Auburn Hills — Ish Smith did some soul searching in the summer. Not making the playoffs made quite an impact on him and some of his Pistons teammates — and he let that fuel him during his offseason workouts.
Smith stayed around in the summer and worked with assistant coach Tim Hardaway Sr., looking to exorcise some of those doubts and shortcomings from last season, hoping to get the Pistons to the postseason this year.
So far, it’s paid off.
Smith has been one of the Pistons’ most consistent players in the preseason and looks almost in midseason form as the season kicks off Wednesday against the Charlotte Hornets at Little Caesars Arena.
Smith has been so good that it’s cast some question as to whether he should be the starting point guard ahead of Reggie Jackson. Coach Stan Van Gundy hasn’t committed to a starting lineup, but says Smith being so prepared to start the season comes as no surprise.
Pistons coach on the energy point guard Ish Smith brings.
“He’s just always like that. He’s in great shape and he’s a high-energy guy. It’s just the way he plays,” Van Gundy said Tuesday. “Midseason form is all the same with Ish — he’s just ready to go all the time.
“He does what he does. We talk about playing to your strengths — and Ish does that.”
Smith started the first two games of the preseason, when Jackson was dealing with a sore groin and played very well with the starting group. He’s been mostly a reserve in his career and has mostly been an NBA nomad. He may have found a long-term landing spot with the Pistons.
Hall of Famer and former Pistons great Isiah Thomas compared Smith to a backup quarterback in football: he understands his role and does it well.
“Ish, when he comes into the game, he knows he’s a facilitator. He’s trying to get everybody the ball and trying to make everybody look good,” Thomas said on NBA TV. “Everybody wants to play with the guy who wants to make you look good.”
Entering his second full season, Smith has a clearer understanding of Van Gundy’s expectations and how he can reach them. While he knows his strengths, he also knows there are plenty of areas for improvement.
And that’s what led him to stay and work with Hardaway.
“Everything is a feel. As you get older, you figure out that feel and when to score and pass and get guys involved,” Smith said. “Coaches want me to turn up my defensive intensity so picking up guys and using my speed and ability to read passes and get into guys defensively.”
The desire to improve is part of what’s endeared Smith to Van Gundy and the staff. Even when he has a good game, he tries to nitpick and find out what he could have done better. He has a good work ethic and Van Gundy admires that he knows his limitations, as well.
“There’s not nights where he’s low-energy and slow bringing the ball up the floor,” Van Gundy said. “He pushes it every night and you know what you’re going to get out of Ish and it doesn’t matter whether he starts or comes off the bench: you’re going to get the same thing every time.”
Van Gundy still isn’t ready to reveal the starting lineups or rotations, but he’s getting a sense that his bench depth will make things difficult and that any of the 13 players on the active roster can contribute on a given night.
“I don’t have a good handle on my rotation. That’s probably the worst thing coming out of the preseason, but I don’t think that’s necessarily my fault,” he said. “I have a pretty good idea in my mind. Foul trouble always throws a wrench in that anyway. You have some idea of how you want to rotate guys in and out. It ends up changing with game situations.”
Van Gundy said he plans to talk with all the players to let them know his idea of what their roles would be, but how they handle that and move forward through the season will be the true test.
“We’re going to have to deal with that and that’s going to be a big part of our team moving forward,” he said. “If guys can handle those roles and adapt and continue to stay ready and play.”