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Wizards 2019-20 season preview: Can Ish Smith make his teammates better?

The former Detroit Piston brings a Wall-esque quickness to Washington, but his success will be best measured by the development of those around him.

Washington Wizards v Detroit Pistons Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Wizards fans have seen plenty of Ish Smith. Over the course of his career, Smith has played against Washington 24 times — tied for the second-most games he’s played against any NBA team. Still though, it came as somewhat of a surprise when Washington traded away Tomas Satoransky and instead inked the diminutive guard to bolster the point in John Wall’s absence.

With Isaiah Thomas now out for most of training camp and perhaps the start of the year, even more weight falls on Smith to prop up Washington’s guard rotation. The only nominal point guards left on the Wizards roster are the Virginia Tech product Justin Robinson and the former Los Angeles Laker Isaac Bonga — not exactly a proven group. Even if you add Troy Brown Jr. to the point guard mix, and there has been no evidence Scott Brooks hopes to do so, the Wizards are still left without any experience at the position aside from Smith.

Smith has never averaged more than 30 minutes per game for an entire season — he has been a back-up guard for nearly his entire career — but he will surely do so for at least a portion of 2019-20. How will Ish handle this increased workload? Finding out requires a quick dive into his history.

What can the Wizards expect from Ish Smith this year?

The closest career analogue to Ish Smith’s opportunity this year comes from one of the worst teams in NBA history: The 2015-16 Philadelphia Sixers, who finished 10-72, traded for Smith midway through the season to fill a hole at guard. Smith started in every game he played for Philly the rest of the season, totaling 50 games.

Smith’s time with the tanking Sixers remains the only extended period of his career where he was the expected night-to-night starter. He led the Sixers in minutes per game (32.4) and averaged 14.7 points, 7.0 assists and 4.3 rebounds per contest. Ish played with notably terrible teammates and offensive spacing, but his effective field goal percentage of 43.6% that season still leaves quite a bit to be desired. From this time, the picture of Ish Smith as a starter looks like a small, lightning-quick guard who doesn’t provide much of a defensive threat but can produce numbers when called upon.

Smith signed with Detroit after that season and has spent the past three years alternating between a primary back-up role and spot starts, depending on Reggie Jackson’s health. He developed into a slightly more reliable shooter during that time, but he shouldn’t be expected to hit more than roughly 32% of his threes in a good year. In total, Smith has become a reliable point guard but not one who really elevates the ceiling of his team — he is best suited to a bench role, playing 20-25 minutes per game at most.

What would constitute a successful season for Ish Smith?

The biggest question surrounding Ish Smith is what the Wizards were expecting when they signed him. If they merely desired a relatively cheap, half-decent option to fill point guard minutes until Wall returns, and someone who plays a relatively similar style, they have hit their mark. However, Smith can elevate his signing from adequate to great if he can help some of the young Wizards around him develop.

Since Smith is not much of a threat off the ball, the Wizards should encourage him to facilitate more than he has in the past (Smith has mostly been a good but not great passer). Watching Smith repeatedly take inefficient shots won’t make Rui Hachimura or Troy Brown Jr. any better this year or in the future. Hopefully, Smith embraces the perspective of a conciliatory veteran and makes feeding the youngsters a priority.

Of particular interest is Smith’s pick-and-roll relationship with Thomas Bryant, the Wizards’ newly re-signed starting center. Bryant was a great shooter and finisher last year — his skill paired with Smith’s speed and passing ability could lead to some really fun stretches of play. Additionally, Smith can provide a steady hand while the Wizards run Bradley Beal through his usual array of off-ball screens.

Regardless of how the minutes shake out between Smith and the Wizards’ other point guard options, Ish’s success this season should be defined not by the team’s record, but by how he empowers the players around him who could define the future of Wizards basketball.