Monday November 7th, 2016

Worn from the festivities of his nephew’s birthday party, Ish Smith returned to his mother’s home in Charlotte and waited for his phone to ring. A year prior, Smith turned down one-year offers from the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings, awaiting a call from the Philadelphia 76ers that never came and rebooting the Tilt-A-Whirl that was the first six years of his nomadic career.

Minutes after the clock struck midnight on July 1, however, Smith’s agent, Andrew Morrison, dialed the hasty point guard as quickly as Smith leads fast breaks. Six years and nine teams later, the Detroit Pistons made Smith’s true NBA dream a reality, offering security in a three-year, $18 million deal.

“We wanted a backup point guard who would push the pace a little bit more, really pick up the tempo of the game,” said Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy. “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.”

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Smith joined the Magic in February 2012, three weeks after he was waived by the Golden State Warriors. Only one month before that, he had been released from the Memphis Grizzlies, who received his rights via trade from the Houston Rockets seven months earlier.

Orlando traded Smith soon after. So then did the Bucks. Smith spent the entire 2013–14 campaign with the Phoenix Suns, but split 2014–15—once the Rockets waived him following training camp—with the Thunder and Sixers before that fateful call from Philly’s front office never came. Smith was forced to begin last season as a Washington Wizards training camp invite on a non-guaranteed deal. He was waived once more, this time landing with the New Orleans Pelicans… only to be traded back to the 76ers, who were now in dire need of a ball handler.

There were periods in between stops—three weeks between the Warriors and Magic in 2012, a week and a half between the Rockets and Thunder in 2014—where he’d return to his mother’s house, like a typical unemployed 20-something. He’d dine on his sibling’s fried chicken and mac and cheese, mashed potatoes and corn to cap off days in the gym, grinding before the next opportunity.

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“I was living out of a suitcase for a long time,” Smith said. He perfected his packing routine, sifting through his belongings and only stuffing essentials into his duffle bag. A collaboration followed each transaction, as Smith worked with executives from his new teams to locate extended-stay hotel rooms near the myriad practice facilities.

Smith spent both of his stints with the Sixers at the Hilton Philadelphia on City Avenue, just a three minute walk from the team’s old practice facility at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. He settled into a room hours after the 76ers first claimed him off waivers in February 2015. “That was my first time really playing,” Smith said. “I just wanted to lock in.”

He thrived during those initial 25 games with Philadelphia, averaging 12.0 points and 6.1 assists in 27.1 minutes per night, burrowing his former worries and pressures into the recesses of his brain. The 14.7 points, 7 assists and 4.3 rebounds Smith averaged during his 50 games in Sixers blue last season truly solidified his first long-term contract.  

“He’s got such an infectious personality. He’s really got charisma,” 76ers head coach Brett Brown told reporters before an October preseason game. “His mood never changed. He just was so solid in himself and had a bounce and a spirit and was happy. Just a wonderful teammate and just a real joy to coach.”

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

The 4–3 Pistons are enjoying Smith’s enthusiastic presence at the onset of this season. Van Gundy has elevated the 28-year-old into the starting lineup in the wake of point guard Reggie Jackson’s knee and thumb surgeries in early October. “He works his butt off and he’s done a great job adjusting especially with it being a new transition for him,” said Pistons forward Tobias Harris.

Smith and fellow Detroit free agent acquisition Jon Leuer have joined Harris’s luxury apartment complex in Birmingham, Mich., an upscale Oakland County city 20 minutes south of the Pistons’ current headquarters in Auburn Hills. Despite their new, long-term financial security—Leuer signed a four-year, $41 million deal of his own in July—neither purchased a home. A trade could always be lurking around the corner, and the Pistons are looking to move to Little Ceasers Arena in downtown Detroit by next season. “I’ve just always thought it was smarter to rent,” Leuer said.

For now, Smith finally has a place to call his own. His suitcase is entirely unpacked inside his one-year lease. His routine is far simpler, more wrapped in daily minutia than a formulaic strategy to find a room. “I gotta clean up my apartment,” Smith said.

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