Ish Smith might not be “The Answer,” but he’s definitely part of it.
On Christmas Eve, a seemingly minor trade was made between the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Orleans Pelicans. The 76ers surrendered two second round picks, and in return, the Pelicans sent journeyman point guard Ish Smith. This seems, as noted, quite minor. It isn’t. For all of Smith’s defensive shortcomings and inconsistent shooting from range, he fills a glaring need on this Philadelphia roster.
Aside from Smith, Philadelphia simply doesn’t employ a starting-caliber point guard. Isaiah Canaan has averaged two assists for his career, and three-point attempts per game (6.4) make up about 70% of his total shot attempts (9.4).
T.J. McConnell, while indeed a capable passer, has rather sub-standard physical tools (6‘2 with a 6‘0 wingspan) and minimal upside. He certainly belongs in the NBA, but provides neither the explosiveness nor athleticism to provide any off-the dribble scoring. Kendall Marshall falls under the same category. He is undoubtedly a talented passer, but his lack of athleticism and penetration ability limits his effectiveness as a lead-guard. Enter Smith.
Smith, while not a great shooter, does get to the rim quite well, as evidenced by his fair number of field goal attempts within 16 feet of the rim.
This isn’t Smith’s first go-around on the 76ers roster. He was there as early as last year, actually, before falling prey to Sam Hinkie’s (in)famous process and being allowed to leave as a free agent.
When he was there, he posted career highs in every category: 12 ppg, 6.1 apg, 2.9 rpg, and 1.3 spg in 27 minutes per game. Most notably, however, he posted a 44.1% assist percentage. Assist percentage measures the amount of teammate points a given player assisted on in his time on the floor. This number would be the highest in the league this season, three full points ahead of passing savants Ricky Rubio and Rajon Rondo.
One player on the 76ers who will certainly be happy to share the floor with Smith once again is currently-struggling big man Nerlens Noel. In an interview last season, Noel said “I love Ish. He’s honestly, [in] my whole life, the first true point guard I ever played with. He’s helped me.” The two developed instantaneous chemistry, resulting in numerous highlight plays.
This statement was further bolstered by Noel’s string of breakout performances following Smith’s first arrival last season. In 17 games played in March 2015, Noel scored 243 points, corralled 190 rebounds, and posted 41 blocked shots and 35 steals. Only he and Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon have averaged such numbers in a month, dating back to the 1985-86 season.
Noel has looked uncomfortable at times this season, playing power forward next to Jahlil Okafor. While he’s averaging similar numbers to last season, he’s doing so less efficiently, lending to some correlation between Smith’s presence and his offensive performance.
Coincidentally (or perhaps not), in Smith’s first game back with the Sixers, they won their second game of the season against the Phoenix Suns. Noel had one of his best games of the season to date, contributing 14 points on 6-7 shooting, along with 11 rebounds, three steals, and two blocks.
Canaan was able to play his more natural role of scorer, contributing 22 points and taking his usual number of exorbitant three-point attempts without necessarily hurting the offense. Smith contributed a steady 14 points and five assists, displaying his capability to effectively move the ball around and contribute points of his own. They didn’t need Canaan to look for others, they needed him to do what he’s always done regardless: fire away.
The Sixers have been a franchise that has oscillated between mediocrity and downright putridity since the departure of icon Allen Iverson. Hinkie has, if nothing else, accumulated some intriguing talent in the form of various big men. Big men need capable passing in order to find their shots. One expects Smith’s play to expedite this process, establishing himself as their clear-cut starting point guard in the interim.
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