Ish Smith finding a home in Detroit
New York — In his eight NBA seasons, Pistons guard Ish Smith has been around the block a few times: 10 different teams, with various short stints, from the Houston Rockets to the New Orleans Pelicans.
He’s played for Golden State, before they were this championship version of the Warriors and he was with the Sixers for two separate stints during the cellar-dwelling time of “The Process” rebuild.
He’s worn many jerseys — and 10 different numbers.
After signing a three-year deal in the summer of 2016, Smith is finishing his second season donning the Detroit uniform and he’s finally finding a basketball home and growing some roots. It’s his longest tenure with any of the 10 teams: he’s played 158 games with the Pistons, more than his time with the his next-two-longest stints — the Sixers and Suns — combined, and has started 67 of them, mostly due to Reggie Jackson’s injuries.
The man of many jerseys is now wearing many hats — not only as a high-energy, push-the-pace-down-your-throat backup point guard, but now as a facilitator and 3-point shooter.
Smith is shooting 33 percent on 3-pointers, the best mark of his career for a complete season.
That includes a sizzling 45 percent (17-of-38) from beyond the arc in the 25 games he’s played with Blake Griffin since the trade on Jan. 29.
At the time of the Griffin deal, Smith already had stepped into the starting role, after a severe ankle injury that kept Jackson out for 37 games. It also turned into another transition phase for Smith, who handed over much of the ball-handling responsibility in the starting group to Griffin.
The Pistons won the first four games with Griffin in the lineup, but then defenses lagged off Smith, daring him to shoot.
Something had to change, in his approach and mentality as mainly a passing point guard.
“It helped me playing with that first group when Blake got here. Since he’s been here, it’s forced me to work on my 3-point shooting and take those shots,” Smith told The Detroit News last week. “In the second group, you play the way you play.
“For me, with the first team, coach has a lot better comfort level and confidence in the way Reggie runs that team — and we all do.”
News flash: Smith and Jackson are dramatically different point guards. Jackson has more of a shoot-first mentality, penetrating and probing in the pick-and-roll, with a penchant for finishing with floaters or getting deeper in the paint for a lob to Andre Drummond.
Jackson’s return has coincided with another surge, as the Pistons have won six of the last seven games with him back as a starter. Without Jackson for 37 games — the Pistons were 12-25 in that span — the Pistons (37-40) floundered and it’s one of the reasons they’re on the brink of playoff elimination.
Jackson’s absence forced Smith to step into an unfamiliar role and play with the starting group with Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley, then with Griffin, trying to find a rhythm and slower-than-breakneck speed that he could operate at effectively.
One of the missing pieces was his outside shooting and consistency as an additional scoring threat. Something seemed to click around March 19, against the Kings, in the midst of the six-game western trip.
“You have to be strategic. What happened in the Sacramento game, I said, ‘If I’m open, I’m going to shoot,’” Smith said. “We have athletes on the first team and we have to run. Everybody wants to run, but I (really) want to run. Blake and I looked at each other and said on makes, we’re going.
“That helped a lot, because for me, it’s push and probe and see what we’re going to get.”
Smith went 7-for-10 from the field that game and 2-for-3 on 3-pointers, and finished with 18 points. The next game, Jackson returned to the starting lineup and was on a minutes restriction, playing the first few minutes of each quarter.
That forced Smith both Smith and Jackson to adjust again, splitting time with both the first and second units.
Adding Griffin wasn’t the only change that’s impacted Smith’s switch.
Assistant coach Tim Hardaway has helped push Smith into being more aggressive with his 3-point shot, which has helped defenses stretch out a bit more and open other opportunities.
“It’s not so much that Blake is here. I give a lot of credit to Ish but also to Tim Hardaway because he’s encouraged him to shoot that when he’s open so people can’t lay off,” coach Stan Van Gundy said.
The improved work in 3-point shooting is a work in progress during the season but it’ll also be Smith’s primary focus in the summer.
“The next level is knocking them down; you have to take those shots,” Smith said. “With (Griffin), it’s forced because I’m wide open. I’m not going to drive into the paint. I should have been doing it all year, but it’s better late than never.”
Smith will turn 30 this summer, but it’s not too late to add more to his skill set. With his speed and quickness, it’ll keep defenses honest and make them come out and guard the 3-point shot, allowing him better driving lanes.
Going into the last year of his contract, that’ll give him another piece for the arsenal.
“For me, you have to continue to build and grow your game,” Smith said. “Sometimes, you sit back and surprise yourself with how much improvement you’ve made in the last two years, so you’re constantly trying to grow and build and make connections.