One of the biggest surprises of the NBA pre-season is the play of the New Orleans back-up, sometimes starting point guard Ishmael Smith. This perhaps comes as no surprise though to most Wake Forest fans, especially those that have followed Smith and the NBA in the past five years. Smith finished second in Wake Forest history in assists, and became the first freshman in ACC history to lead the league in assists.
The former Wake Forest Demon Deacon floor general currently ranks 4th in the NBA in assists, including an 18 points, 10 assist night vs. former Wake Forest point guard Jeff Teague last night in Atlanta. Teague also recorded a double-double, the 43rd of his career, with a 14 point, 10 assist night of his own.
In fact, Ish Smith, Jeff Teague, and Chris Paul all rank in the top nine in the NBA in assists through the first two weeks of the season.
While Teague and Paul were first round draft picks and have enjoyed sustained success in the Association, the same is not true of Ish Smith. Although he was a highly talented player during his four years at Wake Forest, Smith went undrafted in the 2010 NBA Draft before being picked up by the Houston Rockets.
The last five years have seen Smith play for nine teams in nine different cities in the NBA. He also had a short stay in the NBDL with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (Houston-affiliate).
Coming into this year he averaged 12.3 minutes per game, yielding 3.6 points per game, and 2.3 assists per game.
Albeit a small sample size through eight games, given a chance to produce Smith has been electric so far for the Pelicans, averaging 10.1 points, but more importantly 8.4 assists per game in 28.4 MPG.
He has done this while recording just 2 turnovers per game, tied with Ricky Rubio for the lowest of any of the top 20 assist per game leaders in the league. A 4 to 1 assist to turnover ratio is very good, and an asset to any team.
Smith also ranks fourth in the NBA in points created for a team through their assists, trailing only Russell Westbrook, John Wall, and Rajon Rondo. The three names right behind him are: T.J. McConnell, Ricky Rubio, and Chris Paul. He also ranks 6th in the NBA among players that play 20 MPG in Assist to Pass Percentage at 13.7% (13.7% of his passes lead to assists).
The impact that Smith is having this season isn't lost on his coach Alvin Gentry either:
"He’s accomplished a lot in the short time he’s been here," Gentry said of the 27-year-old. "He’s trying to play very unselfishly and has done a good job of getting AD the ball wherever we have drawn up plays. We couldn’t ask him to do more. I think he plays extremely hard and competitive. We’ve just got to hang in there and keep plugging away."
The great thing about Ish Smith isn't that he is succeeding in the NBA, it is that he is doing so with such an infectiously positive attitude. In watching Pelicans games this year I have heard several times the announcers talk about his "team-first" mentality, and his consistent effort that just outshines everybody else. This speaks volumes about his character and what guys in the NBA think of him.
New Orleans is an ideal situation for Smith because he is backing up Jrue Holiday, who is currently on a nightly minutes restriction, and usually does not play (or plays sparingly) on the second night of back-to-back games. This exposure for an NBA journeyman is extremely valuable, as well as the opportunity for GM's to see the impact that he brings with each game.
He utilizes his speed and quick change of pace to consistently get by his (often times) bigger defender and find the unlikely pass to an open corner three or wing shot. He has shown consistency in getting to the rim and drawing defenders off of players to free them up and run the offense effectively. New Orleans is a team that has struggled in the early season, but was thought pre-season to be a playoff candidate in the Western Conference.
Once Anthony Davis gets back to full health and form I fully expect Smith to continue these numbers and contribute throughout the year as an integral cog in their machine.
While his shooting woes and possible defensive shortcomings are notable, Smith can be a powerful impact for contending teams off of the bench. He needs to continue to get more confident around the rim and learn to finish among the trees instead of always relying on the kickout for the three. I expect more playing time and minutes under his belt will get him more comfortable and closer to where he needs to be.
Since he is on a one year deal Smith will hit the market next year as an unrestricted free agent. With the expanded cap room and continued television money the NBA brings in it is not unreasonable to believe that Smith can land a 2-3 year deal as a backup point guard somewhere in the $5 to $10M range.
That contract, along with the NBA pension (hit after three years and annually pays out approximately $57K a year from retirement through age 62), will set Ish for life from a money standpoint.
It turns out that in the NBA Ish Smith is exactly the same guy that he was at Wake Forest: a great teammate, the consummate professional, and a guy that everybody wants to see succeed. We here at Blogger So Dear are extremely proud of what he has done and hope that he continues to make himself and fans alike prouder with each game.