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NBA

Sometimes You Just Need Ish Smith

Ish Smith #10 of the Charlotte Hornets in action against Bruce Brown #1 of the Brooklyn Nets during a game at Barclays Center on October 24, 2021 in New York City.
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

For reasons that have nothing—really, nothing, not a single thing, would I ever lie to you?—to do with Cory Joseph and the generally dreary current state of the Detroit Pistons basketball organization, if such a thing can even be called an organization—but wait, no, no, this is not a blog about my own doomed fandom—I’ve been thinking wistfully this week about production off the bench, and one bench producer in particular. 

That would be Ish Smith, the 6-foot-tall Hornets backup you have likely seen scurrying past larger and slower players en route to the rim and then, dribble intact, U-turning around the basket to find some incredibly goofy midrange jumper he can take instead. The goofiness, the brazenness, of these shots cannot be overstated, but they do sometimes fall. Case in point: Sunday afternoon, when Smith played so well against the Nets that the point guard he’d been brought in to back up, LaMelo Ball, elected to cede all of his fourth-quarter playing time to him. “Melo damn near told Coach—he told Coach, he was like, ‘Leave him in the game,’” Miles Bridges said in the postgame press conference, reassuring reporters who wondered whether they should read anything into the team’s young and cool cornerstone player not logging a single minute in that quarter. Hornets head coach James Borrego spun Ball’s sacrifice as a sign of maturity. “He said, ‘Just ride out Ish. Ish is hot, Ish is rolling. I trust it. Let’s go.’” And who could blame Ball for wanting to sit back and watch? As the Hornets’ too-excitable broadcaster put it, Smith is “as quick as small-town gossip.” Eleven of Smith’s 15 points came in that fourth quarter, as did some other fun moves: this neat little pass to Kelly Oubre and a block on Patty Mills that went over very well with the Hornets bench. I’d call this “the quarter of his life” were I not wised up to Ish Smith’s rather charming deal by now. The feverish spells don’t represent some departure from his baseline so much as they form it.

I say you’ve likely seen Smith because the odds he has scurried in the service of whichever basketball team you like are quite high. A depressing number of headlines in different newspapers over the years announce that the undrafted guard has “finally found a home.” The first five or six seasons of his career were a cobbled-together mess of non-guaranteed contracts and training camp cameos. When Smith signed a two-year deal with Charlotte in the offseason, the Hornets became the 12th team he’d played for, tying him for the record of NBA’s most journeyed journeyman. His is hardly an enviable distinction; still, he prefers his path to the alternative, as he sees it. “I looked at it like so many people are out (of the NBA), but they try to get in,” Smith told The Athletic in a Q&A four years and two teams ago. “For me, I looked at it like I was just always in. I would always talk to my old agent, Raymond Brothers, like, ‘Man, we’re still in.'”

That fundamental paradox of his career—uninterrupted in one sense but also constantly interrupted in every other sense—is funny to reconcile. It’s easy to see why an NBA coach might adore him. On the Defector basketball chat’s proprietary “Run Real Hard A Lot” (RRHAL) metric, he ranks high. Whether he is good, per se, is another question. But it’s another kind of talent to always be immune to whatever’s ailing the rest of the team on a bad shooting night, and that’s what he does best. I recall many, many games in Smith’s three years in Detroit where it seemed like he was the only one keeping the Pistons alive. The Sixers traded for him in the 2015-16 season and became instantly, comically better; they were 1-30 without him and then won 6 of the first 15 games he played.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, sure. I do remember his inefficient nights being excruciating. Too Much Ish Smith is a very real thing—I have witnessed it—and the man himself seems to have no sense of when those levels have been reached. Monday night’s Hornets game against the Celtics featured both the highs and the lows of the Ish Smith experience: an outrageous midrange jumper he’d made while basically sandwiched between two Celtics, and an airballed three in crunch time.

Seeing scattered tweets from Hornets fans newly delighted by him or the ones from Wizards fans when he was in Washington last year—how to describe that warm feeling? It’s like hearing someone else has just read and liked a book you read and liked a while ago, too. Finally, here is someone else to talk about it with. This is just a blog to say I miss Ish Smith, hope he’s well, and wish every fan of every team the chance to root for a guy like this: trying very hard, sometimes a little too hard, and happy to be here.