- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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J.R. Smith says he wasn't thinking about the NBA until he heard his name announced as the co-MVP of the McDonald's All-American game in April. Right then, as he walked up to get his award, he knew his game was ready for the league.
While the honor meant nothing more than he was the best high school player that night. Whom he shared the award with said all he needed to know.
Smith stood next to possible No. 1 overall pick Dwight Howard that night as they held the trophy together. And it was then when Howard told Smith that he was as good as gone now that he won the award with Smith ... not the other way around.
Smith knew he had to explore his options. He didn't change his mind a week later during Final Four weekend at the Hoop Summit in San Antonio. And within two weeks, he phoned North Carolina coach Roy Williams and told him he was going to not only declare, but stay, in the draft.
He hired high-profile Arn Tellem to represent him. And, just like that, he was in the draft, likely in the first round, and perhaps, the top shooting guard selected on draft night.
How did this happen so fast? Where did Smith come from to deserve this kind of meteoric rise in the draft?
Smith doesn't even know the answer.
"If someone told me all this was going to happen a year ago, I would say, 'You're crazy, no way, no way would this be possible.' It's more of a shock that it happened," Smith said.
"Never once did J.R. talk about this [during the season]," said Danny Hurley, Smith's coach at St. Benedict's (N.J.) the past two seasons.
"He was a multisport player [highly rated in football]. But the last year-plus, he's been focusing strictly on basketball. He's just scratching the surface."
Smith might be a high school senior, but he's spent five years in high school. And while it's a bit confusing, had he stayed on track to graduate with the class of 2003, he wouldn't have thought of entering last year's draft. He also might not have even been good enough to garner a look by North Carolina. He definitely wouldn't have been in this year's draft.
The way Hurley tells it, Smith was on track to be in the same senior class as LeBron James. But the following kept Smith in school five years, and actually got him on a level playing field with his graduating class.
As a freshman in 1999-2000, Smith went to Steinert High for the first semester and then McCorriston High for the second, both in New Jersey. But he didn't play sports at either school, allowing him to transfer to Lakewood High and repeat his freshman season. And for two seasons (2000-02) he played basketball. He once again transferred as a junior, this time to St. Benedict's, where he's spent the past two years, graduating this past month.
"When I re-classified, I went from not being in the top 100 to like top five within a day," Smith said of becoming a freshman again. (This past school year was actually Smith's fifth in high school, but he only played four years of high school basketball.) "We wanted to do it to get my year back because I started school when I was five and a lot of guys started when they were six. My dad didn't want me to graduate high school when I was 17."
Smith will turn 19 on Nov. 9.
"I wouldn't have been ready for this a year ago,'' Smith said. "Another year of prep school helped me a lot."
The timing of Smith's first-round candidacy is amazing, to say the least.
"If he stayed in the class of 2003, he would have been top 20 [recruit], but not a whole lot higher," said Dave Telep, a national high school recruiting analyst. "I had him 11 this year. But it's a stretch to put him in the first round right now. He's a good shooter off the catch and in transition with no mid-range game. He's got really good range, though."
But it's the range on Smith's jumper that separates him from other shooting guards in this year's draft. Oh, and if you check out the list the NBA provides for top shooting guards, Smith is the only player who truly fits the description of the position. He is a shooting guard. He's not a point guard, or a small forward. And he's not a hybrid of both positions.
Now, the NBA lists Arizona's Andre Iguodala as a shooting guard. But at 6-foot-7, he's a shooting guard/small forward. The same is true of Nevada's Kirk Snyder, Oregon's Luke Jackson and Texas Tech's Andre Emmett. Oklahoma State's Tony Allen and Saint Joseph's Delonte West are listed as shooting guards, but each is trying to convince the NBA they can be point guards in this draft and beyond.
"I can do more than shoot," Smith said. "I can do the in-between things. I'm not known for that, and I know I've made my mark as a shooter when a lot of people can't shoot.
"People are looking for a scorer, and to score, you've got to shoot the ball."
Hurley compares Smith to Seattle's Ray Allen, one of the purest shooter in the NBA. He said Smith's shot comes from years of hoisting shots, but more recently, twice-a-day workouts -- the first of which begins at 5:30 a.m.
"He just keeps improving," Hurley said. "He's not a guy who got a lot of hype. He wasn't looking for it or wanted it. He's got the type of bounce and stroke. He has that explosive NBA type of scoring game."
Smith is projected to be selected somewhere in the teens to the mid-20s of the first round. New Jersey probably doesn't let him slide past 22 if he's available. New Orleans is a strong possibility at No. 18.
"I wouldn't have been in the first round a year ago if I stayed in that class," Smith said. "There was LeBron [James], [Ndudi] Ebi, [Travis] Outlaw going in the first round. Those are three great athletes. I didn't stand out as opposed to those guys. I didn't get much pub until the McDonald's game [in April]."
Since then, Smith has been on a fast track to the NBA. It's not all because of one all-star game, but that night certainly had a lot to do with pushing him into the league so soon. And in a draft that is void of pure shooters, Smith seems to have declared at the right time.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
His McDonald's All-Star Game performance set J.R. Smith on his way to an unlikely spot in the first round.