By Ashwin Ramnath
Throughout his professional career, Ish Smith has bounced around the NBA, building an impressive collection of jerseys over various stints with nine different teams over six seasons.
This summer, he appeared to finally have found a stable, comfortable role signing a three-year, $18 million contract with the Detroit Pistons to help shore up the bench behind Reggie Jackson. Now, with an injury that threatens to keep Jackson out 6-8 weeks, the Pistons will look to the journeyman to keep them afloat.
Smith’s ability to run a viable pick and roll granted him a foothold in the NBA, but subpar scoring efficiency, defense and propensity for turnovers have kept him from sticking in any one spot.
Despite rarely having any consistency in his playing situation, Smith improved as a ball handler and passer, gradually increasing his assist rate while cutting down on his turnovers. Finally, able to harness his speed and quickness to facilitate an offense, Smith turned himself into a useful niche player as a capable pick-and-roll ball handler when paired with a good roll man.
Pistons’ franchise centerpiece Andre Drummond is a devastating force in the pick-and-roll. Giving him unimpeded momentum to the basket is a recipe for disaster, so point guards often find clear lanes with every on-ball screen; improving any player with an ability to turn the corner and a modicum of playmaking ability in a similar-but-stylistically-different way to what Dirk Nowitzki does for J.J. Barea and the Dallas Mavericks.
Like Jackson, Smith is one of the best in the NBA at penetrating and attacking the defense, averaging 11.1 drives per game, the fourth highest mark in the league last year. This ability allowed him to develop great, almost instantaneous chemistry with big men like Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor with the Philadelphia 76ers, and Anthony Davis with the New Orleans Pelicans.
|AD + Ish On||52.8||58.0||28.9||1.20||51.6|
|AD + Holiday On||54.4||59.0||28.9||1.19||52.7|
|Noel + Ish On||55.6||57.6||20.4||1.06||55.5|
|Noel On/Ish Off||46.2||49.0||19.6||0.89||46.2|
|Okafor + Ish On||60.3||61.2||28.9||1.13||60.1|
|Okafor On/Ish Off||47.5||51.0||28.3||1.02||47.3|
Davis’ numbers alongside Jrue Holiday, a better-but-similar attacking guard, were almost in line with his output when paired with Ish Smith. Davis experienced a slight decline in shooting percentages, but his usage remained stable and his points per possession were actually slightly better with Smith. Most importantly, the step down in the level of quality individually from Holiday to Smith didn’t adversely impact his efficiency or alter Davis’ role as Smith was able to keep him from taking on an increased playmaking role or having to create a greater percentage of his own offense.
In Philadelphia, the lack of competent guard play prior to Smith’s arrival made a huge difference in the performance of Noel and Okafor. Their levels of play showed a stark contrast in quality with and without Smith. Despite minor upticks in their usage, both players benefited from receiving more assisted baskets alongside Smith. Noel saw his assisted field goal percentage jump from 61.7 percent to 70.7 percent with Smith, and Okafor saw a similar jump, from 35.6 percent to 47.7 percent.
His proficiency at feeding roll men for easy opportunities eventually forced defenders to collapse on his drives. In these situations, Smith was willing and able to find open players on the perimeter for spot-up jumpers or attack rotating defenders off the dribble.
|Gordon + Ish On||52.4||57.6||22.9||1.20||43.8|
|Gordon + Holiday On||50.0||53.7||18.0||1.13||39.3|
|Anderson + Ish On||49.7||53.9||26.4||1.10||42.5|
|Anderson + Holiday On||49.8||53.7||22.9||1.15||42.4|
|Covington + Ish On||53.1||57.1||20.9||1.1||39.7|
|Covington On/Ish Off||48.6||53||23||1.04||38.4|
|Stauskas + Ish On||50.2||54.8||15.1||1.07||39.6|
|Stauskas On/Ish Off||47||49.7||17.4||1.01||37.9|
Many of the perimeter players he played with in New Orleans (Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson) and Philadelphia (Robert Covington and Nik Stauskas) benefited from his penetration. In New Orleans, both Gordon and Anderson saw their usage increase while they shared the floor with Smith, a function of him operating more strictly as a facilitator with the Pelicans and their superior shot creation, whereas in Philadelphia he was tasked with shouldering more of the scoring burden.
It’s very likely the Pistons’ offense will slip in Jackson’s absence despite Smith’s talents as a facilitator. While he helps others maintain or improve their efficiency in optimal roles by helping to create quality shots for them, his extreme inefficiencies as a scorer are certain to have a negative impact when forced to create for himself. There’s also the fact that without Jackson, the Pistons will again be short on capable ball handlers.
However, his similarities to Jackson stylistically will allow him to seamlessly fit into the steady diet of high pick-and-rolls with Drummond which fuel their offense. Rather than moribund possessions, resulting in Marcus Morris or Tobias Harris mid-range pull ups or ill-fated Drummond post-ups, often the result last season in Jackson’s absence, the offense should continue to flow and keep everybody in the lanes in which they are most productive.
More importantly, when Jackson returns, Smith will prevent bench-heavy lineups from getting smoked as often as it did last season; keeping the Pistons at least competitive until the starters return.
With Brandon Jennings missing the beginning of last season while recovering from an Achilles injury and eventually being traded at the deadline in the deal for Harris, Detroit was forced to rely on the corpse of Steve Blake to facilitate the offense whenever Jackson was off the floor. Blake struggled tremendously, unable to create for himself or others. As a result, the offense sputtered, going from an excellent 109.6 offensive rating with Jackson on the floor, to 103.1 with Blake in his stead.
This often had a negative impact on last summer’s key additions, rookie Stanley Johnson, a young, athletic 2/3 wing, and free agent Aron Baynes as a back-up center to fill in behind Drummond. Both struggled to perform up to par when asked to take on greater responsibility in facilitating for others or creating for themselves, an issue that also extended to almost all returning major rotation players and starters.
|Baynes + Jackson On||52.1||59.3||16.0||1.12||52.1|
|Baynes On/Jackson Off||50.5||55.2||20.8||1.07||50.5|
|Johnson + Jackson On||54.7||56.4||15.3||1.07||47.2|
|Johnson On/Jackson Off||39||42.7||22||0.85||34.1|
|Drummond + Jackson On||53.3||50.4||25.2||1.01||53.3|
|Drummond On/Jackson Off||48.8||47.7||27.7||0.93||48.5|
|Harris + Jackson On||54.9||59.7||18.7||1.25||49.8|
|Harris On/Jackson Off||45.9||53.1||26.9||1.11||42.1|
|Caldwell-Pope + Jackson On||48.2||51.9||17.1||1.08||41.5|
|Caldwell-Pope On/Jackson Off||47.6||52.4||23.3||1.11||42.1|
|Morris + Jackson On||49.8||54.3||17.2||1.1||43.1|
|Morris On/Jackson Off||48||51.5||25.3||1.02||43.9|
With the exception of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, every returning rotation player saw their eFG%, TS%, points per possession (PPP) and FG% decrease when Jackson was off the floor, to varying degrees, with an uptick in their usage. Without anybody to get the team into their offense or create off the dribble, others had to pick up the slack and virtually all struggled to do so adequately.
Rather than thrusting role players like Johnson and Baynes into situations where they shoulder major offensive responsibilities, they will be able to stay in their comfort zones.
Baynes, as a solid screen setter and roll man with a soft touch from mid-range, should be a perfect pick-and-roll foil for Smith’s drive heavy game; and Johnson will be able to eat off of spot-ups, take advantage of driving lanes or off ball cuts around that action instead of having to create off the bounce against a set defense.
Smith should also dovetail nicely with the Pistons’ summer additions of Jon Leuer and Boban Marjanovic. Leuer thrives as a pick-and-pop big that can stretch the floor beyond the arc similar to Ryan Anderson, while Boban is an absolute force once he gets rolling toward the rim. Both provide contrasts in style, but fall very much under the archetype of players Smith has previously formed productive partnerships with.
Ish Smith certainly isn’t a perfect solution given his issues to score efficiently or shoot effectively from the perimeter and his size and slight frame make him a defensive liability. However, for a Pistons team devoid of any capable ball handlers and facilitators aside from Jackson, Smith addressed a major need at a reasonable price.
Until Jackson returns though, Ish will have the chance to prove the former journeyman is quite a bit more than just a capable back-up.
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