Whoever said “nothing good ever happens after midnight” needs a talk with Ish Smith. He had a more nocturnally fascinating and productive off-season than your average barn owl.
It started with a 3:30 a.m. contract agreement July 1 with the Pistons a few hours after free agency opened. More recently, it’s been dreaming about the possibilities stirred by that union.
“I always ask people, ‘What wakes you up at night?’ For me, now it’s the pursuit of a championship,” Smith said after a recent group workout with his new Pistons teammates as they prepare for next week’s opening of training camp. “That really is what the case is. It’s like, we’ve got a real chance to be champions. And I know that sounds crazy and people think, ‘Naaah. Yeah, you guys got better; not champions.’ But we’ve really got a real legit chance. And as long as we believe it, nobody else matters.”
Smith has had to dream big dreams to stick in the NBA after going undrafted out of Wake Forest in 2010. He’s played for nine teams in six seasons, never enjoying the security of a multiyear contract – until now – and only once beginning and ending a season with the same franchise (Phoenix, 2013-14).
Dreaming might have enabled his career, which now enjoys the stability of a three-year deal with the Pistons and a certain role entering a season for the first time, but his background also makes Smith the ultimate realist. Nobody grasps the cold, hard truths of the NBA better than the guys who know by heart the dates of the trade deadline and when contracts become guaranteed for the season – or the bus routes along the NBA D-League circuit.
Smith survived by staying positive and staying ready. When the first gaping opportunity of his career came last season – appropriately enough, via a Christmas eve trade – he seized the moment, thriving as a starter in Philadelphia over the season’s final 50 games and parlaying it into a pursuit for his services won by the Pistons with an aggressive offer out of the chute on July 1.
He was inclined to stay with the 76ers after flourishing there and developing a strong bond with Philly coach Brett Brown, but couldn’t resist the pitch from another of his former coaches, Stan Van Gundy (Orlando, 2011-12).
“Through the whole process, I looked at all the teams pursuing me and Detroit just stood out to me,” he said. “For the simple fact we were all young, Coach wanted to play with pace, Coach wants tons of pick and rolls. All those things fit into the way I want to play. Defensively, he wants us to climb into people. Getting to the playoffs was a huge goal, so now we have to come – me, (fellow free agents) Jon (Leuer), big Bobie (Boban Marjanovic) – and be that help and hopefully we take it to the next level.”
You couldn’t throw a dart at an NBA depth chart and land on a team that doesn’t have one or two former teammates of Smith’s, given his travels. With the Pistons, it’s Marcus Morris (Phoenix, 2013-14) and Reggie Jackson (Oklahoma City, 2014-15). Morris swears he didn’t have any intel that the Pistons were going to pursue Smith – Smith says Morris put the bug in his ear last season about coming to the Pistons – but openly wished for it to happen while in Orlando for Summer League on the eve of free agency.
“He’s just a genuine guy,” Morris said of Smith last week. “I’ve been on a couple of teams in this league and it’s hard to find guys that really, truly care about their teammates outside of their own success. Before I even met him, I was in Houston” – Smith had two stints with the Rockets, before and after Morris’ time there – “and they talked really highly of him. Once I got the chance to meet him, we bonded real well when I was in Phoenix.”
“He’s still about everybody else,” Jackson said. “He comes in, always has a smile on his face. You never know if he has an off day. He’s one of the hardest workers you’re going to be around and he’s just a rare breed. It’s hard to find guys who can be that competitive but you can still be about the team at the same time. He fits that mold and we love to have him. I vouched for him when he was coming to the team. I wanted him more than any other backup and I was happy we could make that acquisition.”
Smith hikes his eyebrows when he hears “backup.”
“I tell Reggie all the time, ‘I’m not your backup; you’re 1A and I’m 1B.’ I come in and the goal is not to have drop-offs. When he comes out, we’ve got to take it to another level, and that’s the goal. Our second team has to be just as good if not better than the first team and that comes with competing in practice. We compete against each other and make each other better when it comes to game time. When the starters come out and they’re up five or six, we can take it to 12 or 13.”
Given Smith’s age – at 28, only Aron Baynes, 29, is older – experiences and buoyant personality, he figures to be a part of the leadership core of a team that lost three reliable veterans in Anthony Tolliver, Joel Anthony and Steve Blake. He’s been a bit reluctant to flex his muscles in that regard so far, but Smith says a connection is already blossoming through the voluntary team workouts players began earlier this month at their Auburn Hills practice facility.
“It’s great chemistry – it really is. Great, great chemistry. Sometimes I get in trouble because, ‘Should I do this? Should I step on toes? Should I back up?’ My mother and my father used to always tell me, you’ve got to follow before you can lead. So for me, it’s all about, ‘I came to you guys – you guys show me the ropes, tell me how it’s done.’ And they’re like, ‘Just do you, Ish. That’s what we want you to do.’ So eventually I’m going to be comfortable just to do me. That’s what this week and the time leading up to training camp is for.”
The players he figures to run with on the second unit – most likely Stanley Johnson, Baynes and Leuer, predominantly – are getting a feel for Smith and liking what they see.
“He’s great. He’s a high-energy guy, a high-character personality, as well,” Baynes said. “He’s been great in the time he’s been here and I can definitely see him stepping in and making an impact right away. He’s a great point guard and I think he’ll be fun to play with. I’m looking forward to that, for sure.”
Smith’s pace-pushing tendencies figure to enhance Johnson’s transition prowess. He caught a glimpse of it in a recent scrimmage.
“I’ll be running the floor, I’ll be open but I don’t think he can make the pass or see me,” Johnson said. “One pass, I was running, tried to beat who was in front of me, stopped and pulled up. He got all the way to the rim, Andre (Drummond) contested and he flipped it out behind his back to me at the 3-point line. It almost hit me in the face. I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I wasn’t ready to shoot it. That’s going to be exciting to play with a guy who can make plays like that.”
Morris was the starter Van Gundy used to anchor last year’s second unit, so he knows that group as well as anyone does. He’s certain Smith was the ideal addition to complement their blend of skills.
“He’s going to make it so much easier for guys like Stanley, Aron Baynes,” Morris said. “He’s just going to make it easy. He’s going to put it on a platter and let them do the rest. He’s an easy guy to play with. He’s always looking to get his teammates involved and he’s always energetic and positive.”
Even in the middle of the night, where sometimes good things really do happen.