North Carolina coach Roy Williams recalls what it was like to recruit J.R. Smith
"Oh, I remember recruiting J.R. very well," Williams said. "It was a heck of a story."
For Williams, the relationship with Smith began shortly after he arrived at North Carolina from Kansas in the spring of 2003. At the time Williams had heard of Smith, but had never seen him play, meaning that he had no choice but to be brutally honest with him. Smith had committed to the Tar Heels under the previous coaching staff, and trying to jump-start a cratering Carolina program, Williams simply couldn’t promise Smith a scholarship.
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"I told him ‘I’m sorry J.R. but I can’t offer you a scholarship,’" Williams remembered saying. "I’ve never seen you play."
It also meant that one of Williams’ first priorities as the new UNC head coach was to actually get out and watch Smith play that summer. And when he did, all the tools which have kept Smith in the NBA for over a decade were evident in those first few viewings. What Williams remembers most was that Smith’s athleticism was off the charts, and his shooting — much like it is today — was streaky but deadly when it was on point.
It’s also why after seeing him play a few times that spring and fall, Williams was just about ready to re-offer Smith his scholarship. After Smith took an official visit to campus the fall of his senior year of high school and hosted a home visit with his entire family shortly thereafter, Williams was sold.
In addition to the prep star’s obvious talents, the time spent around Smith’s family was extra icing on the cake.
"These were just the type of people that you just wanted to be involved with," Williams remembered. "The type of people you wanted to have around your program."
Smith apparently felt the same way, and accepted Williams’ offer to come to Chapel Hill. At the time, he appeared to be the final piece in what could be a championship puzzle, part of a recruiting class which eventually included future lottery pick Marvin Williams. Add in a group of returnees which included Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants, and the Tar Heels were built to win big Smith’s freshman year. Something he would have played a major role in.
Unfortunately for Williams, it never happened. Just as Smith’s high school career was winding down, his stock blew through the roof on the spring All-Star game circuit. All of a sudden, his shot began to fall and his undeniable athleticism was front and center in front of a slew of NBA scouts and front office personnel.
In the span of just a few weeks — which included a co-MVP with Dwight Howard in the McDonald’s All-American game — a player who was almost entirely off the NBA’s radar was now projected as a first round NBA Draft pick.
"He went to the Nike Hoops Summit, the McDonald’s All-American game and he just went crazy," Williams said. "We knew all of a sudden that he was on the NBA’s radar."
To the credit of Williams and his staff, they acted quickly and called for a meeting with Smith and his family to explain how the NBA Draft, and the league’s sliding salary scale worked. They explained how much money he would make as a projected late first round pick (he eventually went 18th overall to New Orleans), and how much more he could make by having a successful first year at North Carolina before declaring for the draft.
And then, they left the choice up to him. Williams told his young recruit that he supported his decision either way, then hopped on a plane and made the same speech to projected first round pick (and UNC recruit) Marvin Williams the following day.
But while Marvin Williams eventually ended up at UNC, Smith unfortunately — at least for Carolina — decided against the same decision, and elected to enter the NBA Draft. At the time, there was no such thing as "testing the waters," meaning that Smith’s college career ended before it could officially begin.
"I’m just sorry I never had the chance to coach him," Williams said. "But it was clear watching him that he had the chance to play in the NBA for a long time."
Ultimately the day that Smith declared for the draft was the last that he was ever officially a Tar Heel, but even all these years later, Williams has had many fond interactions with his family since. Williams constantly checked in on Smith during his days in Denver, where he was coached by fellow Carolina alum George Karl. And there was a time that Williams ran into Smith’s family on the recruiting trail and they exchanged pleasantries for 15 or 20 minutes.
Not to mention when Smith made a surprise appearance at a Carolina charity game a few years after entering the NBA Draft.
"We were all sitting in the locker room chatting," Williams remembered. "I told him, ‘I finally got my chance to coach you."
Williams went easy on Smith that night, but it also raised an interesting question. Has Williams, a decidedly old-school coach, ever taken the chance to think about what it would have been like to actually coach Smith? Especially given the eccentric nature he has come to be known for.
"I have," Williams said. "I actually think he would have been very coachable. He was young (when he recruited him), and a little immature. But everyone is immature at 18-years-old."
Williams watched Game 4 of the Finals with his current players and told them that if his former recruit didn’t step up, the Cavs had no chance of winning.
Smith did, and Williams enjoyed every second of the championship celebration.
Well, he enjoyed all of it except one part.
"I would have told him to put a shirt on," Williams said with a laugh. "That would have lasted about one minute with me, before I said ‘Come on, J.R.’"