On Saturday, Oct. 24, three days before the start of the NBA regular season, 27-year-old guard Ish Smith was finishing up the Washington Wizards’ final preseason practice as he and his teammates prepared for Wednesday’s season opener in Orlando. Then, like he had five times before in his career, Smith got cut.
Smith was one of five players on non-guaranteed contracts waived by Washington that day, an all-too-familiar occurrence for a player who spent his previous five seasons on eight different NBA teams.
But then Smith got lucky.
Team No. 9 called.
“It was the last day of making cuts and New Orleans gave us a call,” Smith told SheridanHoops. “They [the Wizards] had just let me go. It was perfect timing.”
The Pelicans opened their season on Tuesday the 27th at defending champion Golden State, and their backcourt was decimated by injuries. Point guard Jrue Holiday is still on a minutes restriction while recovering from fractures in his leg. Combo guard Tyreke Evans is on the mend following knee surgery. Point guard Norris Cole is dealing with a high ankle sprain. And wing Quincy Pondexter was dealing with a knee ailment of his own. After signing and releasing Nate Robinson, New Orleans called on Smith to help out at point guard.
“Let me get on this plane and jet out,” Smith said after getting the call from NOLA, before something happened, or the Pelicans changed their mind.
The 6-foot, 175-pound Smith had never played big minutes during his career with Houston, Memphis, Golden State, Orlando, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Oklahoma City and Philadelphia, so his expectations for his stint with New Orleans weren’t very high.
“You know how the NBA is, everything is kind of unexpected,” Smith said. “So I just go and play and whatever minutes coach gives me, I try to utilize it as much as I can.”
Smith was actually acquired by New Orleans at last February’s trade deadline but was immediately waived and claimed by Philadelphia. He averaged 12 points and 6.1 assists in 25 games and 14 starts with the Sixers and showed what he could do with extended minutes.
That success he had with Philadelphia has certainly carried over to New Orleans as Smith has made the most of his unexpected opportunity. Just two days after being signed, Smith scored 17 points and dished out nine assists in a loss to Golden State, and he’s been surprisingly brilliant ever since.
Smith is fifth in the NBA in total assists (76) and assists per game (7.6) and third in assist percentage (43.1), which measures the percentage of a team’s field goals a player assists on while on the floor.
“I guess that is an accomplishment,” Smith said with a bashful, unassuming look on his face. “I thank God for that and hopefully I can continue that and get better.”
New Orleans is off to a disastrous 1-9 start due to the team’s many injuries and a defense that is dead last in points allowed per game and points allowed per 100 possessions, but they are 5 1/2 point favorites tonight against Denver at an overseas site with the best online NBA betting.
“Obviously with the restrictions that we’ve had on Jrue and having other guys hurt, we’ve had to have somebody step up,” said New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry. “I think he’s done a good job of doing everything that we’ve asked him to do.”
Smith was essentially asked to learn New Orleans’ offense in about two days. He said Gentry and Holiday have helped him simplify things while he tries to get up to speed during team practices.
“When I first got here, coach was just like ‘Play with good pace, just defend and let our defense fuel our offense,'” Smith said. “We’re still getting better at that, but like I said, I just try to simplify it as much as I can.”
Though Smith has started just two of the team’s 10 games so far, he is averaging 27.2 minutes, more than twice his career norm. With Holiday’s minutes likely to remain curtailed until at least the end of the calendar year, Smith will probably see extended minutes for the foreseeable future.
“He’s been playing really well,” Holiday told SheridanHoops. “He’s definitely taken over that point guard spot, leading in assists and running the team.”
Some players would probably feel awkward or uncomfortable with helping an understudy acclimate to a prominent position on a new team, but Smith was pleasantly surprised by Holiday’s help.
“Jrue’s been great. I thought when I first came in that he was just really quiet, but he’s been super helpful, telling me to kind of pace myself,” Smith said.
Holiday, whose minutes are slowly increasing, said that Smith has adjusted well to earning the bulk of the point guard minutes.
“Whenever he has questions, he just goes up and asks me and the same thing with me, since I’m learning [a new offense] as well,” Holiday said.
Gentry was a top assistant with Golden State last season, when the Warriors led the league in possessions per 48 minutes. After finishing 22nd in the league in that category a season ago, New Orleans is up to seventh this season.
“For the most part, coach wants to play with good pace, push the ball and get out in transition,” Smith said. “If we get stops, our defense fuels our offense and that’s what he really wants.”
While the defense hasn’t really played very well this season – the Pelicans also have had injuries to big men Omer Asik, Alex Ajinca, Kendrick Perkins and superstar Anthony Davis – Smith has been one of New Orleans’ few pleasant surprises this season and one of the feel-good stories across the entire league.
That does not mean, however, that Smith is at all complacent. He has been on too many teams and involved in far too many transactions to be thinking long term. Smith hasn’t thought about renting an apartment in New Orleans just yet, still living out of a hotel room.
“It’s just like living on the road all the time,” Smith said.
While he would prefer some stability, Smith is currently happy in his role while the Pelicans guards get healthy.
“When that time comes, I’ll deal with it,” he said. “I’m just kinda playing and then, like I said, for the most part, just thinking about today.”
Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for SheridanHoops who focuses on analytics, profiles and features. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. You should follow him on Twitter.