J.R. Smith arrived in New York before this season believing he would be a starter. When he was relegated to coming off the bench, he was not happy. But Smith showed something he had not in his career: maturity.
That personal growth allowed him to accept the role and then flourish in it, culminating with Monday’s announcement that he earned the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award.
Smith received 484 points, including 72 first-place votes, from a panel of 121 writers and broadcasters. The Clippers’ Jamal Crawford finished second with 352 points, getting 31 first-place votes.
“I just wanted to show everybody that I could be a team guy and it’s all about the team,” Smith said at a news conference attended by his family, teammates and coaches.
Smith averaged 18.1 points in 80 games, all off the bench. He had 29 games in which he scored 20 points as a reserve, tying Crawford for the NBA lead.
“Couldn’t have happened to a better guy,” said coach Mike Woodson. “I’m so proud of him, in terms of buying in to what we wanted him to do earlier in the season. And it started this summer. I wasn’t going to start him, coming into this year, and I knew that. And he bought in. He didn’t like it, but he bought in. And it couldn’t have happened to a better person, because he put in the time and he worked his butt off to get to this point, and he got rewarded for it. I’m happy for him.”
Smith helped the Knicks win the Atlantic Division title for the first time since 1994. New York is the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and leads the Boston Celtics 1-0 in their first-round playoff series.
Smith is the third player in Knicks history to win the NBA’s Sixth Man Award, joining John Starks (1996-97) and Anthony Mason (1994-95).
Despite not making a start, Smith was one of the Knicks’ most important players. He played more than 40 minutes seven times and was often their only scoring threat behind Carmelo Anthony.
Anthony, who teamed with Smith for 4½ seasons in Denver, noted that Smith had a more mature approach to the game this year.
“I think there comes a point in time in your life where you’re almost forced to grow up, you’re almost forced to mature. You gotta be willing to want to do those things. I think right now, this season, J.R. has done that,” Anthony said. “I think J.R. was forced to grow up, he was forced to be mature and he was willing to take on that challenge, too.”