Ish Smith, a lighting bug who flickers with speed, enables a high-powered attack. Last season, Detroit’s four fastest pace lineups were led by him. A Smith-led charge ranged from 99.62 to 103.82. A Jackson-charged lineup, on the other hand, peaked at 97.75. Going on his 10th team in 7 seasons, Smith is a journeyman capable of altering a franchise’s outlook.
How high can a backup point guard—whose yo-yo handles embody his bobbing play—raise a team’s ceiling?
Utilizing a handoff-heavy approach, Van Gundy poured a barrel of gasoline on Smith’s play. Scoring 10.9 points on 9.8 shots per game, this was Smith’s first season accruing more points than shots on 50% true shooting.
His willingness to give up the ball early in the possession promoted a free-will offensive approach.
The unselfish guard gave up the ball early in the possession, placing trust in the newfound creating habits of Drummond. His willingness to let plays develop and find Tolliver in the corner is rooted in his ability to stay calm under pressure:
There’s reason to believe Smith is continuing to improve upon ball handling comfortability. His turnover rate was the lowest it’s ever been; placing in the 91st percentile (9.9%), according to Cleaning the Glass.
When Detroit exhausted all creative energy, they turned to Smith. His left-right crossover to mid-range pull-up is a well-versed skill. The move allowed him to deny a pair of screens and still extract a highly efficient mid-range shot:
Having speed and quickness in your arsenal makes you an NBA player. What sets you apart from the average backup floor general is avoiding straight-line drives.
When Smith accepts a screen, he zigs and zags to split two defenders:
And when a defender is expecting a left-right crossover into a ball screen, Smith head bobs and lowers his right arm to cross right back over.
Keep in mind Delon Wright is top perimeter defender in the league and was still duped by this double move:
Griffin and Drummond demand coverage inside, making it essential Detroit surrounds them with outside presence. Does that mean Detroit needs a knockdown three-point shooter at point guard? Yes and no.
Smith isn’t a natural three-point shooter, that much is clear. Placing in the 33.4 percentile in spot-ups and shooting 46.6% in catch and shoots (between Giannis and Evan Turner, for scale) make him vulnerable off-ball.
What Smith is missing in three-point shooting skill though, he makes up for in deceptive dribble sequences. Equipped with an array of dribble moves, he excelled with the ball in his hands and room to create.
When the floor parted, the ability to stop on a dime was employed by the jittery guard. As the lead ball-handler, he operated 4.3 screens per game, producing 0.84 points (57.3 percentile). Without a screen, Ish looked even better; he scored 1 point per 0.8 possessions, placing in the 80.5 percent of players.
Given the tendency of high screens, Van Gundy pigeonholed the backup into an uncomfortable role. Not that Ish Smith is nearly the talent Kyle Lowry is, but the two are similarly wired in isolation creativity. Knowing this, Dwane Casey was able to put Lowry in such situations, 1.0 a game, for which Lowry scored 1.15 points per possession (92.2 percentile league-wide).
Sometimes a series of dribbles bred inefficiency though.
With Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson—a shooter and a non-threat— commonly filled as wings, Smith was thrust forward as the main creator. That burden hasn’t been encountered by Smith since Philadelphia—where he was surrounded by the dysfunction of Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel.
The consequence of plopping the former Wake Forest guard into a lead-creator role led to over dribbling and forcing the issue.
Here, the ball ends up in Stanley Johnson’s hands as the shot clock ticks down:
Failing to dart past defenses, at times his mechanical shot surfaces. And it’s not a pretty sight:
In the chance he smooths out a jump-shot, Smith settling for the three becomes a possibility. For now, since he can not rely on a jump-shot, he dribbles in orbit. Smith wasted 14 seconds trying to get past Simmons. In stifling the smaller Smith, Simmons proves an unfortunate statement—that heart is mostly stifled by height.
If free-throw shooting is the slightest indication of shot mechanics, Smith’s jump shot has plateaued. The best he’s shot from the line is 70.6% and his career average is 66.9%. There is no gradual improvement or steep incline that tells us differently.
Given a dimmed-down role in the second unit, Smith can foray quickness into teammates’ own creation and open three-point shots.
Running players off double screens and leaving the guard on an island allowed for space to create and pass to cutters:
For players who possessed the ball 50 times a game, Smith was 10th in average dribbles per touch. That’s bad. Even worse when you look at whom he sandwiches: Chris Paul and Dennis Smith Jr. Awful when you realize dribbles does not equate to scoring: Smith’s 0.174 points per touch rated lower than defensive-minded guards; Marcus Smart and Kris Dunn.
With the image as a poor shooter, comes a reputation.
Because of a 29% three-point mark leading up to the season, defenders slid comfortably under Smith led-pick and rolls. Shooting 34.7% on 101 deep attempts, Smith is nearly league average from outside. But factoring in his first-step and nasty left-right crossover, defenders recoil when Smith loads up.
Stanley Johnson has to gallop to screen for Ish because Dinwiddie was reluctant to fall back. Smith capitalizes on this perception of deficiency from deep:
Detroit struck gold when they inked Ish Smith to 3-years $18 million two Summers ago. But Context matters and the context here is: Ish Smith is a fraction of the player Reggie Jackson is. The team went 12-23 in Jackson’s absence.
As a replacement, Smith does not shine. Rather, the former Wake Forest point guard shines in a quick-hitting role. There, he can solve Detroit’s second-team creation problems. Utilizing speed to create for teammates, Smith finds Detroit’s middle ground.