The Ish-Beno tandem helping Pistons do more than survive without Jackson

Ish Smith and Beno Udrih have combined for 22 assists and 2 turnovers through the first two Pistons games
Chris Schwegler/Nathaniel S. Butler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

The Pistons suspected that life without Reggie Jackson would be challenging. They didn’t expect it would be fatal. Ish Smith and Beno Udrih are proving them right.

Through two games, Smith and Udrih have a cumulative 22 assists against two turnovers and have combined to average 20 points a game while shooting 47 percent.

Small sample size and all of that, but if they can continue at anything approaching that pace for the next 13 to 18 games – the estimate for how many more games Jackson will miss – the Pistons like their chances to do more than merely survive their leading scorer’s absence.

“It’s always encouraging to see guys like Ish Smith and Beno come out and play so efficient and make the team jell and work,” Andre Drummond said after doing his part – 20 rebounds in 28 minutes – in Friday’s 26-point thumping of Orlando. “It really attests to the type of players they are and the type of leaders they are to be able to hold it down until Reggie comes back. It’s been great so far.”

The Pistons expected that Smith would hold up fine as a starter, given the 50 games he logged in Philadelphia last season, averaging 14.7 points and 7.0 assists. The only question was how long it would take him to find a comfort zone and learn his teammates’ strengths and tendencies.

Turns out, it took two preseason games. In the third, he scored 18 points with eight assists and no turnovers in a road win at Atlanta. He’s been anywhere from steady to superb ever since.

“As a team, we’ve been able to really jell together and build our chemistry,” Tobias Harris said. “I know myself and a lot of other guys, we talked a lot just to him, especially guys in the starting lfive – where we like the ball, where we are and adapting to his game and to his pace. That’s been going a long way for us and it showed (against Orlando). He was aggressive and he was playing like himself. That’s what we need from him.”

It’s tempting to write that what the Pistons have gotten from Udrih so far has been more surprising than what Smith has provided, except that short changes the evaluation acumen of Van Gundy’s front office. As wrenching as it was for Van Gundy to have to pull the rug out from under Ray McCallum Jr. 48 hours before the season opener after he’d survived a training camp battle with Lorenzo Brown to win the final roster spot, he only did it because he and his inner circle were confident Udrih was the better solution to their predicament.

“Beno’s playing the way he’s always played – he’s smart as hell,” Van Gundy said. “People use the term clever, crafty, whatever you want to say. I don’t want to insult Beno, but those are two synonyms for slow. The guy really, really knows how to play the game. He understands angles. He knows what he’s looking for on every play. He can really shoot his pull-up jumper, so he’s a big threat in there. He can finish at the rim. He finds open people.”

“Beno’s a player. He’s been around the league for a long time now,” said Harris, an 18-year-old rookie in Milwaukee when he first teamed up with Udrih, then again in Orlando when they were traded for J.J. Redick. “It’s no surprise to me. He comes in, plays his part.”

Marcus Morris, as he did last season, is the starter Van Gundy pulls first so he can return to the game to start second quarters with the bench unit as the scoring anchor. That means he’ll be the player who gets fairly equal doses of both Smith and Udrih as his point guard. In his typically blunt, concise way, he endorses both.

“Ish has been around this league for a while. He’s a veteran. I expect him to play well. Beno – veteran. You know what you’re going to get from those guys. Not turning it over too much. Real solid.”

Real solid – the Pistons will take that for 13 to 18 more games, allowing them to do more than just survive Reggie Jackson’s absence.