LOS ANGELES — Out of the NBA for more than a year and a half, the newest member of the Los Angeles Lakers, JR Smith, detailed the mental toll the time away from the game had on him.
“I went through a very depressed state for a long time,” Smith told reporters on a video conference call Monday. “And it lasted for a few months, where I just didn’t — I’m a big video gamer, I didn’t even play 2K anymore. I don’t want to hoop, I don’t want to work out, I don’t want to play 2K, I don’t want do anything with basketball.”
Making his first public comments after signing with the Lakers last week to replace starting guard Avery Bradley, who opted out of the remainder of the season primarily because of family concerns, Smith said he will not take this opportunity for granted. Despite other replacement players around the league joining teams with some sort of language in their contract addressing next season, he is only focused on the immediate role that’s being asked of him.
“I was gone for a while, and for being somebody who has been around the league predominately for most of their adult life, when that’s kind of taken away from you, it kind of gives you that culture shock and you obviously don’t understand what you lost until it’s gone,” said Smith, who parted with the Cleveland Cavaliers on rocky terms in November 2018. “So, for me more than anything, I just want to appreciate the moment for what it is and whether it be next year or never again, I just want to enjoy every possible moment that I get.”
Smith certainly had his moments in Cleveland. He helped lift the Cavs to their first and only championship in franchise history, getting hot in the third quarter of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals to allow Cleveland to keep pace with a record-setting Golden State Warriors team. He also helped the Cavs blow an upset opportunity in Game 1 of the 2018 Finals by forgetting the score late in regulation before Cleveland eventually lost in overtime.
The latter sparked a meme that still makes its rounds on the Internet, showing a perplexed LeBron James holding his arms out in frustration, directing his disgust at Smith for the blunder.
Smith said that having been through high-stakes experiences like those with James — they made it to four Finals in four years as teammates together — is value he’ll bring to the team, beyond the shot-making ability he’s known for.
“Firsthand, I know how Bron can get pissed, and there’s people that are not going to know how to deal with it,” Smith said. “So it gives that gap of understanding, it’s still all about winning.”
Smith referenced the ESPN docuseries The Last Dance, which caused some viewers to critique Michael Jordan’s sometimes harsh interactions with his teammates on the Chicago Bulls.
James, Smith said, has a similar will to win.
“It kind of comes off in the wrong way sometimes,” Smith said of James. “And you need that bridge as a player to be able to go to the next player and be like, ‘Listen man, it’s nothing personal, [don’t get caught up in] who was right, who was wrong.’
“It’s just a good balance, I think, between myself and him, because he knows just as well he can challenge anybody else, I’ll challenge him, and vice versa.”
Smith, 34, has known the 35-year-old James since they were both in high school. He can interpret the four-time MVP’s demeanor throughout a season better than most.
“When you get a person on that level, it’s kind of intimidating for a lot of those people who don’t know how to challenge authority,” Smith said. “But that’s something I’ve never really had a problem with. So talking to him, getting [into] stuff like that, getting into tough conversations with our teammates, I think that’s the biggest thing. Because that’s the only way we grow as men and as a team.”
A career 37.3% shooter from 3 in 15 seasons with New Orleans, Denver, New York and Cleveland, Smith gives Lakers coach Frank Vogel another new scoring option on his bench, along with Dion Waiters who was added to the team before the coronavirus hiatus but is yet to play a game in a Laker uniform.
“It’s clear that he’s done a remarkable job of keeping himself in shape and staying ready,” Vogel said. “And I think this is really a great story. When you look at a guy who could potentially be out of the league and was a starter on a Finals team a couple years back, a champion, for him to have the perseverance to stay ready and give himself this opportunity, I think is to be commended.
“Watching him work out, hey, his nickname is ‘Swish’ for a reason, right? He’s a shot-maker, a big-time shot-maker. Like I said, he looks like he’s in terrific physical condition. And like I’ve said all along, I think he’s really going to help us.”