he shifted his focus.

He started meeting Hurley at the gym at 6 a.m., and would return there after school to get as much work in as he could. All of that work paid off when the McDonald’s All-American Game came around, as Smith dropped 25 points and shared the MVP award with future No. 1 pick Dwight Howard.

His stock was skyrocketing, and it became clear that he wasn’t going to be heading to Chapel Hill.

Instead, Smith declared for the NBA Draft, and he was chosen with the 18th overall pick by the New Orleans Hornets. His classmates Howard, Sebastian Telfair, Shaun Livingston, Al Jefferson, Robert Swift, Josh Smith and Dorell Wright joined him as first-rounders. The eight high schoolers taken in the first 19 picks set an NBA Draft record.

You might be inclined to blame the lack of a college experience and the fact that Smith became a multi-millionaire as a teenager for his arrested development, but as that excellent New Yorker piece points out, his father, Earl, made sure he stayed grounded.

He stayed with him during his first two years in the league, in a house J.R. bought.

“I bought a house and cars, but I was sleeping in the guest room,” J.R. said. “My dad got the master!” He had a curfew, and had to call his dad if his teammates wanted him to go out anywhere. When he wanted to buy the newest BMW, which Dwight Howard had purchased, his dad told him no. “He was the No. 1 pick. You were 18. You’re gonna work for that,” J.R. recalled.

He showed flashes of the boundless athleticism and sweet jumper that made him a first-rounder during his first two years in New Orleans, but after feuding with coach Byron Scott, Smith was shipped to Denver. There, he reconnected with his friend Carmelo Anthony, who had encouraged him to enter the league after watching him play at St Benedict’s.

Smith’s game grew considerably in Colorado, as he developed a more consistent jumper and found his role playing off of Anthony. Though not many on that team saw eye-to-eye with George Karl, the Nuggets still reached the Western Conference Finals in 2009, after J.R. averaged 15.2 points, nearly 4 assists per game and 40% shooting from three.

Smith followed Carmelo to New York in 2012, where his exuberance gave him a league-wide reputation as a knucklehead, but he won Sixth Man of the Year in 2013 (18.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 36% 3-pt) and helped the Knicks to the conference semis before being summoned by LeBron and helping the Cavs reach four straight Finals. He was the third-leading scorer in the Finals on the 2016 team that won the title.

Now at 32, Smith has already turned out to be of the most successful players in his 2004 draft class. He’s lasted 14 years in the NBA so far, and made more than $56 million. He’s played in nearly 1,000 games, scored more than 12,000 points, and incredibly, he ranks 12th all-time in three pointers made.

“He’s taken a lot of crap because he’s a big personality and some of the things that J.R. [does],” Hurley told Adam Zagoria. “But at the end of the day, look at his draft class. There are not a lot of guys from that draft class still playing, or playing anywhere near the left that he’s playing at.”

Indeed, he’s arguably the second-best high schooler taken in that draft, behind Howard (Josh Smith and Al Jefferson are in the conversation).

These days, Smith is no longer the freakish athlete who did stuff like this:

Instead, he’s survived as a three-point specialist, though he shot just 37.5% from deep this year.

Smith’s best playoff performance in 2018 was a 20-point output in Game 1 of the conference semis against Toronto. He’s reached double figures in just 10 of 21 playoff games so far, and is shooting 34.6% from the field.

No matter what the future holds for him, though, Smith’s legacy is set.

He’ll be remembered by basketball fans long after he retires, not just for his off-court hilarity but also for his cult hero status as the ultimate freewheeler.

“Shooters shoot” is J.R.’s personal credo, and he’s carried that philosophy as far as it can possibly take you without (completely) crashing and burning.

He’s cashed jumpers and survived his own mishaps and mental breakdowns all the way to the NBA Finals, and into the collective consciousness of pop culture-followers everywhere.

He may not be a superstar, or a Rhodes scholar. He may not always know the score.

But J.R. Smith is still an overwhelming success.

Also see: NBA Draft Profile: Luka Doncic

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