J.R. Smith Acknowledges He Was Depressed 'For A Long Time' Thinking His Career Was Over

Melissa Rohlin

There were 19 grueling months of uncertainty. 

After J.R. Smith mutually parted ways with the Cleveland Cavaliers in Nov. of 2018, his career dangled on the precipice. 

His mental health also took a hit. 

"I went through a very depressed state for a long time," Smith acknowledged in a video conference call on Monday. "And it lasted for a few months...I’m a big video gamer, I didn’t even play 2K anymore. I don’t wanna hoop, I don’t wanna work out, I don’t wanna play 2K, I don’t want do anything with basketball." 

Smith, a 15-season NBA veteran who won an NBA championship in 2016, wasn't ready to walk away from the sport he loved. He wasn't ready to retire. He wasn't ready to move on. 

"Especially when you feel your career is not ‘over’ and it’s still premature," Smith said. "It was tough, it was extremely tough. Fortunately I got a great foundation with my parents. And my dad is always on me and on me and on me about what I accomplished and what I still have left in the tank and stuff like that...If it wasn’t for them, I probably would still be in that situation."

Smith went from feeling lost to joining a Lakers team that's widely favored to win the championship. The Lakers signed him July 1 for the restart of the season near Orlando after Avery Bradley opted out for family reasons on June 23. 

Lakers' coach Frank Vogel acknowledged that he was a bit concerned about Smith's conditioning considering he hadn't played competitive basketball for over a year and a half. 

Then he watched him workout on Sunday and Monday. 

"It’s clear that he’s done a remarkable job of keeping himself in shape and staying ready," Vogel said Monday. "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."

Smith has career averages of 12.5 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists with New Orleans, Denver, New York and Cleveland. He's a career 37 percent three-point shooter. 

Vogel thinks he will be able to help out the Lakers right away, drawing defenders away from James and Anthony Davis.  

"Watching him workout, hey, his nickname is 'swish' for a reason, right?" Vogel said. "He’s a shot maker, a big-time shot maker."

The 34-year-old Smith is well aware of what his role will be on the Lakers, who are atop the Western Conference with a record of 49-14.

"It’ll be getting to the corners to space the floor and play defense, as much as possible," Smith said. "Just try to stay out of the way."

Smith worked out with the Lakers in late February, but they decided to sign Dion Waiters in early March. 

That was one of a series of disappointing blows for Smith. 

"For a while, I was just asking, asking, asking, asking, so much about teams, trying to figure out what was the next one, what was the next situation," Smith said. "I just got to the point where I was like, I’m not going to ask anymore. Whenever somebody calls, (my agent) will call me. I’m just gonna keep my head down and keep working."

His patience finally paid off. 

With only eight regular season games before the playoffs begin next month, the Lakers needed someone whom they could quickly and seamlessly integrate into their system. 

Smith has 11 seasons of postseason experience, over which he's averaged 11.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists and one steal in 29.5 minutes a game. He's ninth all-time in postseason three-pointers made and fourth all-time in three-pointers made in the NBA Finals.

And he's intimately familiar with James, having played alongside him on the Cavaliers from 2015-2018. They won the franchise's first championship together in 2016.

Smith said their mutual understanding will be extremely helpful down the line. 

"I know how 'Bron can get intense and people are not gonna know how to deal with it," Smith said. 

Smith said he'll be a bridge to help the Lakers better understand James. He added that he's also not afraid to push James, if need be. 

"He knows just as well he can challenge anybody else, I’ll challenge him, and vice versa," Smith said. "So when you get a person on that level, it’s kind of illuminating for a lot of those people who don’t know how to challenge authority in that ‘situation.'"

Smith, who has known James since high school, said he can help bring out the best in him.

"For somebody at that level, you gotta create new challenges within themselves," Smith said. "Somebody to keep pushing. Now granted he doesn’t need me to create those challenges, he’s already 'Bron. But sometimes it’s good to have somebody ‘on your team’ or in your circle to keep pushing you to be great."

When Smith was asked whether he thinks he will be a short-term rental for the Lakers or whether he'll be a part of the team next season, he said he's going to take things one step at a time. 

For now, he's just deeply grateful for this opportunity. 

"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," Smith said. "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."

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