It was Shane Battier who first warned him about the unpredictability of life in the NBA. Ish Smith might not have needed the lesson — as a skinny, undrafted point guard out of Wake Forest, he had zero notions that a career in the league he had just worked his way into was a paragon of stability. But Battier was a veteran teaching a rookie the ways of the world, so he said what he had to say.
“He told me: ‘A lot of people think they’re not going to get traded. Well, you’re either getting traded early or you’re getting traded late.’ ” Smith recalled. “I remember thinking: ‘I ain’t getting traded late. I’m going to find my way.’ ”
Smith was right: He got traded early and often. He bounced around so much in his nascent career that when he signed a contract with the Charlotte Hornets as a free agent in August, Smith became the fifth player in NBA history to have played for 12 organizations, a league record. Now back in his second stint as the Wizards’ backup point guard, he also has donned jerseys for the Rockets, Grizzlies, Warriors, Magic, Bucks, Suns, Thunder, Pelicans, 76ers and Pistons.
He shares the stat with Chucky Brown, Jim Jackson, Joe Smith and Tony Massenburg.
“It is what it is,” said Ish Smith, who views the record as neither badge of honor nor blight but simply the way his career worked out.
But he does take pride in his staying power.
Smith, who at 33 returned to Washington at the trade deadline, is something like the NBA’s Forrest Gump. He has brushed some of the league’s most notable figures and teams of the current era — he was with Yao Ming in Houston and a young Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in Golden State. He played with Dwight Howard in Orlando and Anthony Davis in New Orleans. He was in Oklahoma City with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
Consider the challenge of fitting in with 12 franchises, as many different coaches’ systems, dozens of diva alpha-males in the locker room and more than a hundred teammates.
“It would be impossible for anyone but Ish,” said Stan Van Gundy, who coached Smith in both Orlando and Detroit.
Smith stuck around for two reasons. As a young, undrafted player roaming from team to team playing scant minutes, he used a skill set centered around uncommon speed to make himself invaluable in practice. He was the guy who pushed Westbrook, Jameer Nelson and Kyle Lowry as hard as possible, both to impress his coaches and to prove to himself that he belonged in the league. Later, when he became more established, he was the perfect backup for Van Gundy’s Detroit teams and Coach Scott Brooks’s teams in Washington looking to push pace on offense.
But talented backup point guards are not rare diamonds. What enabled Smith to stick around so long is the same reason he was the player the Wizards turned to earlier this season when they were looking to solve chemistry issues in a locker room full of bickering teammates.
“He’s kind of like the pied piper,” Wizards Coach Wes Unseld Jr. said. “He gets guys to move in one direction.”
Brooks, who first had Smith on the Thunder before they reunited in Washington, put it more plainly: “Everybody loves Ish.”
Smith’s personality always has been his calling card. His teammates and former coaches say he never has an off day — always uplifting but not so saccharine that it’s grating, quick with a joke and generous.
He was first in the gym after tough losses in Detroit and would greet an exhausted Van Gundy with a laugh and, “Coach, can you believe they’re paying us?” When the Wizards were forced to pause their season last year after a coronavirus outbreak ripped through the organization and morale was at its lowest, coaches would try to time their drive-through coronavirus tests for the moment Smith would be getting swabbed so they could chat.
Van Gundy can’t think of a personality with whom Smith doesn’t get along. Two of Smith’s best friends in the league are polar opposites in their public personas — Westbrook, a maniacally intense veteran, and humble, lighthearted second-year pro Anthony Gill. He has known the former since high school and the latter since Gill, a fellow North Carolinian, was 13.
“He just always makes it a point to go eat,” Gill, 29, said. “Breaking bread with people is important, and for us last year — Russ, too — every time we went to a city or we were home, we’d get together and just have conversation.”
Gill had just had one of those chats before walking out to warm up for a game in Detroit in late March. Smith, after years of living as a nomad, got married last summer. Gill and his wife have three children; the teammates were discussing the role and requisite sacrifices of a man in a household setting.
“It’s good to have those conversations. A lot of people think when you go through the league, you’ve got to do it a certain type of way where you have all these watches and stuff,” Smith said. “Man, just be chill and enjoy the game. We’re not like doctors and lawyers. We do this for a short period of time, and then after that, it’s time to move on and help people as much as you possibly can.”
Smith’s approach to entering a new locker room comes from his mother and father, who owned a janitorial business for most of his life. He and his siblings watched as they bid for contracts with hotels and hospitals, a process that involved talking to the building owner and finding out which needs weren’t being met.
Smith does the same when he joins a team. “Stand in before you stand out” is his motto — but make no mistake, Smith is no pushover. He appreciates his reputation as a locker room guru. It’s not all he wants to be known for. He’s shooting 45 percent from the field and averaging 8.6 points off the bench in 26 games with the Wizards this season. He has hardly lost a step in his 30s and had his first putback dunk this season.
“People aren’t going around saying like, ‘Hey, Kawhi, you’re a great locker room guy, man.’ No. Great dude, but he don’t say a word to people,” Smith said of two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. “Kawhi gives you 20 a night, gets you to the conference finals and a championship. 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.”
Smith wants to play for as long as his legs can last. He feels at home in Washington and settled in his career after the trades died down — the deal that brought him from the Hornets to the Wizards was his first trade since 2015. Smith found his way, but he doesn’t feel finished.
Whenever he is, Van Gundy suspects he’ll have at least 12 front offices lobbying him to join their organization.
“I was in the league a long time both as an assistant and a head coach,” Van Gundy said. “There are a lot of good people in the league and a lot of good teammates, but there’s nobody like Ish.”