The unwritten goal for any role player should center loosely around the “be easy to play with and hard to play against” philosophy. I’m not sure if there is a better portrayal of Pistons’ backup and pseudo starter point guard Ish Smith.
By all accounts, Smith is an engaging and enjoyable teammate and by the end of the year, he perhaps owned a small place in your basketball heart as well. During a frustrating and rather depressing season, Smith became a reliable rotational player despite the fact he can’t (gasp!) shoot straight.
The Pistons were dealt an unexpected blow just before the season started as Reggie Jackson would miss an expected six-to-eight weeks due to on-going knee tendinitis issues. All eyes nervously turned towards the newly acquired Ish Smith, on his 11th jersey in six years, and he didn’t flinch.
Jackson wound up sitting out the Pistons’ first 21 games while Smith guided Detroit to a respectable 11-10 record. Jackson’s open-ended rocky road to recovery allowed Ish to start a handful more games throughout the year which granted him an opportunity to establish chemistry between the first and second unit players.
Without question, the biggest benefactor of an Ish Smith led offense was starter-benchmate-starter Tobias Harris. Both in the halfcourt offense and especially on the break, the Smith-Harris connection resulted in easy buckets:
On more than one occasion, the duo either fought to keep the Pistons in the game or combined to secure a win.
Ish Smith mastered what conventional point guards are taught to do: he put teammates in a position to succeed.
Dudes tend to like other dudes who do that.
B-b-b-but he can’t shoot?!
True but there is more than one way to skin a cat even in today’s spacial game. Smith can penetrate at will and even on an anti-fastbreak team such as Detroit (14.2 percent of Pistons’ possessions were fastbreak while Ish himself was 23.6 percent), he pushed the ball which reluctantly forced teams to scurry back on defense. If the push didn’t directly equate to quick points on the scoreboard, at the very least, it gave the retreating defense another variable to think about. Even his fastbreak misses became an offense in and of itself:
Easiest way to get a bucket? Follow Ish to the basket.
Smith ran Stan Van Gundy’s high pick-and-roll with stable efficiency. By years’ end, he finished (for reference) just below John Wall at .841 PPP as the ball handler in a PNR. When including the derived offense via a Smith pick-and-roll the numbers (.941 PPP) and production only go up sandwiching himself between Kemba Walker and Jrue Holiday. Not too shabby for a backup.
Defensively, Smith was an irritating little pest on the perimeter and arguably their best rim protector. Unfortunately, I’m only half-joking about the latter. At a tippy-toed six foot tall, there are clear limitations to his prowess on defense especially against the bigger, stronger bubble-butted Kyle Lowys of the world but Smith’s annoying on-ball defense caused headaches for any casual point guard. An Ish block wasn’t a stranger to anyone who closely watched the Pistons:
His team defense isn't anything to brag about. Oddly, the two consistent drawbacks are complete opposites. Either he’d get sucked into the lane with good intentions to help but it left shooters too open or he’d get tunnel vision on his assignment:
End of the world type stuff? Naw, but it happened frequently enough to keep him from being a plus defender. All in all, Smith graded out average on defense per Synergy which sounds about right.
Put your hand up if you expected any of this. I’ll wait.
Hand up? Wow, how do you sleep at night? Liar!
It’s easy to root for guys like Smith. Professionally, Ish has little in common with most of his junior teammates, and that's a good thing. The Pistons’ roster is littered with first round - if not lottery - draft picks that when compared to Smith, have enjoyed a charmed NBA life. Smith is on his eleventh team in his six year career and it’s hard to understand why. His presence can only help to cultivate a positive atmosphere.
Every year Ish Smith must prove himself but for now, he has a home in Detroit.
*all numbers per Synergy