After years leading the locker room for the Charlotte Hornets, our sweet prince Bismack Biyombo has made his departure from The Hive (at least for now). There are few NBA players better fit to fill the void of veteran leadership and locker room presence than Ish Smith, the vet point guard coming home to his native Charlotte to play for his league-record-tying 12th-career NBA team.
As NBA fans, we often talk about “role definition” and how that factors into a player’s ability to succeed and fulfill their potential on a given team within the role they’ve been assigned. Throughout his career, Smith has had a clearly-defined role; of the 654 games he’s played in, 166 of them were starts (about 25 percent, mostly in Detroit, Philadelphia and Washington) and has never been a multi-positional player. The man is a true point guard, and lasting as a role-player in the NBA for a decade speaks to how damn good he is.
There won’t be a player on the Hornets at the start of this season whose job description is more clear — Smith is second on the depth chart to the face of the franchise, LaMelo Ball, who is sure to eat up a high majority of the minutes at point guard. All the team needs from him is replacement-level production to make up for the loss of Devonte’ Graham as the second unit initiator and to show leadership both on and off the court, and he’s displayed that ability over the past few seasons.
Smith’s style of play actually supplements a decent chunk of what the Hornets are losing with the departure of Graham and Malik Monk. He’s a lightning-quick, aggressive, downhill driver with a helping of tricks to pull out of his bag once he’s taken up residence in the lane, both as a playmaker and finisher, which helps shore up the offensive spark that was lost with Monk.
His career 3-point percentage is 32.2 percent, but that’s a misleading number; over the past two seasons Smith has hit 36.7 percent of his threes on 2.7 attempts per 36 minutes, and he’s become an excellent shooter off the catch and from above the break. Over the same period, he knocked down 40 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples and 39 percent of his attempts from above the break per Cleaning The Glass, two skills Graham possessed which helped space out the Hornets’ offense. He’s not a “shooter” in simple terms, but as he ages and presumably loses a bit of that burst, his improving ability to space the floor and knock down spot-up threes will help elongate his career.
Weirdly enough, the 6-foot Smith is a pretty good shot-blocker, though his defensive ability is limited by the aforementioned height. He’s consistently been above the 90th percentile in block percentage relative to his position per Cleaning The Glass and averages about two stocks (1.3 steals and 0.4 blocks combined into one stat) per 36 minutes. He’s certainly not a “bad” defender — backup point guards are rarely called upon for lockdown point-of-attack defense anyways — but his size limits him as on-ball and though he’s a smart defender off-ball with a 6-foot-5 wingspan (Crafted NBA has him at 2 deflections per 36 minutes), there’s only so much Smith can be expected to do on that end.
Perhaps most importantly, Smith adds to the dynamic group of veteran leaders in Charlotte’s locker room. First, there’s Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier, both of whom are high-level players that have earned a boatload of money in their careers; then, Mason Plumlee, a career role-player at center that’s moved around the league a bit in his eight years and also earned a nice chunk of change.
Smith is the oldest, the most traveled and most experienced of the bunch, going undrafted in 2010 while Hayward went ninth overall. He’s garnered a wealth of knowledge and has been through the highs and lows that every non-superstar NBA player is bound to experience in their career, a valuable piece the locker room needed when it became clear that Biyombo and Cody Zeller would be leaving the organization.
This excerpt from Rod Boone’s Sports Illustrated piece on Charlotte’s newcomers says all we need to know about how Smith views himself and his place in the Hornets organization:
“For me, I think leadership and growth and all that stuff is strategic,” Smith said. “You build those relationships. He’s going to teach me a lot, he’s going to show me a lot and vice versa. His skill, his ability to get guys open, I’m a true point guard, I love that. I love watching him play. I love watching how he pushes the tempo, kicks the ball ahead. He plays with this joy about the game that anybody who’s ever watched me, that’s how I love watching it and love playing the game. So, for me, it’s just seeing what he sees, talking to him. He’s showing me some things and I’m showing him some things and like I said, leadership is very strategic. - Sports Illustrated’s Rod Boone
What the Hornets need from Smith — steady backup point guard play and veteran presence — are things he’s been able to provide to various teams throughout his career, and guys don’t make it through a decade in the association as a role-player without displaying exemplary character and work ethic. The front office that prioritizes culture and high-character individuals backed up their preaching with action this offseason and acquired a player whose fit is clear both on and off the court.
Welcome home, Ish!