DENVER — Perhaps someday Byron Scott and J.R. Smith could have co-existed. Scott said he thought it wasn't going to happen anytime soon, however, and the Hornets coach wasn't willing to risk his job security during the wait. "From a coach's standpoint, I can't wait until a guy gets to a point two or three years later where he wants to play,” Scott explained. "I won't be here probably at that time.” Scott and Smith reunite for the first time tonight at 8 when the Hornets face the Denver Nuggets inside the Pepsi Center. The Nuggets and Hornets met Dec. 29 in the Ford Center, but Smith did not play because he was serving a 10-game suspension for his role in a Dec. 16 brawl against New York. To Smith, tonight's just another night. "The media's just making it into something it's really not,” Smith said. "It's just another game we've got to go out there and play.” Talented and confident, Smith jumped straight to the NBA out of St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, N.J., when the Hornets made him the 18th pick in the 2004 draft. On opening night of the 2004-05 season, Smith became the youngest Hornet ever to appear in a game at age 19 years, one month and 25 days. Smith seemed on his way to stardom, winning three straight rookie-of-the-month awards. There was a 33-point effort against Memphis and a third-place finish in the slam-dunk contest during All-Star weekend. In the last 23 games that season, Smith averaged 17.4 points and 2.7 assists. But from the outset of his second season, Smith and Scott clashed. Youth wasn't the biggest hurdle in Smith's relationship with the always demanding and candid Scott. "I thought his work ethic was the biggest problem that we had,” Scott said. "I told him all the things I felt he needed to do, yet he commenced to telling you guys (reporters) I never told him. I'm talking to him right there, with (Hornets vice president) Willis Reed and (general manager) Jeff Bower, and telling him what he has to do and what he needs to work on. He would do it for one day, and then he wouldn't do it again. That was my biggest problem.” Smith averaged 7.7 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.1 assists last season. The most notable stat, however, was games played: He appeared in 55 games and was inactive seven more games with a sprained ankle. Scott simply didn't play Smith the other 20 games. "Personally, we weren't that far apart,” Scott said. "It was, ”' ‘This is what I'm asking you to do for you to be successful as a basketball player and make us a better basketball team.' There was probably no way that we could work out because I didn't think he wanted to work like that. And I thought his youth had a little bit to do with that.” On July 14 of last year, the Hornets traded Smith and PJ Brown to Chicago in exchange for center Tyson Chandler. The Bulls quickly traded Smith to the Nuggets. Heading into tonight's game, Smith is averaging 16.1 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.6 assists with 24 starts in 36 game appearances. Scott said he has not paid special attention to what Smith has done with the Nuggets. "Not besides what I see on ESPN,” Scott said. Some good and bad evidently remain inside Smith. "J.R.'s a young player,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. "Some days, he is wonderful. Some days, he is committed. Some days, he's focused. And then the next day … what? What happened? That's not just J.R. That's 70 percent of young athletes who come into this league that don't understand the commitment and professionalism that we demand of our young players. "For me, J.R.'s been good. He can be better. He hasn't reached the level of professionalism that he needs to understand. But he probably hasn't gone through the experiences necessary to motivate him to get there. For me, it's his emotional, facial and body language. He drains the energy out of himself. He should have the face of an assassin. He should have an emotional balance that no one can really read what's going on inside of him. You can read his frustration on how he dribbles the basketball.” Hornets point guard Chris Paul was rookie of the year last season and averaged 7.8 assists. The assist total would have been higher had Scott given Smith more court time. Paul admits he has kept tabs on how Smith has performed. "A little bit, yeah,” Paul said. But Paul also realizes the trade was in Smith's best interest. "I think J.R. is in a great situation in Denver where he's playing with two all-stars, which lets him do what he does best, and that's shoot the ball,” Paul said. "He has a lot of talent and I miss him. I really do. But at the same time, he's doing a lot better there than he did here.” Bottom line: The Hornets and Smith appear better off without each other. "I was trying to help a young kid develop, and he didn't want to,” Scott said of Smith. "He wanted to play his way, which was to shoot 3s and see how many dunks he can get.” Reminded that Smith has been doing plenty of both with the Nuggets, Scott laughed and said, "Yeah, and it's not my problem.”
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J.R. Smith is averaging 16.1 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.6 assists in his first season with Denver. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Hornets at Nuggets•When: 8 tonight
•Where: Pepsi Center
•TV: Cox 7
•Radio: KHBZ-FM 94.7 Probable starters