There’s a certain fetishism with back-up players. For whatever reason, sports fans like to root for the underdog or unsung player on their favorite team.
Last season, there were people within the Magic fanbase asking for head coach Stan Van Gundy to start Gilbert Arenas over Jameer Nelson at point guard or to #FreeEarlClark. The problem, more often than not, is that the back-up player in question isn’t better than the starter he’s replacing or he’s not good enough to warrant more playing time. That was the case for Arenas and Clark last season.
Arenas wasn’t better than Nelson and he rarely played well enough for it to make sense for him to take on a bigger role, while Clark was just never good enough to earn a permanent spot in Van Gundy’s rotation. Especially when you consider that Clark was playing behind Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson. In Clark’s case this season, not only is he playing behind Anderson and Glen Davis but he’s proven that he’s a bad player and probably more suited for the D-League at this stage in his career.
However, there are instances in which a back-up player deserves a chance to play more. Like Ish Smith.
It’s no secret that Magic fans have grown tired of Chris Duhon, originally brought in by general manager Otis Smith last season to back-up Jameer Nelson at point guard. Make no mistake, Duhon was terrible — he turned the ball over way too much, showed a hesitancy to shoot the basketball, and dragged the pace down for the Orlando Magic. Eventually, Arenas replaced Duhon as the back-up point guard. Arenas wasn’t any better, though. This season, Duhon has been better, showing a renewed confidence in his shot, which has reflected in his numbers. But Duhon is still dealing with turnovers and he continues to play at a snail’s pace, which is undermining his ability to make a positive impact in games despite his improved shooting and efficiency on offense.
With Smith showing flashes of competency whenever he’s had a chance to play this season for the Magic, Duhon’s days serving as the back-up point guard appeared to be numbered. And they might be, given that Smith has taken over as the back-up point guard to Nelson for the time being.
So what has Smith done to convince head coach Stan Van Gundy to give him a shot?
Smith has been assertive and aggressive offensively, while also taking care of the ball. In essence, he’s been almost the exact opposite of Duhon.
One of the first things that jumps off the page about Smith? He’s fast. The Washington Wizards found that out for themselves on Tuesday. On this possession, after Jordan Crawford missed a three-pointer on the left wing, Smith retrieves the long rebound and is off to the races. The Wizards are about to encounter a one-man fastbreak.
Just like you’re taught as a point guard, Smith darts to the middle of the court in transition. At this point, Smith has options. Jason Richardson and Quentin Richardson are flanking Smith on the wings, while Glen Davis is trailing the play. However, Smith notices that Jan Vesely is defending him in the open court and decides to take advantage of the mismatch.
Smith dribble penetrates into the lane, then freezes Vesely for a split-second with a hesitation dribble. Smith fakes left, then goes right towards the baseline and makes the layup amidst “oohs” and “aahs” from the Washington crowd.
Not only does Smith use his quickness to create for himself but for others as well. He did this on numerous occasions against the Detroit Pistons on Monday, tying a career-high with seven assists in just under 19 minutes of playing time. On this particular play, after Davis rebounds the basketball and makes the outlet pass to Smith, that’s where the fun begins.
Smith darts up the court and approaches two defenders for the Pistons — Brandon Knight and Austin Daye. Just as Quentin Richardson is about to set a screen, Smith splits the two defenders and attacks the basket. Ben Wallace converges on Smith to protect the rim. As that’s happening, Davis wisely cuts to the basket, gets the pass from Smith, and makes the layup.
The entire sequence feels like it takes a nanosecond.
These are the type of plays that Duhon simply can’t make.
It remains to be seen how much Smith can help Orlando. Again, Smith is nothing more than a back-up point guard. Plus, he hasn’t proven yet in his NBA career that he can shoot jumpshots and three-pointers with proficiency, which means that opposing defenses will eventually adjust and sag off of him to account for his speed, forcing him to beat them with his jumper. Then we’ll see if he can adjust himself.
That said, the early returns have been positive offensively.
Even though the sample size has been small, Smith has shown the Magic what he’s capable of when given the minutes.