- Veteran NBA point guard Ish Smith has been traded seven times, waived six times, and played for a record 13 teams.
- Smith is beloved around the NBA and believes his character and professionalism have helped him stay in the league.
- Also a solid reserve guard, Smith worked hard this summer to compete for a championship with the Nuggets this season.
Early in his career, Ish Smith adopted a mindset: His next move would be his best move.
It’s a mentality that’s paid off for the 34-year-old point guard, given that over 13 seasons in the NBA, Smith has moved a lot. He’s played for 13 different teams, an NBA record. He’s been traded seven times and waived six.
Smith officially set the record for playing for the most teams last Wednesday when he suited up for the Denver Nuggets, where he was traded this past June.
Living the life of a kind of basketball nomad, Smith hasn’t ever settled down into one place. Rather, in a sense, the NBA as a whole has become his home: For over a decade, he has continually found roles on new teams. It says something about the 6-foot, 175-pound reserve guard that despite all of his moves, he keeps finding employment and landing on teams who will take him.
“The thing that you could always count on with Ish is that he was gonna bring great enthusiasm and excitement into the building every single day,” said Bob Beyer, who coached Smith from 2016-2018 as an assistant with the Detroit Pistons. “It didn’t matter if it was for a practice, a shoot-around or a game, he just has unbelievable passion for the game.”
Handling chaos with professionalism
Smith first entered the NBA in 2010, joining the Houston Rockets as an undrafted free agent. From 2010-16, Smith played for nine teams: the Rockets, Grizzlies, Warriors, Magic, Bucks, Suns, back to the Rockets, Thunder, and 76ers.
The “Transactions” section on Smith’s Basketball-Reference profile follows something of a pattern: sign a contract with a team, get waived, sign a new contract with another team, get traded.
Along the way, Smith learned tricks of the journeyman trade. He signed month-to-month leases on apartments and rented furniture when he landed in new cities. During the early stages of his career, back before Smith had a wife or kids, moving was relatively easy for him.
Smith refers to 2016 and on as his “slow” years, but they have only been slightly less frantic. He spent three seasons with the Pistons from 2016-19. He signed with the Wizards for one year in 2019-20, signed a two-year contract with the Hornets for 2020-21, then got traded back to the Wizards last season. It was Washington that traded him to the Nuggets this past summer.
Smith has never complained about his twisting and turning journey.
“When I got to the NBA, that roller coaster ride kind of started — I never got bothered,” Smith told Insider. “I just kind of was like, okay, this is a part of my journey. Let me just keep pushing and keep going. Because I think at times when you don’t push through those things, you never know what you’re capable of.”
A big part of Smith’s philosophy revolves around professionalism, a trait he learned from his parents. Smith grew up in Concord, North Carolina. His parents ran a janitorial service and secured deals with hotels and other establishments to do the cleaning. Smith said his parents did well for themselves but also made him earn his own way. Smith recalled having to lay baseboards at a high school with his father to get his first car, a 1993 Honda Accord.
“You control what you can control,” Smith said. “I think a lot of times you can’t control, you know, what the front office is gonna do, but you can control your play and how hard you work and how you are as a person. People are always talking about professionalism — I think that’s the character of you. And my mom and dad raised me in a way to be professional.”
He can play, too
However, Smith also laughs at the idea that he’s solely gotten by on character and leadership.
In an interview with The Washington Post’s Ava Wallace earlier in 2022, Smith defended his on-court abilities, too: “My character kept me in the league, and that’s a tribute to my mom and dad. But after a while, I play basketball. This is not a character competition.”
Asked by Insider about the comment, Smith laughed, saying he was having fun with the reporter. But the sentiment still stands.
“For me to stay in the league, I had to be able to play,” Smith said.
Indeed, Smith has excelled as a reliable backup point guard, a role that’s tougher to fill than expected. Over his career, he’s averaged 7.6 points and 3.9 assists per game while shooting 43.0% from the field.
When he’s gotten the chance to play extended minutes, he’s put up big numbers. He scored 32 points while with the Wizards in 2020. He’s topped double-digits assists 25 times in his career.
Smith isn’t a great shooter, but he’s got a tight handle and water-bug quickness.
Beyer praised the tempo of Smith’s play, calling him an “automatic fast break.”
“A lot of times teams could be playing at one pace, and as soon as Ish entered the game, the pace automatically quickened. And you had better be ready for that or you were gonna be left behind.”
In recent seasons, Smith has played bigger minutes and put up slightly bigger numbers, a surprise development for a shorter guard later in his career.
Some of that Smith credits to taking better care of his body as he’s gotten older. He admits he could still eat healthier, but he has taken steps to improve his diet, cutting out favorites like mac-and-cheese and trips to Bojangles.
“I love Bojangles, but I can’t eat it like I used to,” Smith said, laughing. “It doesn’t work well with me.”
Now playing for a potential championship contender in the Nuggets — arguably the first time Smith has had a true shot at winning a title — Smith took his off-season work more seriously.
This past summer, Smith returned to North Carolina, where he went through rigorous two-a-days. Smith would work out in the mornings and play basketball with some pros who play overseas. After resting with his family in the afternoon, he would return to the gym to lift and do conditioning with a strength coach, going through a series of circuits that involved agility drills, battle ropes, ball slams, and biking.
“I’m not a huge fan of conditioning … I would do it actually outside in the heat of Charlotte, North Carolina, which made everything worse because the humidity down there is 10 times worse,” Smith said.
He would follow that up by shooting a hundred more shots on a hoop outside of his house.
The journeyman mentor
One benefit of Smith’s wayward career, he said, was the opportunity to learn under a litany of veterans. Smith rattled off a list of dozens of players he credited for encouraging him along his journey.
To Smith, the dynamic of NBA locker rooms has changed, in part because of how much younger players are now when they enter the league.
“You look around the locker room now, everybody is like 24, 27, 26, and those are your vets,” Smith said, adding: “When I walked into the locker room, everybody was my age. Everybody was 32, 33, 34. And they had only spent 12, 13 years in the league, and they still had four or five more years in the league.”
Now 34, Smith is the locker room veteran that can mentor younger players. His frequent advice to players? Drop their egos, accept coaching, and find a role.
“I don’t care what nobody say, you’re gonna have to find a role. Even the scorers are scorers,” Smith said.
He added: “You have to fit and find that role, and that gives you longevity.”
And Smith’s longevity is what’s earned him the respect of other players.
“When Ish first got to the NBA, he never was on a guaranteed contract,” Beyer said. “He was bounced around a lot and he was on a lot of one-year deals. And then I think it was in Detroit, where he actually signed his first extended contract, and as he matured and got older, I think players in the league just had such a tremendous amount of respect for him that his voice over time in locker rooms just carried a lot more weight.”
Smith values all of his NBA stops, saying his journey has been a part of God’s plan. But even after traveling and living in cities he couldn’t have imagined, he wouldn’t mind making a home in Denver.
“If I could stay in Denver for the next five, six years, I’ll be happy,” Smith said. “My family’s enjoyed it — my wife, my children, they enjoy it. So, if I could stay here, that means we’ve won. That means I played well. That’s something that would be really, really nice.”