It is not very difficult, nor is it especially flattering, to be considered a “breath of fresh air” on a team with a 1-30 record. But for Ish Smith, any welcoming admiration is received with open arms.
Smith is everybody’s favorite peripatetic. His resume is built on 10-day contracts, D-League assignments and end-of-the-bench roles. Only once in his six-year career has he spent an entire season with one team. He’s been waived six times and traded five times. In a 10-month span, Smith was traded to the Pelicans and waived on the same day, signed by the 76ers, signed and waived by the Wizards, claimed by the Pelicans and traded to the 76ers.
Philadelphia’s recent acquisition of Smith is the most promising move for Smith in terms of sticking around for longer than a couple of months. Whereas those other trades included Smith as an inconsequential and purely financial asset, the Sixers gave up two second-round picks to get Smith. It was a bit of an odd move for a team so focused on building from the draft to give up two high second rounders (Philly’s own and one from Denver), but new chairman Jerry Colangelo wanted to bring in a player with experience with his first act in charge of the team and Smith certainly has that.
The Sixers were not exactly phlegmatic before Smith’s arrival; they are a spirited young team that plays hard for Brett Brown that happens to produce depressingly bad results. Smith has given this team a bit of direction and corrected a bit of the chaos. The Sixers have won three of their nine games since his arrival and were within 10 points against the Cavs, Lakers and Jazz. Smith had a career-high 28 points on 55 percent shooting against the Raptors and he compiled double-digit assists against the Cavs, Wolves, Clippers and Jazz.
Even before he was traded to the Sixers, Smith was playing well. The Pelicans started the season without Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, so Smith filled in and averaged 30 minutes a game for the first month of the season. He was scoring 12 points per game and was close to the league lead in assists with an average of eight a night. When Holiday and Evans returned, Smith was banished to the back of the rotation. Although New Orleans got a very nice haul for an end of the bench guy on a one-year deal, Philadelphia was happy to get Smith back into action.
Smith has a spartan skillset and most of his success can be attributed to his speed. He drives as much as Russell Westbrook (10.6 times a game) and averages 1.4 assists on drives per game, the second most in the league behind Rajon Rondo. Smith’s divisive pick-and-roll game, as well as the hiring of pick-and-roll guru Mike D’Antoni, has helped both of Philadelphia’s young big men become more efficient players. Rookie Jahlil Okafor is shooting 60 percent when sharing the floor with Smith, a good 12 percent increase over his season average (47.8 percent), and Nerlens Noel is shooting 68 percent (compared to 50.5 percent for the season).
Smith has shown flashes of being a useful bit player at almost all of his stops, but third-string point guards on minimum deals don’t have much of a shelf life. As a result, Smith has a more colorful costume closet than the late David Bowie. But in Philadelphia, where the goal is to create a semblance of structure whilst maintaining a strong lottery presence, Smith fits perfectly as the 76ers’ engine. With a speedy player like Smith who can break down defense and open up gaps for the bigs to attack in the paint, Okafor and Noel are getting some genuine pick-and-roll reps, making the acquisition of Smith a developmental supplement if anything else.