Niyo: New Piston Smith hopes his travels are over

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — Ish Smith laughs easily, and often, but especially at this request. Because no one has joked about his journeyman NBA career more than Smith himself.

So when challenged to rattle off the list of teams he has played for — in order — he happily obliged, shortly after he’d officially signed on the dotted line in his 10th NBA city in seven seasons.

“Oh, yeah, that’s easy,” said Smith, the 6-foot point guard introduced along with forward Jon Leuer as the newest Pistons on Friday.

Easy? Easier said than done, certainly.

“Houston, traded to Memphis,” Smith began, retracing the steps of an undrafted rookie out of Wake Forest in 2010. “Then released from Memphis. Golden State picked me up. Then I went to Stan (Van Gundy) down in Orlando. From Orlando …”

And that’s where he pauses, thinking hard, before continuing, “I went to Milwaukee. I almost forgot about Milwaukee!”

He wasn’t there long. Smith played 16 regular-season games for the Bucks — plus four in the playoffs, as they got swept by the Heat — after getting traded by the Magic in February 2013 as part of a six-player swap. (That deal also sent Tobias Harris to the Magic, by the way.)

And from there? Well, Smith is on a roll now.

“Traded to Phoenix,” he said. “From Phoenix, I went to Houston. Houston to OKC. OKC to Philly. Philly to New Orleans and back to Philly.”

See? That wasn’t that hard, was it?

Familiar with the program

Still, it’s easy to see why he’s so excited about where he is now, after agreeing to a three-year, $18 million deal in Detroit a few hours into free agency last week. Smith, one of the speediest guards in the league, is eager to finally put down some roots. And with the Pistons, he sees a “huge opportunity” that will “allow me to grow.”

It doesn’t hurt he’s a lifelong Isiah Thomas fan. (“If Michael Jordan’s 1a, Isiah’s 1b,” he says.) Or that he already has a bond with former teammates in Reggie Jackson (Thunder) and Marcus Morris (Suns) on the current Pistons roster. (“That’s my guy,” said Morris, who called Smith arguably “the best backup point guard in the league.”)

Or that he knows much of the Pistons management team from his time with the Magic. He played 21 games for Van Gundy late in the 2011-12 season — Van Gundy was fired that spring — but he joked Friday about his first conversation with his new-old coach the other day.

“I said, ‘Are we still running Thumbs-Down Spread?’ ” Smith laughed, referencing Van Gundy’s pick-and-roll play calls at crunch time. “And he said, ‘Same stuff.’ ”

Different player, though. And for that, Smith has the nomadic start to his professional life to thank. Which he does, in fact.

“You know what? I joke around with it, but for me, that’s what I needed,” Smith said.

He says he needed to play behind the likes of Kyle Lowry and Aaron Brooks in Houston, Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, and, yes, even his former AAU teammate. Steph Curry, with Golden State.

He says he learned plenty — so many different systems, with so many different coaches — and gained confidence despite the limited playing time and the repetitive disappointments.

Bright spot in Philly

Last summer, he thought he’d made it, at last, after playing well in a brief stint as a starter in Philadelphia. But after his agent turned down good money in Phoenix and Sacramento, he was stunned to find no offer from the 76ers. Instead, he was sent scrambling again, with a training camp invite in Washington — that stop doesn’t make Smith’s official list — before getting claimed off waivers by New Orleans. And then shipped back to Philadelphia in a Christmas Eve trade, just in time to join a Philadelphia team that was off to a historically-bad 1-30 start.

“It’s been a journey, but everybody’s journey isn’t the same,” said Smith, who was immediately inserted into the starting lineup by coach Brett Brown and helped spark Philadelphia to seven wins in the next 20 games. They went on to finish 10-72, one game clear of the NBA record for fewest wins. Smith was a bright spot, though, starting 50 games and averaging 14.7 points and 7.0 assists, forming an exciting tandem with young big man Nerlens Noel.

“It did fuel me,” Smith said. “Kind of got me going. But I’ve always got stuff in my mind fueling me, whether it’s those nine teams or something else. And now it’s on to the next chapter. … Even now, people don’t think I deserve this deal. So I have to prove that.”

Van Gundy, for one, is convinced he will, raving about Smith as a “high-character guy” who’ll bring an up-tempo style to the second unit, something that was sorely missing last season. Smith’s quickness and vision make him an ideal fit for the Pistons pick-and-roll offense, and with Leuer and 7-foot-3 center Boban Marjanovic (presumably) joining Andre Drummond and Aron Baynes on the roster, he’ll have more options.

“Dre better be ready to go get lobs on the first and second team, because I’m most definitely gonna throw ’em,” Smith said, laughing. “I’m excited about it.”

Excited about where this young Pistons team is headed — “All the pieces are here,” he says — and the fact he’s planning to stay a while.

Twitter @JohnNiyo


Position: Point Guard

Ht./Wt.: 6-0/175

Birth date: July 5, 1988 (Charlotte, N.C.)

College: Wake Forest

Drafted: Undrafted (2010)


Position: Power forward/Center

Ht./Wt.: 6-10/228

Birth date: May 14, 1989 (Long Lake, Minn.)

College: Wisconsin

Drafted: Bucks (2nd round, 2011)