GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- For the past five out of his seven seasons in the NBA, J.R. Smith has usually been the first player off the bench. But it's come to a point where he's tired of being labeled as a sixth man.
After practice on Friday, he made it clear he wants to be in the first unit.
"I would prefer to start. I would rather be a starter," he said. "My goal was to come in here and be a starter, and play with those other four guys on the floor. It is frustrating after a while that people see me as a sixth man, sixth man, sixth man, when you believe you're a starter. But at the same time, you have to understand this is a team game and you have to put individual goals aside."
Smith said he entered previous seasons knowing he would be the sixth man, but that's not the case this time around. With Iman Shumpert out, it comes down to Smith and Ronnie Brewer, but Mike Woodson said he hasn't yet decided who will be the starting shooting guard. He's going to use the next week or so to determine his initial rotation.
While Brewer is a better defender than Smith, he's more of an intangibles scorer -- off of intelligent movement and offensive rebounds -- and he needs more screens to get open. Smith is the more talented offensive player who's better at shooting and creating off of the dribble. He's also an underrated defender, which showed during last season's first-round series against the Heat, when he picked up LeBron James full court and gave him some problems.
If Smith proves himself on D during training camp, he would seem like the more obvious choice to start, especially because of his 3-point prowess. When Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire attack or draw double teams in the post, Smith will be lethal in the halfcourt offense. And then Steve Novak could provide more downtown ammo off the bench. It might benefit the Knicks to have a shooter like Smith in the starting five, so they're able to capitalize more on penetration and kick-outs.
Smith agreed that with Anthony on the court, he'll have more opportunities to score.
"My game changes and there are more open shots and more opportunities to get my teammates open," he said.
At the end of the day, Smith is versatile enough to also play the three and even some point guard, facilitating the pick-and-roll. But, most importantly, he knows the importance of ending games.
"Finishing a game is way more important than starting a game," he said. "When you're in there with the final ticks of the clock, you know the coach has trust in you and believes in you."
Smith has a special connection to Woodson, who was able to get the 27-year-old to buy in on defense under his short reign last season. They developed almost like a father-son relationship, where Woodson was always pulling Smith aside from the sidelines, offering him encouragement and pushing him to hold himself accountable. There aren't too many players in the league who are as gifted and inconsistent as Smith, and Woodson keyed in on working with him closely.
After that experience, Smith realized during the summer that New York was the best place for him to further develop -- and he accepted less money to sign there. He said it wasn't about the big bucks, but title dreams.
"I wanted to show that it's not all about the money; it's more about winning," he said. "I've been in this league going on eight years now and I haven't won anything, along with Melo, Amar'e and all of us. I think it's sacrifices off the court, as well as on the court, that have to be taken personally."
He said W's take care of everything else.
"As along as we win," he said, "then the big contracts and endorsement deals -- all of that stuff -- will come."
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