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Monday November 8, 2010 11:03 AM

Ish Happens

Rockets' rookie point guard making the most of his opportunity

West Medlin

HOUSTON - They grow up so fast, don’t they?

No, I’m not referring to the random niece or nephew who appears to age in dog years when you see them every holiday. Instead, I’m talking about the young, lightning-quick point guard the Rockets hope the aforementioned cliché accurately describes sooner rather than later.

His name is Ishmael Smith. But you can call him Ish. He’s the guy that in just one summer went from undrafted rookie to surprise roster addition to starting point guard for the Houston Rockets. In fact, one of the few things faster than his baseline-to-baseline speed has been his rise up the depth chart.

With injuries sidelining starter Aaron Brooks and backup Kyle Lowry, Smith, less than two weeks into his rookie season, has been thrown into a role even he did not expect to be filling this early in his career. “You never think of this,” he said. “And now you’re out there so quick, you’ve got to kind of learn out on the fly.”

But as the hackneyed phrase says: “timing is everything.” Against the San Antonio Spurs, starter Aaron Brooks went down at the end of the first half with a sprained ankle after Kyle Lowry had already been sidelined with back spasms. Those injuries provided Smith with more playing time than he had received all season and the extended run allowed him to develop a comfort level that had eluded him in previous stints.

After shaking off some early jitters, Smith played a key role in igniting the team to an 18-2 second half run and came oh-so-close to draining the game-winner at the end of regulation. It was the sort of eye-opening performance that would have been impressive for any rookie – much less someone who was merely an afterthought on draft night. But Smith’s court vision and poise under pressure showed precisely why Houston wisely chose to carry three point guards on their roster as they began the season.

Smith said his teammates encouraged him to use the Spurs game as something to build on heading into Houston’s Sunday night showdown with the Timberwolves. Done and done. When asked if he felt differently during the Minnesota game, Smith just shook his head and said he viewed it as merely an extension of the contest from the night before.

“I think I just carried it over from the second half from last night’s game,” he said. “Just kind of making plays, you know, creating for guys, getting into the lane, shooting my little tear drop which [needs] to fall.”

Regardless of how he arrived in the NBA, Smith has shown he belongs. In games against the Spurs and Timberwolves, Smith displayed an ability to get into the lane and disrupt defenses. And though his shots have not fallen at a high percentage, his penetration has created holes for rebounders like Scola and Jordan Hill to get put-backs and second chance opportunities on offense. Bottom line: good things are happening when Smith drives to the basket.

That said, Smith is not merely looking to penetrate but is also looking to efficiently run the offense and get others involved, too. While his play has already produced highlight-worthy passes on the fastbreak, his 13 assists in the past two games indicate that he is finding teammates while in the half-court as well.

Overall, Smith has managed to positively affect the game in a variety of ways and against Minnesota he finished with a line of seven points, six assists, and four rebounds. He also displayed defensive value and demonstrated that his quickness is not just an asset limited to offense, as seen by his team-leading three steals against the T-Wolves. Coach Adelman highlighted as much after the game. “I thought Ish did a nice solid job tonight,” he said. “One thing about him is he’s solid defensively, too. He keeps the guy in front of him.”

Even with the potential return of Kyle Lowry, Smith figures to get meaningful minutes for the foreseeable future. Brooks is expected to miss a minimum of four weeks while recovering from his ankle sprain, which means Smith will most likely keep playing an important role in managing the offense and contributing energy at both ends of the court.

“I’m going to do whatever it takes to help this team out. It feels good,” he said. “I felt confident out there. For the most part, we got off the schneid and we got a win so it does feel good.”

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