LOS ANGELES - New York Knicks swingman J.R. Smith came face-to-face with his fiercest competition for the Sixth Man of the Year Award in Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Clippers and saw what a successful career turnaround might look like.
The Clippers' own super sub, Jamal Crawford, stands in the way of the trophy given to the National Basketball Association's (NBA) top reserve player, and just might foreshadow the type of second-act remake that Smith is pursuing.
While both players have lit up opponents from off the bench this season, with Crawford's 16.8 points per game edging Smith's 16.7, it is Crawford who is now what Smith could become; a consistent, respected professional on and off the court.
"There is a similarity (between the two)," Knicks coach Mike Woodson, who coached Crawford during the 2009-10 season with the Atlanta Hawks, told Reuters on Sunday.
"Jamal was a true pro in terms of how he approached the game. I saw something in J.R. when we brought him over (last year); I thought I could help him become a complete pro. He's done a great job. I think he's still in the learning mode."
Smith's basketball education has suffered its share of failings.
Drafted straight out of high school in 2004 by the New Orleans Hornets, Smith's reputation has taken some hits during a sometimes rocky tenure with three NBA teams.
While a member of the Denver Nuggets in 2006, he was involved in a brawl against the Knicks that drew a 10-game suspension, and was also banned seven games in 2009 for pleading guilty to reckless driving.
During the 2011 NBA lockout, Smith played for the Zhejiang Golden Bulls of the Chinese Basketball Association before his high-scoring act dissolved into disharmony there prior to his departure.
Crawford, who turns 33 this week, has never been hampered by such off-court drama, though as a basketball talent he carried some of the early baggage now heaped on the game of the 27-year-old Smith; a shoot first guard who is neither accurate nor select enough for a coach's liking.
The veteran Crawford has mostly outgrown that billing in his latest role with the Clippers, and sees the same happy ending for friend and competitor, Smith.
"He's in the perfect situation," Crawford said. "I knew playing for coach Woodson he would have a lot of success. He's been talented for a long time, but it feels like it's all kind of coming together for him."
But just when it appears to come together for Smith, it falls apart. After scoring 33 points against Portland last Thursday, the unpredictable guard managed to make just four of his 20 field goal attempts in Sunday's loss to the Clippers.
Crawford and Los Angeles (46-21) are gaining stability in the West but the Knicks (38-26) have dropped four straight, exposed by injuries and Smith's mercurial play.
If Smith wants to steal anything from Crawford, a fellow basketball junkie with whom he sometimes exchanges text messages, it would not be the Sixth Man award but rather good team fortune coupled with the final steps of his maturation.
"Losing takes its toll, mentally," Smith said. "We have to keep playing."
Addressing the Knicks, and possibly his own career path, Smith added: "We have to figure it out."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)