JR Smith was a crucial member of a 54-win team last year. He is also just 28 years old.
These things seem relevant because his awful offensive play this year is something of a mystery. The Knicks are dreadful and Smith has emerged as whipping boy for basketball purists and statheads alike. JR should be in his prime and is coming off a season in which he posted a 17.6 PER, a 52 true shooting percentage, and 19/6/3 per-36 numbers, all of which earned him 6th Man of the Year honors.
Before this year, Smith was still frustrating, erratic, and less efficient than he should have been — but at least he was productive. This year, his PER has dropped over 7 points, he is shooting 35 percent from the field, and he is nearly 7 points fewer per 36 minutes. Given his relatively young age and productivity last year, this is perplexing.
So, why has JR been so bad? And are there any promising signs for improvement? Let’s take a look at the numbers.*
First off, don’t blame the 3s: JR is essentially shooting an identical percentage to last year — 35.6 percent last year, 35.4 percent this year.
Problem #1: He is not attacking the rim.
2012-2013: 20 percent of his shots, just over three per game, came in the restricted area.
This year: 15 percent of his shots, less than two per game, are coming from the restricted area.
In other words, Smith is attacking less and settling for jumpers more, bringing down his percentages.
And, perhaps something the percentages don’t show: it stands to reason that JR would get better looks on his jumpers if opposing defenders feel they have to respect his drive.
Problem #2, or perhaps a corollary: JR isn’t getting to the line.
2012-2013: He averaged 4.2 free throw attempts per 36 minutes.
This year: He is averaging 1.7 attempts per 36 minutes.
Attacking less also means getting to the free throw line less. This figure is alarming — his free throw attempts are essentially down 60 percent.
JR is not a catch-and-shoot specialist. He is a creator with a good (albeit, not as good as he believes) handle who has demonstrated a strong ability to get to the rim and draw fouls. To become a more effective offensive player this year, he needs to drive to the basket and get easier shots, both in the restricted area and at the line.
Problem #3: He is shooting from further away.
2012-2013: 61 percent of his total shots came from 16+ feet away.
This year: 71 percent of his total shots have come from 16+ feet away.
Smith is not replacing shots at the rim with close mid-range shots. Even by his standards, JR is taking a remarkable number of jumpers, particularly those in the dreaded 16-24 feet, “long 2” range.
Two likely areas for positive regression: Midrange and restricted area shooting percentage.
Restricted area shooting percentage: So far this season, JR is shooting 45 percent in the restricted area. Last season, shot 60 percent from the same area.
It seems highly unlikely that this putridity around the rim will continue. Throughout his career, Smith has solidly been in the mid 50s-mid 60s in percentages in the restricted area. This also basically falls in line with the eye test — JR is not a small point guard that struggles to finish at the rim. He has very good body control, surprising strength and a knack for finishing tough layups. Expect that mark to bump up soon.
Midrange shooting percentage: JR is shooting 32 percent from midrange, compared to 42 percent last year.
To be clear, this midrange mark is awful, comparable to Ricky Rubio — a poor shooter having a dreadful shooting year.
This is likely another area where Smith will see improvement — JR has been in the high 30s-high 40s percentages from midrange in his career.
(Note: He is also shooting just 62 percent from the line, which will certainly improve. But given he has taken only 42 attempts, it hasn’t affected his overall numbers much.)
The 800-pound elephant (or, perhaps the $450,000 armored truck) is this question: how much are this team’s poor spacing and big lineups to blame for Smith’s offensive struggles? That is for another post at a later date, when JR has more shot attempts to look at and when this writer isn’t approaching 900 words.
Of course, the inevitable bump in restricted area and midrange shooting percentages will surely boost Smith’s offensive efficiency numbers.
There are some real red flags here, particularly JR’s decreased free throw attempts and shots at the rim. Smith last year showed glimpses of a guy possibly putting it all together — on his best nights, he attacked the rim, drew fouls, and connected from close range, all of which opened up looks from deep. He has taken a big step back this year. While it is early and there are some indications that positive regression will come, this isn’t all just a matter of bad luck. JR is in a bad place.
* Yes, Smith is not a very smart basketball player, which has hurt his game throughout his entire career. But ultimately, we aren’t asking why he has perhaps underperformed relative to his talent during his career — we are looking for why he has been dramatically worse this year compared to previous years.