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Jan. 27, 2010
By Bill Hass
First, his speed. Wake Forest’s senior point guard can receive an inbound pass and run from end line to end line, finishing with a layup, faster than it takes most people to turn their head. It’s his best asset, one his mother always knew would separate him from other players.
“I’ve always been really fast,” Smith said, “and she used to tell all my aunts and all her friends that my speed was going to be something that I needed to utilize to be special.”
In elementary school Smith always loved to race. During recess he would take on fast challengers with more than just bragging rights at stake.
“After we raced we played basketball and the winner would get first pick,” he explained. “There was a kid who was really fast and you had to be right there to see which one of us won. For the most part, I won.”
Telling that brings a smile to Smith’s face, a common occurrence. It lights up just about any time during a game, from timeouts to a pause in the action to running down the court after the Deacons have made a good play. It’s the mark of someone playing the game he loves with sheer joy.
But don’t misread his smile. He wants to beat you any way he can.
“One thing my parents told me was you can smile, but if you’re out there you’d better be a competitor and compete,” he said.
There’s no doubt about that. Smith plays hard, every game and every practice.
“That kid practices hard all the time,” said Deacons coach Dino Gaudio. “I think that’s why you see the productivity out of him on game nights.”
That approach – you practice how you play – was instilled in Smith by his father and reinforced by coaches in middle school and high school in Concord, N.C. It’s so second nature to him that he never thinks about it.
“I love this game,” he said. “Every time you pick up a basketball you should want to play hard because it could be your last (time).”
Smith has the stamina to match his energy. He is averaging 35.9 minutes per game, second among ACC players to Duke’s Jon Scheyer, who averages one-tenth of a minute more. In conference games Smith’s number jumps to 38.3 minutes, a shade ahead of Virginia Tech’s Malcolm Delaney (38.2) and Scheyer (38.0).
You might think such a pace would wear Smith down, but so far he has shown no signs of fatigue. Well, none that the public sees.
“Coach Gaudio always messes with me and says ‘the great ones never get tired,’” Smith said. “I want to work hard and play hard to be considered a great one. I do get tired sometimes, but not often. If I do, (the coaches) do a pretty good job of pulling me out and resting me.”
Opposing coaches no doubt wish Smith would get tired more often. They can’t simulate his relentless pace in practice.
“He puts so much pressure on your transition defense,” said Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, whose team will try to contain Smith Thursday night. “He gets the ball out from baseline to baseline faster than anybody in the league and maybe faster than anybody in the country.”
Hewitt said that any past success his teams have had against fast guards doesn’t guarantee anything in this game.
“You’ve got to do it each possession;” he said. “Just because you did it before doesn’t mean you can do it again. Just because you did it the first half doesn’t mean you can do it the second half.
“He’s going to keep coming at you. It’s a 40-minute proposition and you’ve got to make sure you keep him under control, and transition is the first thing you’ve got to worry about.”
Smith doesn’t look to blaze the ball down the court every possession. He’ll change things up so he’s not giving defenses the same dose every trip.
“Usually I try to give them something different,” he said, “maybe come down and kick it up (to another player), maybe set up a play, and then a couple possessions later push it up.”
When he does see an opening after an opponent has scored, he’s like a running back hitting a hole. He’ll use brush screens set by his big men to accelerate through a seam.
“If I see an opening, I’m taking it,” he said. “That’s the main thing I’m looking for if there’s a slim opening, one-on-one, me and my guy. I’m thinking that’s the toughest thing to guard, a guy coming at you full speed and (the defender is) backpedaling.”
There’s such a thing as playing too fast, which Smith admits he often did as a freshman. Deacons’ coach Skip Prosser and his assistants, including Gaudio, used to tell Smith to put on the brakes. Playing under control has been an ongoing development.
“When I got in the league it was one speed and coach Prosser used to always tell me ‘you got to put on the brakes a little bit,’” Smith said. “I played fast all the time, so as I got older it came with age. You play with different pace, learn how to use your speed, change directions.”
Smith’s game has matured, and he is able to recognize situations and change gears.
“He has really done a good job of learning when he doesn’t have the break,” Gaudio said. “He’s done a terrific job as of late of maintaining his dribble, pulling the ball back out and getting us in our half-court offense.”
Smith was particularly good at doing that in wins over Gonzaga and Virginia, not so good in losses to Purdue and Duke. He knows that, but he doesn’t let a bad game bother him. In fact, he has progressed to not letting a negative play bother him by developing what Gaudio calls a short memory. “If he makes a mistake, he doesn’t dwell on it,” Gaudio said. “He’s not a very good free throw shooter at times … but those times he misses free throws, you never see it affect his defense, his offense, him running the ball up the floor. In that sense, he’s a really mature basketball kid on the floor for us.”
Smith said that as a freshman, making a turnover would lead to more turnovers, so he learned to make sure he got back on defense and made something positive happen. He has even managed to put aside his erratic free throw shooting – 29.1 percent as a sophomore, 78.9 percent as a junior, 49.1 percent this year. The point is, he has learned over the course of his career not to let those misses affect the rest of his game.
Smith was a starter as a freshman and sophomore but injured his foot in preseason practice last year. He missed the first two games and his role changed significantly as he adjusted to coming off the bench. Still, he played some of his best basketball and even reacted to the injury in a way not many players would.
“I feel like things happen for a reason and maybe if I don’t get hurt, everybody doesn’t see how good Jeff Teague is,” Smith said. “Who knows if everybody would have seen his full potential.”
After sharing the ball last season, and with Teague gone to the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, there was never any doubt who was running Wake’s show this season. Smith has responded with the best basketball of his career, helping the Deacons to records of 14-4 overall and 4-2 in the ACC.
“I just have tremendous trust in him,” Gaudio said. “I want the ball in his hands. He’s really playing at a high level, I think as good as anybody at the point guard spot in the country.”
While still distributing the ball (5.9 assists per game), Smith has increased his scoring from single digits to 13.5 points this season. He scores a lot by attacking the basket on those end-to-end drives and has recorded at least 20 points in three of his last six games.
“Overall I’m going to do what it takes to win,” he said, “and on that specific night if I have to score that amount of points, I hope I can get some different shots to go. If I scored six points and had 15 assists and we won, I’d feel I did my job as a point guard.”
Like any good player, Smith is constantly looking to improve his game and his team’s performance. He said Prosser taught him to accept the responsibility if his team loses because that goes with being a point guard.
He thinks this year’s team is more closely knit than any during his four years, a factor that may help in getting past the postseason doldrums the Deacons have fallen into recently. After all, this is his last trip around. Opinion varies on Smith’s future as a pro player, but he believes it would be selfish of him to think much about that while there’s the rest of the season to play.
“I will tell you this, you do have that sense of urgency,” he said. “This is it and if we’re going to do it, we’ve got to do it now.
“Hopefully I can continue to get better and just continue to reach for the sky individually and collectively as a team. I think we can really go far.”
As fast as the smiling Ish Smith can take them.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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