Running was never an issue for Ish Smith.
The Charlotte, North Carolina, native grew up dusting the neighborhood kids in footraces and realized at an early age he could sprint past most anyone on a basketball court. He was “blessed,” he’ll tell you, with the kind of speed you can’t teach.
Staying in one place always has been trickier.
The Pelicans’ backup point guard is playing for his ninth NBA team, and this is as wild as any of his five seasons in the league. Waived by Washington at the end of the preseason, he latched on with New Orleans on the eve of opening night. Smith played a significant role early that’s been diminished as injured Pelicans — Tyreke Evans, Norris Cole — have worked their way back into the rotation.
That’s life as an NBA journeyman.
And though Smith probably would prefer the alternative — guaranteed money and major minutes — he’s hardly lamenting his lot in life.
“I’ve always kept it in perspective,” Smith said. “Like, I’m playing in the NBA. It can’t be too bad.’ ”
Smith’s path to get here wasn’t easy. Undrafted in 2010 out of Wake Forest, he made the Rockets as a free agent, then was traded during his rookie year to Memphis. In December of his second season, he was waived by the Grizzlies and signed two days later with the Golden State Warriors — who cut him in less than a month.
Smith signed with the Magic as a free agent later that season and stuck a month before he was dealt to the Milwaukee Bucks, who traded him that offseason to Phoenix, who cut him after the 2013-14 season. In 2014, he was in camp with — and ultimately cut by — the Rockets. He signed with the Thunder, who in midseason traded him to the Pelicans, who cut him the same day.
He was claimed on waivers by the 76ers, and he spent last season in Philadelphia before going to camp with Washington, which cut him the day he signed with New Orleans.
“The fact he’s been on so many teams, I think that’s a positive,” said ESPN analyst Dino Gaudio, who coached Smith at Wake Forest. “And here’s what I mean by that — it’s because people understand what type of character he has. Coaches appreciate his work ethic, his practice habits. Coaches appreciate walking on to the practice floor and knowing this guy’s going to give you everything he’s got every day.”
Wherever he’s gone, Smith has built a reputation as a good teammate, a coachable player. When Gaudio talks to NBA scouts at college games he broadcasts, those from teams where Smith has played often tell him, “We loved your guy.”
But Smith’s on-court production hasn’t reached the level that he’s been guaranteed much as an NBA player.
Still, he’s had his moments, including a breakthrough last season in Philly, where he averaged 12.5 points and 6.3 assists for a team that finished 18-64.
Smith started this season with a bang for the Pelicans, finishing with 17 points and nine assists on opening night against Golden State. He had a string of seven straight double-digit scoring games in November, adding double-figure assists in three of them.
During that seven-game span, Smith averaged 16.1 points and 8.9 assists in 34.7 minutes per game. In seven games since — with Evans and Cole back in the lineup — he’s averaging 4.8 points and 2.5 assists in 14.6 minutes.
“Early in the year, when guys were hurt, we all had to take a big role, whoever was healthy,” Smith said. “Now that everybody’s back, you got to take a (smaller) role. That’s how good teams are.”
The Pelicans have not been a good team, but Smith is convinced they have a chance to be. He’s willing to play whatever part he can in that, but it’s clear that barring personnel changes, that role is reducing.
In a win last week against Washington, Smith had eight points and four assists in 15 minutes, and Gentry lauded him for helping get the ball moving after it stagnated in the first half.
“Here’s a guy that was fifth in the league in assists and sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio (earlier in the season), so we got to find a way to get him back on the floor,” Gentry said last week.
“Obviously we’ve got a lot of people at that position now, but he’s shown that when he’s had the minutes on the floor he’s been pretty effective for us.”
In New Orleans’ last two games, though, Smith has played a total of about eight minutes. He logged 2½ in Wednesday’s win at Utah.
Smith has gone from starter to bit player for the Pelicans. It’s hardly the first upheaval in his career. Don’t bother asking if it troubles him, or if he hopes it works out in New Orleans. Smith’s been through enough uncertainty to know not to look ahead or reflect back.
He may be a speedy journeyman, but the journey is long, and it comes in small steps.
“I’ve been through this so many times, I don’t know what to think,” Smith said. “I just kind of go. Play each game. I’ve learned to think about today. You can’t control the future. You can’t control things that are out of your hands.”