Ish Smith will stay in touch with Pistons as free agency nears

By Matt Schoch
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — Ish Smith said Tuesday he can remember playing against Blake Griffin when the Los Angeles Clippers star wasn’t crazy about the court jester point guard cracking jokes during tense in-game moments.

Now that Smith finds himself as a man without a team for the first time in three years, he hopes to keep communication open with Pistons like Griffin, even if they technically aren’t teammates for now.

Point guard Ish Smith (14) played for nine teams in six seasons before spending the past three with the Pistons.

Ultimately, if Smith has his way, a similar pact could be made with the Pistons as in 2016, when his $18 million deal was reported shortly after midnight on July 1.

“I know some guys that cut the whole (communication off in the summer), I’m like: ‘What are you doing?’ Because relationships is everything,” Smith said as a handful of Pistons met with the media at The Palace practice facility. "I think some of the people, they cut that off and then all of a sudden you never know when you’re going to see that person again.”

It’s a now a distant but still familiar feeling for Smith, who played for nine teams in six seasons before Detroit, then settled in as Reggie Jackson’s change-of-pace backup, the bench’s spark plug in the Motor City.

“Detroit is the one city that kind of embraced me, that kind of took on my skill and ability and respected it and loved it,” Smith said the day after the Pistons were swept out of the playoffs by Milwaukee in four games.

Magnetic off the court, Smith’s open-court strengths are well-defined, as are his weaknesses.

The Wake Forest product always has been a below-average 3-point shooter, with a pedestrian 32.6 percent mark from deep this season actually 2 points better than his career clip.

His 6-foot stature doesn’t help against bigger point guards, and Smith has combined with Jackson to make up one of the league’s worst defensive tandems at the position.

Plus, Smith will be 31 shortly after free agency opens this summer, and his per-game averages of 8.9 points, 3.6 assists and 2.6 rebounds in 22.3 minutes were the lowest numbers across the board in his Pistons’ tenure.

But that might be more for the health of Jackson, who started all 82 games this season, in addition to the four playoff beatings by the Bucks.

Meanwhile, Smith missed 26 of 31 games because of a midseason groin injury. The Pistons went 8-18 in those games, with 37-year-old Jose Calderon forced into action.

Coach Dwane Casey called Smith the “spirit of our team” after he returned, but will the front office see Smith as a spirit of Detroit’s plans to keep climbing in the East?

Smith’s $6 million off the books represents one of the few mechanisms for moves for a front office hoping to make talent upgrades.

The Pistons could seek to bring him back on a smaller deal, but there are also other in-house options for backup point guard minutes, including Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown.

Kennard was set to play point guard at summer league last year before a knee injury ended the experiment before it started. Instead, Brown played a lot of minutes on the ball in Las Vegas, which he plans to do again this July.

A starter much of his rookie season because of his defensive effort, Brown also has other things to work on, he said.

“I have a clear view of what I need to do this summer and I’m going to put the work in for sure,” Brown said, noting his focus is on shooting, ball-handling and finishing at the rim.

Kennard or Brown at point guard also could help unclog a glut on the wing, with Langston Galloway, Khyri Thomas and Svi Mykhailiuk all due back next year with hopes of being in the regular rotation.

Casey said last month Mykhailiuk’s best future fit could be at point guard. The Kansas rookie, acquired at February’s trade deadline from the Los Angeles Lakers in the Reggie Bullock trade, played in three games with the Pistons.

Mykhailiuk’s season ended when he fractured his left index finger, but his April 10 surgery should have him ready for summer league if he’s called upon.

If Smith played his final game for Detroit on Monday, he would classify as a “fan favorite” in a frustrating era of Pistons basketball short on them.

Take his 22-point night against Memphis in the regular-season home finale, where Smith sealed the 100-93 comeback win for the desperate Pistons with three straight buckets down the stretch.

“That’s my guy,” Jackson said, when asked about the possibility of Smith not returning. “I’m one of his biggest advocates.

“I know what he’s all about. I feel like I know what’s in his heart, I know he comes out and competes, I know he’s going to give you everything he has, his very pure game.

“So that was one of the tougher ones. I told him I always wish him the best. I wish he’s here next year, but more than anything, I wish success for his family and for him.

“That was one of the tough ones to realize that we may have laced it up as teammates for the last time. It sucks.”

Smith said he’ll keep an informal dialogue open this spring with people like Griffin and Casey, but hopes for a more formal interaction as the summer comes.

“Obviously, if they call, I’m for sure going to pick up,” Smith said. “This has been home the last three years. We joke around all the time, we laugh, but those are the relationships you build when you’re with a program and you’re with an organization for a longer period of time than a couple months.”

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.