Ish Smith is a true study in perseverance. The 27-year-old 76ers point guard has played for nine organizations in his six NBA seasons, including two stints with his current squad.
Surprisingly, he wasn’t retained by the Sixers after a strong finish last year, but made the New Orleans Pelicans opening-day roster and played well when afforded the minutes.
He was then traded to the 76ers on Christmas Eve, when the team was sporting a 1-30 record. Since his arrival, the Sixers had gone 7-14 and he has averaged nearly 16 points and more than seven assists.
We talked to the 6-foot, 175-pound Smith about his resurgent career and what lies ahead in the future.
How has it felt, knowing that you have had such a positive effect on this young team?
Ish Smith: I think they probably have had an equally positive effect on me as I have, the way people said, on them. We are having a lot of fun. We are like 7-14 and playing good basketball and three to four of those games were close, where we lost at the end, and the next step is winning those close ones. I am out there playing and they are trusting me and I am trusting them and we are working well together.
People forget that you had some big moments to start the season when you were with New Orleans. You had 10 or more assists in six games and 17 or more points in seven. How key for you was playing that well when you were able to receive the minutes?
IS: I think that was huge. I think it put a lot of national notoriety for me. I think that people didn’t know who I was because I didn’t play a lot in my first eight or nine teams. So a lot of people didn’t know. We were on national television so much in New Orleans and people were saying ‘who is this kid?’ So you kind of sneak up on people and like I said, New Orleans was a great stop for me.
Were you surprised after the way you finished last season that the 76ers didn’t bring you back?
IS: I am never surprised at anything in my career. Sometimes I thought I was going to be somewhere and they moved me. That is how it goes. I wasn’t too surprised. And really if it wasn’t for New Orleans, I don’t think anybody would know how much better I have gotten.
How much perseverance has been needed to keep moving forward?
IS: Everybody has their own story and I am kind of thankful for my story, because I can help people. I am playing basketball. I am not saving lives. But there are a lot of people out there who are going through hard times and see my story and say that kid kept going, kept persevering. Was it tough going through it? Absolutely. But I was able to hang in there.
I know you are focused on the task at hand, but you are going to be a free agent after this season. There must be suitors for you. Even on this team, you may be like an old man, but at 27 you aren’t that old.
IS: I am not. I have been in league like six years. I call it the Steve Nash thing. He didn’t play much the first three to four years of his career and you have all these miles on your legs. I hope and pray I stay healthy. I don’t even think about that (free agency). I just think about getting better, closing out games. The great ones like Chris Paul and Stephen Curry, those guys have taken the next step. They were really talented and took the next step by closing out games. I have to be a little more efficient and that is my next step.
Speaking of Curry, you two were AAU teammates growing up in North Carolina (for the Charlotte Stars). What kind of backcourt was that?
IS: Steph could always shoot as well as he could. It was unbelievable. It is funny, he kind of transitioned his game from running around shooting threes to now ballhandling. I kind of transitioned my game from ballhandling and speed to now making the mid-range jump shot. That was pretty fun playing with him. Steph could always shoot it and I was always fast and we had a heck of a team. Steph was always the best shooter and I was always the fastest, but we had a lot of talented guys.
With you and Curry, who played point guard?
IS: Our starting point guard was somebody who ended up playing football. I came off the bench and Steph was our shooter. We had a talented group. Dell (Curry) started the team and we had fun as kids and we were enjoying it and it was a great experience.
I read recently that when you were a freshman at Wake Forest, you almost wanted to quit the team. Can you expand on that?
IS: I really did (think of quitting). It was tough my freshman year. I tore a ligament in my thumb and it got hard. Tough times, we lost the Boston College game my freshman year, it was tough. I wasn’t playing well. My mother told me to keep persevering, keep playing. She said this is what you want to do. I ended up playing better basketball down the stretch and it worked out for me.
What is your mindset now compared to when you joined the 76ers for the final 25 games last year?
IS: My mindset before was this is a great opportunity and great chance. At Phoenix, I got to play a little, but this was my first opportunity playing 20-25 minutes a night. Now this year I have to build on what I did last year and get better. Now I have a different mindset. The game kind of slows down a little bit. I still want to be more efficient in everything, shooting, passing scoring, all that stuff. So I got a long way to go with that, but now I am a little more confident.
This is the second year Joel Embiid has missed with injury, but people who have seen him have raved about his skill. What is your impression of him?
IS: He is special. I saw him a little last year. He is big, strong, can shoot it a little bit, can post up. There wasn’t anything on the floor he couldn’t do when I was watching him. He was bringing the ball up, he was special when working out.
Since you returned to the Sixers you have been averaging nearly 16 points and more than seven assists. Have you noticed defenses giving you much more attention?
IS: It’s funny. That is the next step. Earlier, I didn’t get that attention. Now they are being more aggressive. They are grabbing, holding, scratching. I used to go in picks-and-rolls and I was like perfect. I would set and shoot it. Now they are going over, being aggressive pushing through and now you have to get adjusted to that. Now they are putting bigger guys on you. That is just an adjustment and you have to get better. Me and coach talk about it all the time and the next step is being more efficient.
Did living on the edge, not knowing if you would be on a team from week to week, make you stronger?
IS: It did. That is the beauty. Some guys get made different ways. For me it was kind of like persevering. Not knowing, but I always knew when I wasn’t playing that maybe my next step would be the best step and it worked out for me.