From NBA to college: Meet J.R., the newest golfer

Former NBA sharpshooter J.R. Smith is officially set to become a college golfer.

The NCAA cleared the veteran of 16 NBA seasons to play golf for North Carolina A&T University, an HBCU, on Tuesday after a review of his amateur status, according to The Undefeated.

Smith had already enrolled in the school to pursue a degree in liberal studies and begun classes, but now he’ll be able to play college sports for the first time of his life. He had been committed to play college basketball for North Carolina under Roy Williams 17 years ago, but opted to go directly to the NBA. He was selected 18th overall by the New Orleans Hornets in the 2004 NBA draft, the penultimate draft to allow high school players to jump to the league.

Smith’s roundabout journey to the college ranks earned him a hearty congratulations from LeBron James, his teammate on the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers, on Twitter:

Smith has been an avid golfer for the last 12 years and reportedly holds a 5 handicap. His golf career began in the most J.R. Smith way possible, with a random speck of brilliance at an NBA legend’s charity event.

He recounted the story to Bleacher Report in 2014:

B/R: So what sparked your golf interest five years ago?

JRS: I was at Rashard Lewis’ [basketball] tournament in Houston. He runs a Pro-Am out there every year and I would always play on his team. While I was there, he told me to come out to [Hall of Famer] Moses Malone’s golf tournament. I was riding around on the cart, but I wasn’t playing. Then Moses is like, «Get your ass out of the cart and play.» So I go out there and hit the ball like 300 yards dead center. Just like that; the first hit. I even used the same form I have right now.

Of course, the 35-year-old Smith will have to hit the books before he can really begin his college athletics career. He has begun live-tweeting his English assignments:

How can J.R. Smith, who made $90 million as a pro athlete, play college golf?

Wondering how on earth an NBA veteran who made $90 million in his career can be eligible for college sports, which are ostensibly still amateur despite recent rule changes, is not an abnormal reaction to the above news.

There are several reasons why this particular door was open for Smith. One, he only played professional basketball. Two, he never played any college sports unlike many of his peers. Three, the NCAA no longer minds athletes making millions from endorsement deals.

Because Smith never played college basketball, his NCAA eligibility clock never began. He might be among the oldest freshmen student-athletes the NCAA has ever seen, but he still receives four years of eligibility like any other athlete.

Smith will obviously never play a minute for the NC A&T basketball team because he actually is a professional athlete in that sport, but as long as he never made money playing golf, he should be fine. It’s a situation not unlike Russell Wilson, who played football at Wisconsin despite being drafted, receiving a signing bonus and playing minor league baseball for the Colorado Rockies.

There have been cases where other sports have harmed student-athletes’ eligibility, like Jeremy Bloom’s college football career coming to an end due to his endorsements as an Olympic skier, but the NCAA’s recent NIL rules changes probably worked out in Smith’s favor.

Not many NBA players could do this, and even fewer up until now, but the stars seem to have perfectly aligned to create J.R. Smith, college golfer.