Well-traveled Ish Smith a ‘perfect fit’ with the 76ers – USA TODAY

7 months ago Comments Off on Well-traveled Ish Smith a ‘perfect fit’ with the 76ers – USA TODAY

BROOKLYN — When the Philadelphia 76ers made their big in-season move this season — acquiring Ish Smith to solidify a badly underperforming offense after a 1-30 start — few saw the move as more than just cosmetic. And for Smith? Well, he just didn’t want to screw it up.

“I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t want it to look bad,” Smith said. “I wanted to be better than I was last year. And so there’s still another level I want to get to these last 15, 16 games. And I’m constantly pushing.”

What’s happened since didn’t turn the Sixers into a playoff team — but the improvement is undeniable. He has been better than last season and is having the best season of his career.

Even with Jahlil Okafor sidelined by a knee injury, the combination of Smith’s running game with coach Brett Brown’s effort to use pace to mask mistakes with his young team continues to pay dividends that make the price paid for Smith — a pair of second-round picks — seem worthwhile in terms of development, not just improving the current product.

“We like to play fast, and if he’s anything, he’s fast,” Brown said. “So at times, we play fast for different reasons. We play fast to avoid having to run perfect halfcourt execution in a slow game. We don’t feel like that’s our strength. We feel like we have a bunch of young guys who like to get out and run. He does that as well as anybody. So I think the marriage between how we want to play offense and what he brings to the table, especially athletically with his speed is a perfect fit.”

But while it is easy to dismiss Smith’s efforts in Philly as a symbol of just how badly things were going before he returned for his second stint with the team, it is worth noting just how solid his numbers are compared to the rest of the league, not simply who he replaced with the Sixers.

Smith has an assist percentage of 39.2, good for sixth in the NBA, behind Minnesota Timberwolves’ Ricky Rubio and ahead of Jrue Holiday, his former teammate with the New Orleans Pelicans. His offensive game is better than before, and not just his totals — his true shooting percentage is 45%, and he’s hitting threes at a 32% rate since arriving in Philly.

The coincidence between Smith’s increased role — the 1,236 minutes he’s played since coming to Philadelphia midyear is more than he’s played in any previous total season — isn’t merely chance, Smith believes. Neither, however, are the many stops he’s made since going undrafted out of Wake Forest in 2010 — the Houston Rockets, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Golden State Warriors, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Phoenix Suns, the Rockets again, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Pelicans, the Washington Wizards, the Sixers, the Pelicans again, and now the Sixers. This time, it seems, for more than a moment.

“Opportunity is everything, as you know,” Smith said. “And I think bouncing around helped me develop my ability to score the basketball. Playing behind Russell Westbrook and Kyle Lowry, some of the best point guards in the league now, absolutely helped me develop my offensive game. Being a passer, that’s always been my niche. But I’ve developed a whole lot since college.”

NBA power rankings: Heat rising

Neither Smith nor Brown are blind to the ways Smith can and should improve. But it is easy to dismiss him as a journeyman, forever cast in the role of roster filler, and ignore just how much he’s managed to grow his own game already, how seamlessly he’s fit into what the Sixers need him to be, and wonder at 27 just what Ish Smith can be in the NBA going forward.

“He’s older, he’s been around me before,” Brown said. “I think he’s trying to figure out his own future as well. And from a personality standpoint, from a talent standpoint, he’s been a really good addition. I think that his free throw percentage can improve, and has. I think his three-point percentage can improve, and has. I think that challenging him always to guard, keep the game in front of him, and try to find a way to mess it up with the havoc he can apply to other point guards while still being solid with us has improved.”

Smith echoed these areas, noting that “all those things that take you from being really good to being elite. Efficiency. As you continue to play, you get better at those things.”

At least for the next 12 games or so, Smith should get the chance to do just that. And so while he lit up at the idea of what his basketball life might look like five years from now — no doubt, partly because of how glorious it feels to know he can have a basketball life in the NBA in five years — he’s not ready to make any predictions about it.

“Oh man, that’s a good question,” Smith said. He considered it. “If you’d have asked me that my rookie year, I’d have wanted to be where I am now. I wouldn’t have known it would take that long. And I didn’t know the road was going to be traveled as much. Now? For me it’s just day-by-day, what’s the next step. How to get better, minute-by-minute, game-by-game, practice-by-practice.”

Or as Brown summarized his increasingly prized acquisition: “All over the place, I feel like it’s a really good fit for us, a really good fit for him, and I see growth.”

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Well-traveled Ish Smith a ‘perfect fit’ with the 76ers – USA TODAY

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