“Who’s Ish Smith?”
Kevin, a friend of mine and casual basketball fan, sent that inquisitive text to me the morning of July 1. The Detroit Pistons inked the much traveled point guard to a three-year, $18 million dollar deal.
It is a simple question with many possible answers.
- You could point out that Detroit will be Smith’s 11th team in his six-year career.
- You could examine stats to explain how he might “fit” (or not) in Detroit.
- You could keep it short: he’s the new backup point guard. Nothing more, nothing less.
There’s truth to all of those.
Or you could dig 1 inch below the hardwood surface to answer that question. For an undrafted, D-League experienced, 6-foot on his tippy-toes to secure a job in the NBA, there must be more to the story that analytics or the box score can’t quantify.
2015-16 Year in review
Smith spent 27 games with the New Orleans Pelicans before a mid-December trade relocated him to Philadelphia. Along with a(nother) new address, he was given the opportunity and the responsibility of full-time starter at the point guard position. For Smith, this was a first.
Now, beggars can’t be choosers but lead guard on a team destined to fail is a tall order and akin to swimming with cement shoes.
Smith played like he had nothing to lose because in essence, he didn’t. What’s the worst the 76er organization could do? Waive him? Sorry, that kind of pressure isn’t going a phase a player with Smith’s roller coaster resume.
In 50 games as a starter, Smith put up nearly 15 points, 7 assists with 2.5 turnovers per game. Not bad.
It’s not hard to knock those numbers, though. Even the worst of the worst NBA teams - which Philadelphia certainly was - scores 90 points per game and someone is going to put the ball in the basket.
For the Pistons’ sake, it’s much more important how he got those numbers.
Lets get one thing straight: Smith can’t shoot. During his 50-game starting gig for Philadelphia, Smith shot a cringe-y 32 percent from beyond the arc paired with a true shooting percentage of 47 percent.
Smith’s shooting on a scouting report is about as attractive as brown shoes and a black belt on a first date. If you can’t shoot in the “era of shooting” you better bring something else to the table.
Too many of Smith’s detractors focus on what he can’t do instead of what he can.
For Smith, the ability to penetrate at will is the counter to shady shooting as he ranked in the top five last year (per NBA.com) in drives per game at 11.1. This put him in the same territory as Eric Bledsoe, DeMar DeRozen, Isaiah Thomas and Reggie Jackson. To boot, he lead the league in assists per drive which means he’s finding open teammates.
The 2015-16 76ers were doomed from opening night. With a team whose goal is another lottery pick, gauging the efficiency of individual players is tough. However, with young, bouncy legs, Philadelphia attempted to push the ball as much as possible, finishing sixth in team pace (possessions per 48/min).
Again, this type of play fits into Smith’s skillset as he will lead the Pistons’ second unit (and for a while, the first unit) that - more than likely - will be looking to do the same.
Does a play like this look familiar?
Because it should.
While “Backup” is on his business card, if Reggie Jackson must miss an extended amount of time of any reason, imagine Andre Drummond as Nerlens Noel in the above clips. Smith isn’t on the same level as Jackson but in case of emergency, he’s much better suited to keep the vessel afloat than fan un-favorite Steve Blake.
If Smith is forced to lead the first team, the Pistons will find themselves in a similar situation as last year in which bench scoring becomes problematic. That of course, is why we pay Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower the big bucks.
With his three-year, $18 million dollar contract, Smith’s production has the ceiling of “absolute steal” and a floor of “he plays hard.” The future of Detroit basketball does not teeter on the shoulders of their newly acquired backup point guard.
The importance of a Smith-type player goes much further than on-court production. On a team full of young, developing first-round draft picks, the locker room, travel days and overall downtime can sink a team just as fast as it can raise one. With Anthony Tolliver moving on to Sacramento the roster is void of a players perspective from a different viewpoint.
A central theme has followed Smith throughout his career: Players love him and coaches love him even more. A guy with similar talent but none of the extras would own a short career.
You could chalk Morris’ reaction up to an obligated public Twitter approval but as long as he’s been in Detroit, Morris hasn’t played the part of easily impressed or diplomat, nor does he hand out manicured praise.
Mook doubled down on his tweet as he told to Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press: “He’s a great teammate,” Morris said. “Great dude, great guy. I’ve never had a better teammate.”
Pistons’ head coach Stan Van Gundy was briefly introduced to Smith during their shared time in Orlando.
Van Gundy noted:
“He really brings great energy to your team – and not just physical energy, mental energy. Every single day, he’s an upbeat, positive guy that people love being around. He makes coming to the gym a better day every day.”
Does it sound a little too much like Chicken Soup for the Soul? A little too much like cliche coach speak? As with Morris, though, when’s the last time Van Gundy didn’t shoot straight?
Smith is the type of player that will run out routine ground balls or play special teams. Every team needs those types of players. Correction: Every successful team needs those types of players.
Detroit got a taste of playoff basketball last season but they’re only scratching the surface on how to compete and what it takes to fight on a nightly basis. In his six-year career, Smith has been handed nothing and the only thing he knows is how to fight, scratch and claw.
That will be Smith’s contribution to the city that hangs their hat on fighting and competing. It’s a fit even if the numbers don’t say it. Analytics have a come a long way but there are still facets of the game that can’t truly be measured.
So to my good friend Kevin - and all casual basketball fans - Who’s Ish Smith?
He’s a guy you want on your team.
18 minutes, 7 points, 3 assists, getting Ish done and endless other Ish puns.