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2017-18 Pistons preview: Ish Smith, starting point guard (sooner or later)

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Christopher Daniels

Last year it seemed like any time we talked about Ish Smith, Reggie Jackson’s name was in the same line. That won’t be the case this year. Ah shoot. Well, except this time. Starting now.

The journeyman point guard has earned the Pistons starting job in his own right. It’s no longer a matter of the presumptive starter being hurt or playing badly, even though that’s the case. It’s that the Pistons are at their best with Ish running the show.

2016-17 review

Expectations weren’t too great for Ish after he’d bounced around (literally) a third of the teams in the league. He had started 50 games the season prior, but it was for the 10-win 76ers.

Advanced stats didn’t love him. He had only accumulated .017 win shares per 48 minutes through his career and had a true shooting percentage of 44 percent. Sure, it looked like he could do some nice point guardy things, but a guy who couldn’t score and didn’t look like much of a defender didn’t look too promising. Plus, that last name has traumatic recent past with the Pistons fanbase.

It didn’t take Ish long to win admirers.

Taking the reins for the starting job while Jackson missed the first 21 games of the season, Ish averaged 10.8 points and 6.4 assists with just 1.5 turnovers per game. But those of us who shrugged at the signing because of the numbers also saw what we missed. Much of what Ish brings to the table isn’t captured in the box score.

He pushed the pace, hit guys in rhythm, contributed to a culture of ball movement and energy. The Pistons opened the season 11-10, satisfied with Ish keeping the boat afloat for Reggie’s return.

Of course, Reggie’s return put the Pistons season into a spiral, perhaps most notably with Marcus Morris directly calling out Jackson for a lack of ball movement.

Now, the offensive side of the ball is typically what Ish gets most of his credit. But that’s something of a myth.

Team stats until December 2

Offensive rating: 103.5
Assist percentage: 53.4 percent
True shooting percentage: 52.8 percent

Team stats from December 2 to March 21
(when Jackson was benched for the rest of the year

Offensive rating: 103.7
Assist percentage: 52.7 percent
True shooting percentage: 52.2 percent

Fam, the was just as good when Jackson came back as it was before he left. Even the ball movement wasn’t that big of a change.

But the defensive rating for those two stretches went from 101.1 to 106.9. Ish is unassuming as a defensive player thanks to his size, but the little guy busts his ass on the defensive end.

He’s particularly good at challenging shots and comes up with a surprising number of blocks, something you’re well aware of if you followed Mike Snyder’s excellent High/Low series last year. In fact, last season he had the sixth most blocked shots for a player six feet tall or shorter in league history. Keep that tidbit around for trivia night.

Still, surely such a huge gap in defensive performance wasn’t solely due to Ish Smith’s shot blocking abilities. And the difference between how bad Jackson was on defense and Smith’s adequacy was wide, but probably not that wide.

But the phenomenon was back during the preseason too. Ish had a defensive rating of 98 while Jackson had a whopping 117. The team just plays much better defense with Ish on the court.

Stan Van Gundy suggested it starts on the offensive end during their drop off last year.

“Our offensive frustrations, ranging from guys not thinking they’re getting enough touches to guys just struggling, have taken a toll on our defense,” he added. “It shouldn’t, and it’s not a legitimate excuse, but I’m just giving you the facts. That’s exactly what’s happened. Our offensive frustration is affecting us at the defensive end, and we’re losing heart a little bit. And that’s concerning. The offense has not been moving the way it should. The ball is not moving. I’ve got to look at play calls and the whole thing.

“We went through stretches where Reggie made some plays. In the third quarter, we were scoring, but again — what happens is, we’re scoring, but we’re trading baskets. Part of it is we’ve got guys upset they’re not touching the ball and everything else, so they’re not as engaged in the game on the defensive end of the floor. There are all kinds of things that go into the game, and the ball has to move. There has to be an unselfish offense and a committed defense, and the last two nights there have been neither.”

So it’ll be worth watching for the Pistons this year. Even more than the impact of ball movement with Ish on the court, keep an eye on how the defense looks when he’s on.

2017-18 projected production

Ish Smith has earned the starting job.

He’s been remarkably low maintenance through all the drama involving Jackson, keeping quiet through the player meetings, taking the bench without argument when Jackson came back last year and resuming the starting job equally demurely once Jackson was shut down.

Last week SVG said about him:

"When you're pure and your mind is clear, it's easier to play well," Van Gundy said. "Ish never has any dilemmas. He's not a guy who's bitching about playing time, or worried that he's not getting enough shots, or upset at a teammate who he doesn't think passes enough. Ish just plays ball. Every day I've known him, every day I've coached him, Ish just plays ball."

Assuming there’s no shade being thrown there, let’s reward that. Start him Stan. Though yeah, it certainly seems like there might be some shade there. Still, start him Stan.

He’s been talking like a man looking for excuses to make the move. He noted that Reggie’s group went on a run in practice where he wasn’t paired with Andre Drummond, despite Reggie Jackson this preseason saying “We’ve [he and Andre] got to be married to each other.”

Yes, starting is mostly superficial, who plays the most minutes is the more important part. But the only reasons to start Jackson at this point are contract size and worrying he’ll complain about coming off the bench. Not great reasons.

And if Ish starts to open the season ahead of Jackson, he’s positioned as the front runner to get more minutes. Which is important because the more effective player ought to play the more minutes. And hey, let’s see who has been the more effective player in the preseason so far:

Ish Smith net rating: 19.5
Reggie Jackson net rating: -31.9

THERE IS A 51.4 DIFFERENCE IN POINTS PER 100 POSSESSIONS BETWEEN THESE TWO THIS SUMMER!!

So yeah. Ish should be the guy getting the majority of the minutes until Jackson shows otherwise.

If that happens, good stuff for the Pistons!

One thing to watch though will be how much Ish is shooting. SVG’s system requires the point guard to at least be something of a scorer. Ish isn’t. Last year was the highest true shooting percentage of his career. It was 47.7 percent. That’s awful.

But believe it or not, Ish actually took shots at a higher rate than Andre Drummond last year. Higher than Kentavious Caldwell-Pope too. Two guys who get picked on for their shot selection, it’s odd that a 47.7 percent TS guy took more shots than either and flew under the radar.

Prediction

29 minutes per game, 13 points on 51 percent true shooting percentage, 7 assists, 1.5 turnovers