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Late in the third quarter against the Denver Nuggets on Jan. 4, Wizards backup point guard Ish Smith saw an opening. The Denver defense had not yet settled, and so he did what he does best: Smith used his speed, bursting through the lane for an uncontested layup, which led to a Nuggets timeout.
A few plays later, Smith sprinted down the court and found an open Garrison Mathews, who drained a three pointer on the way to the Wizards’ 128-114 upset of the second best team in the Western Conference. Smith finished with a career-high 32 points.
“Ish was on fire,” Wizards head coach Scott Brooks said afterward. “He had so many ESPN highlight crossovers and makes, change of directions. He’s a hard cover. He plays with pace. We’re getting stops and, you know, we’ve had plenty of stops tonight and out in transition, he’s hard to keep in front. He’s hard and he’s making plays and guys are driving his passes. He obviously played out of his mind tonight, but that’s how he plays. He plays fast, he plays hard. He plays for his team and he made good plays throughout the game.”
The Wizards signed Smith over the summer to bolster their backcourt, and while the 6-foot tall journeyman guard is on his 11th NBA team of his career, Smith has long been considered one of the fastest players in the sport.
“It was a gift I’ve had ever since I was a kid,” Smith tells City Paper. “Like I’ve always been the fastest kid and so my mother always told me to use that strength to my advantage and that’s something that I’ve done.”
Smith grew up playing basketball in North Carolina, but did not compete in other sports. “I’m really not that fast unless I have a basketball,” he insists.
In fact, Smith says he “hates running.” He remembers dreading doing track workouts while playing on the basketball team at Wake Forest University.
“Like I hate running on the track,” Smith says. “I hate running lines. I hate it. But when we’re playing basketball, I love it.”
“In college, we would run a mile and we would make it in certain times, whatever we had to make it as guards,” he continues. “But I really hate like running. If they put us on the track, like coach would put us on the track and we’re running, I would always be running and look and see how far we got to go. That would always mess with my head.”
Instead, Smith preferred to work on his pace on the court. His college coach, Skip Prosser, made him watch “tons of Tony Parker and Steve Nash clips.” He also worked on making sure he could contain his speed.
“My freshman year coming into college, I had the late, great Skip Prosser. He would always tell me to play with pace, play with pace, play with pace, but he wanted me to play where it was like I would play fast but not play too fast,” Smith explains. “And so what I would do is I would go into the gym and I would play literally one on one by myself.”
Over the years, Smith’s speed has earned the respect of many of his peers, including former MVP Kevin Durant, who tweeted in 2014 that Smith or Wizards star John Wall are the fastest players in the NBA.
“I’ve had some fast ones,” Brooks says of the players he’s coached. “He’s right there with John and Russell [Westbrook] with the ball. There’s a lot of fast guys that can run without the ball. He can run with the ball and see players on the court and find open men. It’s hard. Sometimes guys run too fast and they can’t stop in time. They can’t see the rest of the guys, but he has as much speed as anybody I’ve coached.”
The stats back up the accolades.
So far this season, the 31-year-old has the sixth fastest average speed (5.11 mph) on offense among players who have played in at least ten games. The stat measures the average of all movement (sprinting, jogging, standing, and walking) by a player while on offense.
To Smith, his speed on the court doesn’t remind him of a track star, but rather an artist or dancer.
“For me basketball is like art,” he says. “It’s like a rhythm. And I used to always joke around, my dad, he loves old school music. So I would always joke around like, you know, dancing, having a basketball in your hand is like dancing and different things like that. So that’s something that, you know, he taught me. My dad taught something that kind of kept with me.”
“But just running?” he adds. “I hate it.”