Ish Smith: The NBA’s Resident Good-Bad Point Guard

Jan 20, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic forward Channing Frye (8) defends Philadelphia 76ers guard Ish Smith (1) during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 20, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic forward Channing Frye (8) defends Philadelphia 76ers guard Ish Smith (1) during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Ish Smith has undeniably been a boon for the Philadelphia 76ers since returning to them in a Christmas Eve trade. But there are reasons he’s already played for nine teams in less than five seasons.

If Ish Smith doesn’t have an endorsement deal with North American Van Lines, it’s a missed opportunity because since joining the NBA as an undrafted free agent out of Wake Forest in 2010, nobody has been on the move more than Smith.

In less than five seasons, Smith is already one of just 36 players in NBA history to play for at least nine different franchises—and that’s not counting the Washington Wizards, who had Smith in training camp last fall before including him among their final cuts.

On Wednesday night, Smith helped the Philadelphia 76ers beat one of his former teams, the Orlando Magic, 96-87, putting up 13 points with 11 assists in 30 minutes on efficient 6-of-11 shooting while turning the ball over three times.

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The fact Smith played a game against a former team isn’t that surprising—on any given NBA night, he’s got an almost 28 percent chance of doing so.

The 76ers improved to 6-38 with their win at Orlando and appear less and less likely to challenge the NBA records for worst winning percentage (the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats, .106) or most losses (the 1972-73 76ers, 73).

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That turnaround begins with Smith, who was re-acquired from the New Orleans Pelicans on Dec. 24 in exchange for the Denver Nuggets’ second-round pick in 2016 and Philadelphia’s 2017 second-rounder.

A before and after look at the 76ers’ numbers tells the tale:

Before: 1-30, 91.4 PPG, 104.7 OPPG, .418/.320/.690
After: 5-8, 101.2 PPG, 105.0 OPPG, .463/.358/.641

That’s right: In 13 games since Smith returned to Philadelphia, the 76ers are averaging almost 10 points more per game and shooting 45 percentage points better overall and 38 percent better from 3-point range.

For his part, Smith is averaging 16.5 points and 8.5 assists in 31.5 minutes per game, shooting .409/.333/.757 in 13 games with Philly.

But the 76ers are turning the ball over more since Smith’s return to the club and the defense is marginally better (108.5 points per 100 possessions before the trade, 106.2 since).

And for the spark Smith has provided the 76ers, he’s still producing at net rating of minus-5.1 points per 100 possessions, with a 97.1 (points per 100 possessions) offensive rating paired with a 102.3 defensive mark.

His effective field goal percentage over his 13 games in Philadelphia is .425 and his true shooting percentage is just .455.

In many ways, Smith is a throwback player—for all the good (and not so good) that implies.

Being the resident old guy at HoopsHabit affords me a bit of perspective and there are times when I watch Smith tear down the court, I’m reminded often of a right-handed Tiny Archibald.

And at 6-feet and 175 pounds is very similar in size with the Hall of Fame point guard from the 1970s, who was 6-foot-1 and 150 pounds at a time when point guards were generally much smaller.

Archibald didn’t have to contend with the likes of Michael Carter-Williams (6-foot-6, 190 pounds), Elfrid Payton (6-foot-4, 185 pounds) or any other of the larger, next-generation men at the point.

And the defensive numbers tell the tale—Smith, in 35 games this season, is allowing opponents to shoot 1.5 percent better than their regular season numbers, a difference that is most stark inside of six feet.

Opponents light up Smith inside at a 69.9 percent clip, more than 10 points better than their 59.6 percent average rate.

Add to that the fact Smith can be a bit loose with the ball, averaging 3.3 turnovers per 36 minutes—up from his career rate of 2.8—since coming back to the 76ers.

He’s a fearless penetrator—32.1 percent of his shot attempts are at the rim, but he’s only converting 43.3 percent of those.

Perhaps no game captured the essense of Ish more than Monday’s matinee at Madison Square Garden, what turned out to be a 119-113 double-overtime loss for the 76ers.

Smith finished with 16 points, 16 assists, seven rebounds, two steals and four turnovers on an 8-for-28 day from the floor that included going 0-for-6 from 3-point range and missing his only two free-throw attempts.

This isn’t a knock on Smith because of his size—being vertically challenged in my own right, I tend to root very hard for the little guy.

It’s just a statement of fact—Smith’s limitations offensively and defensively because of his size–coupled with his tendencies to play out of control–are ultimately what will keep his career on the move.

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He’s the guy lots of teams want to get … and none ultimately want to keep, because he’s not the player you can get to the next level with.

Smith is a player who could be a very good backup on a team with an elite point guard. That also translates to a guy who can be a productive—yet flawed—starter on a bad club.

It’s great for Smith that he is finally getting consistent minutes for the first time in a career that has wound him through the Houston, the D-League, Memphis, Golden State, Orlando, Milwaukee, Phoenix, back to Houston, Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Washington, back to New Orleans and finally back to Philly.

He may even be able to parlay that production into a nice payday when he hits free agency again this summer after signing in September for a veteran’s minimum deal of just more than $1.1 million.

But if you get excited over the fantasy points Smith can produce and think he might be the answer for your favorite team’s shortfalls at point guard, you’re in for disappointment.

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Because at this point Ish Smith is what he is—one of the best of the NBA’s good-bad point guards.