By Sean Hartnett
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At first, I thought comparisons between J.R. Smith and Knicks’ legend John Starks were a bit premature.
When Smith first signed for the Knicks, fan forum UltimateKnicks.com noticed a similarity between the career averages of Starks and the newly-signed Smith.
Various blogs picked up on the comparison as Smith gave the Knicks an enigmatic mix of hot and cold shooting nights and a propensity lose his cool on the court.
After showing baffling inconsistency during their playoff exit to the Heat, Knicks fans were calling Smith ‘The New Starks’ for the wrong reasons as his mirrored Starks’ nightmare Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals.
Still, I felt the comparison was forced. Starks earned the right to be one of the most beloved Knicks of all-time through his sheer hustle and on-court emotion.
His first season in New York was more irritating than enjoyable. The lows were very low and the highs weren’t quite high enough for most Knicks fans to get behind a player with a checkered past, party-hard lifestyle and selfish shooting tendencies.
After admitting he partied far too hard in his first year in New York and turning up the focus, Smith looks like a very different player in the early portion of the 2012-13 season.
The focus is there for all to see. He’s contributing in ways he hadn’t before by playing savvy defense and buying into head coach Mike Woodson’s defensive philosophies.
Smith is also sharing the rock. He’s taking the extra pass that he never took before in his career. Usually, in situations where he would chuck up ill-advised shots — he’s now passing-off and earning assists.
Smith put in a complete game against the Pistons as he grabbed 10 rebounds and scored 15 points to go along with his 5 dimes.
Most impressively, Smith made a heads-up steal at 9:32 in the fourth quarter and led the fast break down court before making a fancy dish to Tyson Chandler who threw down a monster dunk.
Now, Smith is finally being compared to Starks for the right reasons. Starks was an elite defender in his glory years with the early-to-mid-90′s Knicks, earning an All-Defensive Second Team Award in 1993.
I don’t think Smith has the defensive skills to shut down All-Star guards. Starks was always a tough assignment for Michael Jordan.
Smith will never be that player, but he’s filling up the box score and showing the kind of hustle that Starks would be proud of from a Knicks’ guard.
Even Alan Hahn mentioned the comparison on the Knicks’ post game show on MSG.
There are still going to be nights when Smith will make you shake your head over his shot selection or take a mindless foul, but Knicks will accept it if he continues to play with the heart-and-soul intensity and focus he’s showing this season.
Tonight the Knicks make their first journey to Barclays Center to face the Nets in their new building.
The Knicks-Nets rivalry has died down in recent years, but Smith has a way of getting under the skin of rivals just like Starks did when the 90′s Knicks would battle with Jordan and the Bulls, Reggie Miller and the Pacers or the hated Miami Heat teams of P.J. Brown and Alonzo Mourning.
If Nets-Knicks have lacked intensity, perhaps Smith is the one who can add a spark and rekindle the rivalry.
What do you make of the J.R. Smith-Starks comparisons? Sound off below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.