J.R. Smith is finally getting the college-athlete experience he missed out on nearly two decades ago.
The 16-year NBA veteran who skipped college basketball, won two championships and made millions is now a freshman walk-on for the North Carolina A&T men’s golf team. Now, instead of first-class cross-country travel for nightly games against the world’s best basketball players, Smith — who turns 36 next month — is focused on completing class assignments and working on his golf game.
“It’s going to be fun,” Smith said Monday in an online news conference. “Obviously different environments from playing in front of 20,000 people to playing in a college golf gallery.
“But it’s still as nerve-wracking as shooting a free throw in front of 5,000 instead of making a 5-foot putt in front of three. So it all correlates the same for me.”
Smith said he was drawn to the Greensboro, North Carolina, school because of his interest in attending a Historically Black College or University, which follows a push by the NBA and its players to support HBCU traditions and culture in this year’s All-Star Game in Atlanta.
Smith is returning to the state where he was originally slated to play college basketball. The 6-foot-6 guard was set to join tradition-rich North Carolina under Roy Williams in 2004 but instead jumped straight to the NBA and was a first-round draft pick.
He scored more than 12,000 regular-season points while playing for five NBA teams. That included joining LeBron James in winning titles with Cleveland in 2016 and the Los Angeles Lakers in the Florida pandemic bubble in 2020 — and celebrating each in memorable shirtless fashion.
That was then. This is now.
Over the past two days, Smith has been tweeting about an impending assignment deadline: his first PowerPoint presentation for an English class about where he saw himself in the next five to 10 years.
“For me, because I have a wild imagination, it’s going to be very interesting,” Smith said. “I don’t know if the professor is prepared for that, and I’m obviously not the average freshman. So I don’t know how I’m going to do.”
As for his golf game, Smith said he’s been playing for about 12 years. As he took the game more seriously, he frequented driving ranges and worked to improve his swing on his own, never hiring a coach while picking up occasional tips from watching Golf Channel.
“I just know how to compete with myself,” Smith said. “As being a shooter and with golf, it correlates to trying to hit different shots and your creativity, and that swing and try to have that flow and tempo.”
That self-taught style was enough to impress PGA pro Dustin Johnson, who said in 2016: “He can play.”
Aggies coach Richard Watkins agrees with Johnson.
“The performance of my golf team just got a helping hand because the young man in question is definitely a good player,” Watkins said of Smith.
The Aggies’ first golf match comes Sept. 24-25 at the Black College Golf Coaches Association Invitational in Newnan, Georgia.
Until then, Smith will be busy juggling schoolwork — most of his courses are online currently — and working on his golf game.
Smith said that’s exactly what he wants from his delayed college experience.
“It’s not even a week yet, but as I get into it, I keep getting eager to learn more and join study groups and try to understand and try to really embrace the lifestyle,” Smith said.