Rookie Tales … with J.R. Smith

As the Cavs Head for the Big Easy, Swish Recalls His Rookie Campaign

The Wine & Gold are a squad loaded with experienced and accomplished veterans. In fact, with a roster averaging right around 30 years of age, they’re the oldest team in the Association.

That’s why it’s tough to picture them as rookies. Take J.R. Smith – World Champion. Husband. Father. Likes to play a little golf on the weekends.

But there was a time, 14 NBA seasons ago, that he was a wide-eyed 19-year-old from Newark, New Jersey – drafted with the 18th overall pick and bound for the Big Easy, where the Cavaliers will take on the Pelicans this Saturday night.

Back then, they were Byron Scott’s Hornets. And a young Swish was about to find himself in the middle of a combustible situation that saw New Orleans finish with just 18 wins – dropping 29 of their first 31 – and shipping away its star players midway through the season.

Smith made an impact with the Hornets in his first season – starting 56 games, averaging 10.3 points per in almost 25 minutes a night. But it wasn’t an easy experience for the Cavaliers current starting 2-guard back in the day.

As the Cavs continue their current two-game roadie that’s bound for the bayou this weekend, Swish sat down with for the latest installment of “Rookie Tales” …

A young Swish smiles during a press conference on June 25, 2004 at the New Orleans Arena after being drafted by the Hornets.
Photo by Chris Graythen/NBAE via Getty Images

What was it like, as a 19-year-old kid out of high school suddenly living the NBA life in New Orleans?

J.R. Smith: I was nervous. I was still living with my dad, so my dad moved down to New Orleans with me – just to try to get a little sense of normalcy. But it was nerve-wracking.

I had never been there, obviously, until I got drafted. So, thinking about what it would be like down there and actually going down there and seeing it … it was totally different.

So not only are you going through that move as a 19-year-old, the team starts out 2-29. How does that affect you?

Smith: It was horrible for me because I walked into a situation where, you know, the star player in our organization wasn’t on good terms with (Coach) Byron (Scott). And it was nerve-wracking.

Just to go from winning state championships in high school and winning AAUs to all of a sudden to start losing and losing … man, it was tough.

And I wasn’t playing at all to start off, so …

From our knowledge of Byron Scott when he was here, he wasn’t the easiest coach on rookies …

Smith: No.

I mean, the whole thing was tough. Obviously, being a high school kid, playing with guys that are 30, 31, 32 years old. There was a total disconnect between a whole decade and … it wasn’t the easiest thing.

Obviously, you’ve got rookie dues and stuff like that, but just from a playing standpoint and practicing, I’ll go back to it again … it was nerve-wracking.

The Cavs had the No. 10 overall pick in that Draft and you worked out for Cleveland. Was there any chance (or hope) that you’d wind up here?

Smith: I remember I worked out for Cleveland. And, yeah, for sure I would’ve loved to land here.

Obviously, having a relationship with LeBron back then – it’s not what it is now – but I talked to my agent at the time and they definitely said it’s a possibility. But …

Do you remember who we took?

Smith: Luke Jackson. I remember.

“Newspapers every morning, bring donuts to every shootaround. I had to take the bags off the plane in Chicago one night with a Polo shirt on. Oh my God, it was freezing! I can still remember it.”

JR Reflects on Rookie Initiations

Which veterans took you under their wing back then? Which guys were the toughest?

Smith: A little bit of both, actually.

Darryl Armstrong took me under his wing. And he also gave me a lot of hell.

But there were guys who were really just trying to nurture me and help me grow. PJ Brown. Rodney Rodgers. David West was in his second year.

And Baron, obviously, but we only had him for half a year. He was great though, man. He was amazing.

Rookie initiation?

Smith: Oh yeah, I had to do everything.

I was the only rookie, too. They cut Tim Pickett after, like, a week. So, it all fell on me.

Newspapers every morning, bring donuts to every shootaround. I had to take the bags off the plane in Chicago one night with a Polo shirt on. Oh my God, it was freezing! I can still remember it.

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