J.R. Smith is opening up about Kobe Bryant-- just before the 1 year anniversary of Mamba's death -- explaining why Kobe made him a better person and basketball player.
"Took these days for granted," Smith said about a photo of the two playing each other back in the day ... "Thought i was really going to play against you forever."
Then came the personal message to his friend ...
"Appreciate the competitive nature you brought out in me, sh*t can’t lie i ain’t know i had some of this shit till you [handed] out them ass whoopings an i had to figure it out."
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"The game misses your avatar but we all know your soul is all around it. Miss you."
Kobe -- along with his daughter Gianna and 7 other people -- passed away in a helicopter crash on January 26, 2020.
After Kobe's death, Smith joined the Lakers -- and back in August, he told the media how the team kept Bryant's memory alive.
"His name comes up every single day," Smith said at the time ... "We chant his name after every break, after every huddle."
"We always speak of his memory. We speak of his mindset, how we can attach that to our team as individuals to collectively come together for this one common goal that we’re all trying to strive to get."
The Lakers went on to win the NBA Championship -- a fitting tribute to the late great #8/24.