When he ran things in Toronto, Dwane Casey liked to use two or even three-point guard lineups with Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright in the backcourt. More ball-handling tends to mean more pick-and-rolls, more drives, more kick-outs, more continuity in the offense.
The same approach has already established Ish Smith as a key reserve in Casey’s first season with the Detroit Pistons. He’s playing point for the second unit, same as always, but now he’s also sharing the ball with Reggie Jackson and the starters, sometimes even late in games. In the Pistons’ second game of the season, Smith crossed up Jabari Parker for the winning layup and 15 points; he followed that with a season-high 21 in the next game against the Philadelphia 76ers.
This was, maybe, an unlikely outcome. Undrafted in 2010, Smith bounced across ten teams in his first seven years, including two stints with the Process-era 76ers; the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns were the only team to keep him on their roster through an entire season.
It wasn’t hard, says Smith of what was surely a hard path. The little skills have carried him this far.
“You just keep pushing, because you know that these people invested into these draft picks, so they have to see if those guys pan out. So for me, it wasn’t any frustration,” Smith told The Step Back.
“If they’d drafted me in the first or second round and didn’t put me out there or I didn’t play as well, then I probably would’ve been a little disappointed. But when guys are in front of you, you just try to get better and watch them and how they do it, so when you get the opportunity, you can be ready to roll.”
Smith has always had the speed — Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins have described him as the fastest player in the NBA — but on its own, speed doesn’t make a player. Running fast doesn’t get a field goal percentage up over .400, and Smith’s outside shot has always been suspect.
In a few seconds, Smith names an All-Star team’s worth of guards he’s played behind — Kyle Lowry and Aaron Brooks in Houston, Mike Conley in Memphis, Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson in Oklahoma City, Steph Curry in Oakland.
He studied these players up close, and when the Process-era 76ers had an opportunity to offer, Smith was able to turn it into a longer-lasting career. (Not many of those 76ers were.) The Pistons signed Smith to a three-year, $18 million contract after his second stint in Philly.
“I say this all the time, like, for me, it was all part of my journey. I didn’t know who I was going to play over, when you think about all the teams that I’ve played for,” says Smith. “So for me, it was all about getting in the right place… and Philadelphia posed that opportunity.”
Smith is entering his third season with the Pistons, and contract stability has also meant a coach, system and teammates that he could grow comfortable with. His turnover rate has stabilized at an elite number and his efficiency is up. Injuries to Jackson in each of the last two seasons have pushed Smith into the starting lineup and he’s buoyed the Pistons every time — even causing some (brief, mild) controversy at the point guard spot.
Now, Casey continues to get even more out of Smith. The Pistons have a new emphasis to drive, kick and swing the basketball, and especially to play uptempo. “We’re enjoying playing at this pace, especially me being a guy that, I love my speed, I love to play in transition,” says Smith.
The long 2 was once crucial to Smith’s success, to keep defenders honest when they ducked under on picks, but Casey is encouraging his players to probe further and Smith has responded with a full complement of change-of-pace moves that are leading to layups, floaters and kick-out passes. Shots that were once 18-footers are now six-footers.
The issue for the Pistons, as it has been for years, is 3-point shooting. They rank last in 3-point percentage (31.3) so far this season and Blake Griffin has been their only volume shooter to scrape league average. Reggie Bullock will probably shake his cold slump, but the Pistons are going to need more — the way Casey wants to play is to stack ball-handlers, like Smith, Jackson and Griffin, to drive, kick and swing their way to open 3.
“At first, I probably wouldn’t have liked it — I wanted the ball. But now it’s so much easier, the way we play, you just run the floor and now you can be the receiver of somebody creating a shot for yourself. Coach is pretty, you know, innovative when it comes to that,” says Smith. “The more ball-handlers you have out there, the more you create those drive-and-kick situations.”
Smith is working to become a threat away from the ball, too. He started taking more 3s towards the end of last season when Griffin’s addition made clear that he wasn’t going to have the ball as often, and his attempts are all the way up to 3.8 per game this season. He’s still only converting at a 32.0 percent clip.
It’s an ongoing problem that the Pistons are going to have to solve as they try to establish their identity under Casey. Right there with the rest of the team, Smith is trying to figure out how he keys into the solution. Instead of fighting for his own NBA life, he’s thinking of the team — and, unlike earlier years, he has the security of knowing just which team it is.
“It feels good when you get comfortable, but now that you’ve been in a place for a long period of time, it’s another step, and the next step is playoffs and further on. So for me, I don’t really think about that,” says Smith. “Now I’m thinking about what’s next for us, about moving forward this year and getting on to that next step.”