North Carolina A&T golf coach Richard Watkins had received plenty of calls from friends and associates recommending he look at a potential prospect but none quite like the one he received last month.

On the other end of the line was C.J. Paul, the older brother of Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul.

Paul told Watkins that he and his brother had a “friend” looking to go back to school. The friend wanted to attend the historically Black university and walk on to its golf team. Moments later Paul asked Watkins, a self-described sports junkie, whether he knew of J.R. Smith.

“Needless to say, yes, I know J.R. Smith,” said Watkins, a Los Angeles Lakers fan who had cheered on Smith as he contributed to the team’s 2020 championship run. “A couple days later, J.R. and I had our first conversation, and honestly it’s been good since that conversation. I just told him point blank, amidst all of the hype, I’m still Coach Watkins, and I’m looking at the improvement of my program above everything else.”

The school’s compliance office went to work trying to determine Smith’s eligibility and amateur status. Watkins was curious whether Smith could actually play.

The NCAA cleared the two-time NBA champion Aug. 20, and Smith answered Watkins’s question after catching assistant coach Saraid Ruiz at a minor league baseball game. The former NBA player asked Ruiz whether he could join her tee time with Watkins and the school’s associate athletic director, Cory Lima, the next morning.

“After we had played about four or five holes, my assistant coach and I kind of looked at each other, and we were like: ‘Uh, yeah. He can play,’ ” Watkins said in a phone interview. “He’s not just a good golfer for an NBA player. He’s just a good golfer, and he’s going to be significantly better.”

Smith, who frequently can be spotted in the gallery at PGA Tour events, took up the sport about 12 years ago after a charity tournament in Houston. Smith was riding around in a cart trash talking other players’ swings when NBA Hall of Famer Moses Malone challenged him to give it a try. Smith said he hit the ball about 300 yards on his first swing, but when Malone dared him to do it again, Smith swung and missed.

“I couldn’t even hit the ball,” Smith told reporters Monday.

The sport’s unpredictability frustrated but intrigued Smith.

“After that I was hooked,” he said. “Probably from that point for like five or six years, I was really, really bad, and then after that I really started taking it serious, hitting the range and trying to figure out my swing. I never got a swing coach or anything like that. I was always just [watching] Golf Channel, trying little tips.”

A former New Jersey high school standout in football, baseball and basketball, Smith said he didn’t take his classes as seriously. He committed to play hoops for Roy Williams at North Carolina but wound up forgoing college and was selected 18th overall by the then-New Orleans Hornets in the 2004 NBA draft.

Smith said he “thought about [going to college] a lot” early in his NBA career, influenced in part by seeing the Tar Heels win the 2005 national championship as well as by receiving relatively limited playing time. He averaged about 21 minutes per game during his first two seasons.

But a 2006 trade that routed him to Denver via Chicago helped him establish his place in the pros. He became a valuable cog off the bench for the Nuggets and won the league’s sixth man of the year award in 2013 as a member of the New York Knicks. Smith went on to play on championship teams with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016 and those Lakers in 2020.

On a golf trip to the Dominican Republic this summer, Smith said, Hall of Famer Ray Allen persuaded him to consider returning to school as he planned his post-playing career. That helped lead Smith to North Carolina A&T, where he is pursuing a degree in liberal studies at the Greensboro university.

Nearing the end of his first week of classes, Smith said he has been eager to tackle assignments, join study groups and embrace the lifestyle of both a college student and one who attends an HBCU. He finished his first PowerPoint presentation for an English class this week.

On the golf course, Watkins loves Smith’s fluidity. He said Smith’s swing tempo is reminiscent of four-time major championship winner Ernie Els’s.

“I’ve got a couple of guys on the team that hit it just as far as [Smith] does, but the thing that impresses me the most about where his golf game is, everything is an easy move for him,” Watkins said. “There’s nothing rushed. There’s no overexertion.”

Watkins said the 35-year-old freshman has blended well with the team, whose next oldest players, seniors Diego Gonzalez and Xavier Williams, are 21. Smith wakes up for 6 a.m. workouts, attends mandatory study hall sessions and poses for pictures when excited students spot him on campus.

Most of Smith’s classes are online, opening the door for a potential return to the NBA if the opportunity arises.

“My schedule is flexible other than my golf tournaments [and] working on my golf game, so if the opportunity is there, I mean, obviously I’m not going to turn it down, because that’s been my heart and my soul for the last 16, 17 years,” Smith said.

Watkins is excited to watch Smith’s progression as a golfer. Although the NBA veteran has competed only in charity events and pro-ams, Watkins said Smith has a chance to make the five-player cut for the team’s first tournament next month.

“He’s a sponge right now. He’s picking up everything, and he’s learning,” Watkins said. “I’m pretty sure he’s a trash talker. We just haven’t heard it yet.”

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