Year-In-Review: Ish Smith
On December 26th in Phoenix, the vibe, and even the results, surrounding the 76ers changed. Ish Smith was back in a red, white, and blue uniform, and it didn’t take long for the perpetually upbeat, proven veteran point guard to make an impact.
Acquired two days earlier from the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for a pair of future second-round draft picks, Smith, due to travel logistics, didn’t even get the chance to attend the Sixers’ shootaround on the morning that his second stint with the team began. His familiarity with the club’s personnel, coaches, and schemes, however, allowed him to be re-integrated seamlessly, as his debut demonstrated. Starting at point guard against the Suns, the Wake Forest product racked up 14 points (6-15 fg) and five assists in 31 minutes, keying the Sixers to what was then their second victory of the season, 111-104.
Two games later, another triumph occurred, this one at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento. By the time Smith had played six contests for the Sixers, they had won three times. In the final outing of this stretch, a 109-99 home triumph over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Smith assumed a particularly significant role. He generated 21 points (9-16 fg), 11 assists, four rebounds, and three steals, en route to his second double-double in the span of a week.
More than any measurable statistic, though, Smith’s return to the Sixers brought experience, poise, and leadership to a position that Brett Brown deems the most important in basketball.
“Big personality, big charisma,” Brown said on December 26th, as he recalled the impression that Smith left during a 25-game run with the Sixers that coincided with the end of the 2014-2015 campaign.
“Had a presence,” continued Brown. “Allowed me to coach him. I could coach him hard. He found a new layer in Nerlens [Noel]. He’s got live legs. There’s a pace that he plays with. There’s a reliability from a turnover standpoint that he is respected for around the league. All those things are what we need.”
As was the case during the previous year, Smith exhibited an ability to unlock additional potential and production from Noel, thanks to the easy chemistry that existed between the two of them. Following Smith’s arrival in December, Noel’s offensive effectiveness took off, as he averaged 11.9 points and shot 56.4 percent from the field for the rest of the season.
While he certainly helped elevate the level of play of those teammates around him, Smith himself made noteworthy strides in his sixth professional season, taking advantage of a career-high 2,239 total minutes.
Even before he rejoined the Sixers, Smith was enjoying a strong start with New Orleans, which claimed Smith off waivers after he was let go by Washington following the pre-season. With guards Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans both injured early in the year, the Pelicans were seeking backcourt depth, and Smith provided it. He came off the bench to post 17 points (7-13 fg) and nine assists in 38 minutes in New Orleans’ opener at the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Towards the end of November, Smith pieced together a string of seven contests over which he averaged 16.1 points and 8.9 assists.
When the calendar flipped to December, and Holiday and Evans were healthy enough for action, Smith saw his role diminish. He logged just 10.4 minutes in his final 10 appearances with the Pelicans, before he was traded for the fifth time in his career.
In 50 outings with the Sixers, Smith cranked out personal highs in several areas, including his averages of 32.4 minutes, 14.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 7.0 assists, and 1.3 steals. His 46 three pointers, along with the 33.6 shooting percentage he manufactured from beyond the arc, were also career-best marks. Smith turned in 16 20-point showings with the Sixers, after having reached the total in only two games through his first five seasons in the NBA.
“I was talking to some of the [Sixers’] guys, some of the older guys, this is the first time I played a full year,” said Smith during a March interview. He appeared in 77 of 82 possible games between stops with the Pelicans and Sixers. “Last year, I played a fourth of the year here toward the end of the year, and this year, a little bit more full time since December, and I played a lot in New Orleans”
All in all, Smith took his season in stride.
“It’s just you miss some shots, you make some shots, you just got to keep pushing and keep going. Your body gets tired a bit, mental and stuff like that. Everybody’s scouting report, now they want to stop you. So you have to get through all of that, and stuff you haven’t experienced before. You just kind of got to play through it, and eventually you’ll get your groove back and being playing better than ever.”
Season Shot Chart:
In his final appearance of the season at The Center, Smith came through with contributions at several clutch junctures of what would end up being an overtime battle. With the Sixers trailing the Milwaukee Bucks by four points with just under five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Smith handed out an assist on a Nerlens Noel dunk that sliced the margin to two points. Moments later, after collecting a defensive rebound, the 6’0” point guard drove the lane for a game-tying lay-up. Then, with 33.4 seconds to play, following a Bucks’ turnover, Smith exploded through the key for a slam that pushed the Sixers briefly in front, 98-96. The jam was the last of Smith’s six this season.
During the extra period, Smith accounted for five of the Sixers’ 10 points. He nearly pulled off the first triple double of his career, finishing with a versatile box line highlighted by 22 points (9-17 fg, 2-5 3fg), nine rebounds, eight assists, three steals, and two blocked shots.
Before the 2015-2016 season got underway, Smith did not have a single double-double performance on his 246-game resume. By the time the year was done, he had 12 of them, including seven with the Sixers. All but one of Smith’s double-doubles were of the point / assist variety. The lone exception came in Portland on March 26th, when Smith tallied 17 points and a career-high 14 rebounds, to go along with nine assists.
In his first game back with the Sixers at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Smith hit the hardwood lobbing. As shown below, the point guard and Nerlens Noel wasted no more than 40 seconds getting back to doing what they did so well the previous season. Working off a pick that Nerlens Noel set on Suns guard Eric Bledsoe at the top of the arc, Smith drove down the right side of the lane, drawing the attention of the three-man crowd of Bledsoe, Alex Len, and P.J. Tucker. Finding the middle of the orange-painted lane open, Noel started rolling to the rim. Smith timed a toss to Noel perfectly, and Noel soared to the rack for the two-handed slam dunk finish.
On the heels of a career season, Smith heads into the rest of the spring and summer with momentum.
Looking back on the progress he’s made over his six years in the NBA, Smith said in late March, “Sometimes I pinch myself, sometimes like, ‘Holy crap, how did I get this good?’ Like, I don’t know. Seriously. Because I was just two or three years ago waving a towel. It’s a blessing. I thank God every day for it.”