PHOENIX — NBA journeymen are common.
NBA journeymen with major flaws but dynamic and refined skill sets are more rare. Those usually turn into role players, and Ish Smith may have become just that this past season.
There’s not a big market in the NBA for undersized backup point guards who can’t shoot, and it explains why the Phoenix Suns’ Smith played for five teams in his first three NBA seasons.
By the end of his fourth year, Smith became the other, other, other surprise move in the Suns’ offseason — the one that wasn’t acquiring Eric Bledsoe or trading Marcin Gortat and then Luis Scola. It seemed like a financial matter when Smith and Slava Kravtsov were included in a deal with the Milwaukee Bucks for Caron Butler — Phoenix saved $5.5 million in cap space.
The surprise was Smith fitting in so well, giving the Suns the leeway to officially wipe away the selection of 2013 first-round pick Kendall Marshall with the Gortat trade to Washington.
“I think so Kendall couldn’t guard him, he was too slow,” starting point guard Goran Dragic said in mid-February, hinting to the other side of what won Smith the third point guard spot on the Suns. “Ish, he can get inside the paint. And when you get there, you have so many options. You can score, you can pass out. He can push the ball.”
Smith’s averages of 3.7 points and 2.6 assists were modest, but his 70 games played and 14.4 minutes per outing were by far career highs. The Wake Forest product, for the first time in his career, fit into a role on a winning team after most recently serving as a backup on sub-.500 teams in Milwaukee and Orlando.
“Individually we all got better,” Smith said after the season. “I know I did. It was something for me to build on for next year and what I need to do to take my game from being good to the next step.”
Smith became part of the self-labeled Bench Mob, and he was more than an insurance point guard on a team that early on heavily rode Dragic and Bledsoe. Smith became a staple in the Suns’ lineup once Bledsoe went down with his meniscus tear to start the 2014 calendar year. When Smith earned nearly 20 minutes per game in February, he averaged 6.8 points, 1.2 steals and 3.3 assists on 50 percent shooting.
While his height limited his potential scoring at the rim and his quirky jumper wasn’t good enough to do more than keep defenses honest, Smith used his scoring inability to become a unique player to guard.
A water-bug style and exceptional ball-handling skills allowed Smith to poke and prod defenses in the halfcourt. He was often whirling between defenders who knew he wasn’t going to shoot, then stretching defenses until opponents got caught watching or a weakside defender came just far enough off a jump shooter. Smith was in the top-15 of NBA rotation players in terms of his assist ratio, dolling out dimes on a third of his own possessions, according to NBA.com.
But he was at his best in the full court.
“I’m like Ricky Bobby,” Smith said this year. “I want to go fast.”
— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) January 23, 2014
When the Suns got stale, Smith was inserted to shake them awake. Smith was a terror with the ball in the fullcourt and it helped he was a fine rebounder considering his size. Even when teams thought they’d cut off Smith’s advance and force him to pull the ball out to wait for a secondary break, he’d work his patented hesitation move, relaxing and using a head-fake before changing direction to blow by a defender.
Smith shot just 42 percent from the field in 2013-14, and his jumper — including its slow release — showed signs of slight improvements, but there’s more work to be done in the offseason.
“Consistent shooting is the biggest thing,” Smith said. “Tony Parker and those guys took their game to the next level when they were able to knock down their mid-range jumper, so I think that is the biggest thing for me this summer.”
The lack of jump shooting by Smith signaled that Marshall’s broken jumper wasn’t the make-or-break trait often cited as his biggest flaw. Perhaps Marshall’s lack of defensive ability had more to do with it.
As the Suns moved on with Smith instead of their first round pick, it was hard to tell if Phoenix benefitted more from the change-up look Smith provided on offense, or if it was his hovering, fullcourt defense that helped them most. According to Basketball-Reference, Smith’s win share total of 1.0 this year came all on the defensive end and per 36 minutes he averaged 1.8 steals, the same as Bledsoe. Offensively, his assist-to-turnover ratio was better than both of the Suns’ starting guards, and per 36 he averaged 6.4 assists to the 6.0 flat averaged by each of Dragic and Bledsoe.
What comes of Smith this summer is hard to say. He has a non-guaranteed contract that, if picked up, will pay him a base salary just below $1 million. He’ll train in Phoenix this summer and could spend another season as a value backup. That, or he’ll lose minutes as the third guard to Archie Goodwin. The Suns could also draft another talented point guard; they met with Marcus Smart and Dante Exum, among others, at the draft combine.
After a solid taste of watching Smith’s unique talents this past season, Phoenix very well could consider bringing him back.
Smith has always had confidence, he says. But for the first time, he proved that he’s not ready to become another borderline NBA talent that flamed out after too many stints on the back ends of too many rosters.
“We all want to be back,” Smith said. “This sounds super cliché, but I never been on a team like this. Whenever we did things we all did them together, it was kind of like high school. You were out there playing for each other and having fun and doing everything together.”