The Detroit Pistons had a bittersweet victory against the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday night.
On one hand, they absolutely dominated Indiana by a 107-83 score to improve to 19-14, moving up the Eastern Conference standings.
On the other hand, starting point guard Reggie Jackson suffered a sprained ankle in the third quarter. After making a jump pass, he landed awkwardly on his right ankle and had to be helped off the court. Before getting injured, he had eight points and 13 assists in just 21 minutes in what might have turned into a monster night.
The following day, the Pistons received the official diagnosis of Jackson’s injury — and it wasn’t exactly positive. He suffered a grade three sprain, which is the worst-possible degree of a sprain. As a result, he will be re-evaluated in six-to-eight weeks, with the potential to miss around 30 games.
“It’s tough,” associate head coach Bob Beyer told reporters at Wednesday’s practice. “It’s tough for him. He was playing really well. That’s a big loss for us. But now we’ve just got to go next man up and move on.”
That next man up is Ish Smith. Averaging 8.9 points, 2.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 20.1 minutes as Jackson’s backup this season, Smith will now step into an increased role for the Pistons moving forward. Luckily for Detroit, he’s one of the best backup point guard options in the league based on his past production and his approach to the game.
Success as a starter
Like most NBA players, Smith has massive split differences when he starts versus when he comes off the bench. Starting 32 games for the Pistons last year due to another lengthy injury to Jackson, he averaged 12.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game.
“It’s a role that he’s somewhat used to,” Beyer said on Thursday. “I think he feels more comfortable coming off the bench – that’s just him – but when called upon he’s one of those backup point guards that, because he’s played starter’s minutes in the past, it’s not going to be a huge adjustment for him.”
He's also comfortable handling large workloads in addition to starting. In the 20 games in which he saw 30-plus minutes of court time last year, he put up 13.4 points, 3.7 boards and 7.0 assists per contest.
Therefore, coach Stan Van Gundy will be able to trust the 29-year-old at perhaps the most important spot on the floor, as he did on Thursday when he saw Smith score 18 points on 9-of-18 shooting while bringing down seven rebounds and dishing out five assists in 32 minutes of a 102-89 loss to the Orlando Magic.
All about transition
When watching Smith play, it’s obvious that he likes to push the ball up the floor. In that sense, he’s a bit different than Jackson.
In fact, Smith has been the fastest player on the court since the NBA started tracking player speed in 2013-2014 (with a minimum of 10 games played).
“You see the difference between Reggie and Ish – Ish is more of a transition guy,” said Langston Galloway, who will presumably take Smith’s place as the second unit’s point guard while Jackson is out. “Once he gets it, he’s gone. I think it’s going to give us another bonus with Ish being in the starting lineup.”
Before last season started, Smith signed a three-year, $18 million deal with the Pistons after playing for nine different NBA teams in six years. The first thing that Van Gundy said after Smith signed was the following:
“We wanted a backup point guard who would push the pace a little bit more, really pick up the tempo of the game. I had Ish for a short time in Orlando and also knew what kind of person he is, and I thought he would be a great team guy for us, a guy who brings positive energy every single day.”
Since Tobias Harris, Andre Drummond and the (currently-injured) Avery Bradley thrive in fast-paced, up-tempo offensive situations, it seems as though Smith will be able to generate offense just as he had been doing off the bench, but now even more efficiently with better talent around him.
Although Drummond has shown a newfound ability to drive to the basket with brand-new post moves, he would largely benefit from pushing the pace, where he could use his supreme athleticism to blow by opposing centers in transition. Bradley and Harris have not traditionally been known as players who can consistently create their own shots, so Smith's ability to lead the break will presumably open up perimeter opportunities for them due to collapsing defenses.
Although Detroit would be best served with Jackson healthy, they will be handing the keys to a very capable leader.