Denton: Ish Smith Hoping to Make Most of Opportunity

By John Denton
February 2, 2012

ORLANDO – For Ish Smith, the path to the NBA was a middle seat on a red-eye flight. The woman to his left kept nodding off and her head would hit Smith’s shoulder, while the man to the right was snoring loudly. As if that weren’t enough, a toddler in the seat ahead of him stared back much of the flight from Los Angeles to Orlando, making sleep nearly impossible.

``It was really an adventurous flight, but hey, you have to do what you have to do to get to the NBA,’’ Smith said Thursday following his first workout with the Orlando Magic. ``Hopefully, it’s the middle seat to first class for me.’’

Smith was on the practice floor Thursday just hours after his cross-country flight, and he expects to play Friday night when the Magic (13-9) host the Cleveland Cavaliers (8-12) at the Amway Center.

Smith, who spent time last season with the Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies and the NBA Development League and played briefly this season with Golden State, was signed by the Magic on Thursday morning. Orlando has increasingly had trouble with turnovers and getting the ball up the court against pressure defenses, and needed another point guard with Jameer Nelson (concussion) out at least two more games.

Exit veteran shooting guard Larry Hughes and enter Smith, a 6-foot, 170-pound guard who had his practice shorts turned down at the waist on Thursday so that they didn’t go down past his knees. With the Magic seeking another point guard, assistant coach Brendan Malone got a tip from his son Michael, an assistant in Golden State, about the playmaking skills and bubbly enthusiasm of Smith.

Looking on from afar as Smith went through dummy offense drills, Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy said the 23-year-old point guard will see some playing time Friday night in relief of starter Chris Duhon.

``He’s really quick, can penetrate the ball and make plays,’’ Van Gundy said. ``He’s supposed to be a really good pick-and-roll player, not that we’ve seen it yet. We’ll find out how much (of the offense that he can retain). It’s different with the guys, but (assistant coaches) Steve (Clifford) and Bob (Beyer) do a great job working with the new guys and we think he’ll be ready.’’

Smith was certainly ready for the call from the NBA after spending the past three weeks out of the league after being waived by the Warriors. Smith, a Charlotte native, was about to start playing for the Los Angeles D-Fenders when the Magic signed him to an non-guaranteed contract. Now, he’s hoping to stick with a team that knows it needs three point guards on the roster.

Said Van Gundy: ``If he’s good enough he’ll have a chance to stick. Jameer (Nelson) is a tough guy, but he takes a lot of hits because he’s willing to stick his head in there. Ideally, we’d like to have three point guards on the roster, so Ish could be that guy.’’

Smith, who goes by ``Ish’’ which is short for Ishmael, was that guy at Wake Forest in college. A starter for three seasons and a team captain his final three years on campus, Smith was able to break many of the records set by Chris Paul at Wake Forest. There was one catch, however.

``I did break a lot of his records, but Chris was only there two years,’’ said a laughing Smith, who finished second all-time in school history in assists with 612. ``I don’t know if I would be ahead of Chris if he had played there all four years. I did break them, but I had special players around me.’’

He knows he has some special players around him in Orlando, namely superstar center Dwight Howard. Smith said he’d never played with a center as dominant as Howard and might have to adjust the level at which he throws alley oops to accommodate Howard’s tremendous leaping ability. And he’s already itching to run pick-and-roll plays in Orlando because of the Magic’s plethora of shooters in Ryan Anderson, J.J. Redick and Jason Richardson.

For this shot to play with the Magic, Smith didn’t even mind the unconventional route he had to take to get back to Orlando. He boarded the plane just before midnight in L.A. and arrived in Orlando Thursday morning. Sleeping wasn’t an option with the snoring man, the woman’s head that kept hitting his shoulder and the staring child. But he said he’d gladly forgo a night of sleep for another shot at sticking in the NBA.

``There was no sleep (on the flight), but I wasn’t getting any sleep at home either waiting on that call from the NBA,’’ he said. ``It’s a blessing and I thank God. I got called back up and I’m grateful for getting another opportunity. In the NBA it’s about opportunity and once you get that you have to flourish in it. I’m just happy for this chance.’’

John Denton writes for John has covered the Magic since 1997 and recently authored ``All You Can Be’’ with Magic center Dwight Howard. E-mail John at

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