Likes and Dislikes: The Return of Ish Smith is Helping Nerlens Noel

In this week's Likes and Dislikes column, we take a look at the early returns on the Ish Smith acquisition, and how that's helped Nerlens Noel return to form.

The return of Ish Smith has helped Nerlens Noel bounce back to form | Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

The return of Ish Smith has helped Nerlens Noel bounce back to form | Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Each week we’ll dive into a couple of observations about the Philadelphia 76ers. You can view previous installments in the Likes and Dislikes series here.

This week we’ll talk about the return of Ish Smith, his role with the team, and what that means for Nerlens Noel.

Like: Nerlens Noel Back to Being an Impact Player

You expected this entire column to be about Ish Smith’s return, didn’t you? In a way, it sort of is, as the acquisition of Smith was in no small part influenced by the success he had in the second half of last year with Nerlens Noel, who averaged 13.1 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.1 steals and 2.3 blocks per game, while shooting nearly 49% from the field, after the All-Star break.

The immediacy of Noel returning to form after the Smith acquisition has been stunning, as Noel has averaged 16 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 3.5 blocks in the two games since Smith was re-acquired, shooting 87.5% from the field in the process.

There’s obviously some noise to those results — if Smith alone could cause somebody to shoot 87.5% from the field, he’d be an MVP candidate, and there are times when Noel can’t go 3-4 on midrange jumpers in an open practice gym, much less in game action like he has over his last two games — but there’s no doubt Smith’s ability to get into the lane and collapse a defense has had a profound impact on Noel’s effectiveness once again.

The stark contrast in the playing styles between the recently departed Tony Wroten and Smith could not be more pronounced. Like Smith, Wroten has a real knack for using his elite quickness to get into the paint. Unlike Wroten, who was just as likely to turn the ball over or miss shot as he was to record a positive outcome, Smith uses that ability to force a defense to rotate, and create scoring opportunities for his teammates.

It took all of one possession for Smith and Noel to reconnect, with Smith finding Noel on a lob off of a pick and roll on the Sixers first offensive play against Phoenix, Smith’s first game back with the team. Noel has shot 87.5% from the field over his last two games, including 11-12 from inside of 5′, with 11 of his 14 made field goals over the past two games coming when Smith was on the court.

LineupPts/48 minFG%
Noel w/Ish (2014-15)22.653.4%
Noel w/o Ish (2014-15)13.743.9%
Noel w/Ish (2015-16)26.684.6%
Noel w/o Ish (2015-16)16.045.9%
(Nerlens Noel's production with and without Ish Smith on the court over the last two years. Data from and current as of December 30th, 2015)

While shooting 87.5% from the floor is clearly unsustainable, that doesn’t mean the improvement with Ish isn’t representative of improved effectiveness. It’s fun to think of these two sharing a court for the last 49 games of the season.

Perhaps more exciting is Noel’s play on the defensive side of the court, which included a 5 block, 2 steal performance against Utah. Noel has now recorded 8 steals in his past three games after recording just 2 steals in his previous four games combined.

Over the last two games, opponents are shooting 17-19 (89.5%) from within 5′ of the basket when Noel has been on the bench, compared with just 21-40 (52.5%) when Noel has been in the game.

In short, Noel has looked like the impact defender he was last year.

There are, of course, additional factors beyond Ish Smith’s presence which helps account for Noel’s improved play, especially on the defensive side of the court. The most notable factor would be the absence of Jahlil Okafor. With Okafor sidelined with a sore knee the past two games Noel has been able to return to his natural center position full time, a position where he is most comfortable, and where he is in position to have the greatest impact on the Sixers’ defense.

That has always been Brett Brown‘s biggest challenge. For as much as we focus on the offensive side of the court, and Okafor pushing Noel further away from the hoop obviously limits Noel’s effectiveness on offense, losing Noel’s elite defense has been the greatest loss of the pairing.

This Sixers team had completely lost the defensive identity they built last year. Over the last two games, that identity has returned.

Dislike: Ish Smith’s Workload

For as much as Smith’s return has seemingly energized the Sixers play, and certainly the play of Nerlens Noel, Smith has assumed far too prominent of a role in the Sixers’ offense.

Smith has used, on average, 19.4% of his team’s possessions while on the court for his career. During his brief two-game stint with the Sixers he is using an astounding 32.6% of the Sixers’ possessions while he’s been on the court. That usage rate would place Smith among the most relied upon offensive players in the game, just below James Harden (32.2%), and just ahead of Stephen Curry (32.2%) and Paul George (31.3%), despite Smith shooting just 38.9% from the field with a true shooting percentage of just 46.6%.

League RankPlayerUsage RateTS%
1stRussell Westbrook33.9%56.6%
2ndLeBron James33.5%55.5%
3rdJames Harden32.8%58.0%
4thIsh Smith (Phi)32.6%46.6%
5thStephen Curry32.2%68.0%
(Through 2 games with the 76ers, the amount of offensive possessions that Ish Smith has used would place him among the league leaders. Possessions used based off of the percentage of team possessions a player uses while he's on the court that end in a field goal attempt, free throw attempt, or turnover. Data from basketball-reference and as of December 30th, 2015. Exact calculation can be found at

Smith is sort of the anti-analytics point guard in that he neither gets to the line or shoots from beyond the arc at a high rate. So far with the Sixers just 8.3% of Smith’s field goal attempts are from three point range and his free throw rate — defined as the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt — of 16.7% is well below average for a perimeter player.

Smith instead relies largely on pull-up jump shots, floaters in the lane, and the occasional drive all the way to the basket to score his points. While Smith has made some big shots during his return to the Sixers, most notably the three pointer off the dribble he hit with 1:23 left to tie the game against Utah at 89 each, far too many of the Sixers’ offensive possessions in the past two games have been wasted by Smith dominating the ball, only to settle for a contested pull-up jump shot.

If you ask Smith to carry the kind of burden he has been offensively, these low percentage looks a likely outcome.

The situation is no doubt a direct reflection not only of the Sixers’ lack of perimeter playmakers, but also the loss of Jahlil Okafor and the continued struggles of their perimeter shooters. Nik Stauskas (42.9% from three over his last two games), Isaiah Canaan (36.4%), and Hollis Thompson (40%) have found their groove from deep over the last two games, something which should help alleviate the over-reliance on Smith, and hopefully Robert Covington returns to form as well.

Smith is going to dominate the ball if you want him to create scoring opportunities for his teammates, and he has assisted on over 50% of the Sixers’ made field goals while he’s been on the court. Still, as Jahlil Okafor returns to action and the Sixers’ shooters learn to play off of Smith’s dribble penetration, hopefully less of the Sixers’ offensive possessions end in difficult Ish Smith attempts.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.