Ish Smith of the Phoenix Suns.

by Tzvi Twersky | @ttwersky 

Ish Smith has nothing to be sorry for in 2014. After all, the year’s not even 40 percent over and the 25-year-old already counts it as his best one yet.

“This has been a special year,” says Smith, a reserve guard for the Phoenix Suns. “I think about the Drake lyric, ‘I just been playing/I ain’t even notice I was winning.’ I think that’s more or less what you do: You just go out there and give it your all, and you start realizing it’s starting to happen before your eyes. I don’t think there’s been one time where I sat back and realized it, but I think after this year we’ll sit back and realize that this was a special year.”

Smith is calling on a recent off day from Phoenix. The busy din of a bustling car wash can be heard in the background, and the energy provided by an unexpected Playoff race can be heard in his excited voice.

“It’s funny,” Smith says, “because now we’re like, Man, if we do this, this and this then we can do this; but earlier in the year we were like, Man, let’s just see if we can get over 20, 25 wins.”

The Suns’ 47-33 record is only a slice of why Smith is having a blast since the ball dropped. For the first time in his four-year, six-team NBA career the undrafted graduate of Wake Forest has played an entire season without being assigned to the D-League, traded or waived.  And though he’s averaging only 14.4 minutes per game, people around the League have taken notice of the 6-0 guard.

This past January 23rd, one day after Smith played 15 minutes and had eight points in Phoenix’s 124-100 romp over the then-scorching Indiana Pacers, Kevin Durant hosted a Twitter AMA with fans. A couple of questions in, @WNP_1 asked KD who he considers the fastest player in the League. Durant’s answer: “Ish Smith or John Wall.”

“It means a lot coming from [KD], and it opened people’s eyes to me and our team,” says Smith. “Anytime you get personal [accolades] it goes right back to the team.”

With only two games left in the Suns’ season and a Playoff spot on the line, Smith is focused on making a final push for the No. 8 seed. Still, he took a few minutes out of his sparse down time to talk about Coach Hornacek’s system, the Suns’ success, KD’s comments and more. 

SLAM: Are you surprised at all by where you guys are at?

Ish Smith: You know what, I think when you’re going through it you don’t even know what you’re doing. I think we’ll realize it when it’s all said and done. I think it’s pretty remarkable, but we’ve still got so much more work to do.  

SLAM: Before the season pundits were picking the Suns to win like 20 games, and now you’re on the cusp of the Playoffs. It’s pretty crazy.

IS: It is crazy (laughs). We know we’ve got to keep pushing it and it don’t get any easier, but we like the position we’re in. It’s funny because now we’re like, Man, if we do this, this and this then we can do this; but earlier in the year we were like, Man, let’s just see if we can get over 20, 25 wins.

SLAM: When do you think it clicked for you guys that you could do something special this season?

IS: I don’t even know. Probably midway through the season, when we got a big win over Indiana on ESPN. (On January 22, 2014, the Phoenix Suns defeated the Indiana Pacers, 124-100.—Ed.) I think that’s when we realized we could play with anybody. Indiana was playing really well at that time—they had beaten Golden State, they had beat some pretty good teams—and our schedule was, I’m not going to say relatively easy, but it hadn’t been as bad. We were still questioning ourselves, and outsiders were saying, They have a big game coming against Indiana, let’s see what they can do. For us to win that game, and win it in the fashion we won it, we realized we could be pretty good.

SLAM: What do you think it is about you guys that has the team clicking? It’s not like there are a bunch of huge names and contracts on the team.

IS: I think it starts from Coach Hornacek. He had us buy in during training camp. We were in Flagstaff, AZ, with an altitude of 8,000 feet just pushing through things. It’s funny because, let’s be honest, most of us are quote-unquote rejects. Me and Gerald [Green] talk about it all the time: we’re guys who people questioned, who they didn’t know if we could do it or make it if given the opportunity. What we’ve done here is put it all together, and I give 110 percent of the credit to our GM and our coach. We’ve just clicked.

SLAM: Does the fact that you guys were counted out—as a team and as individuals—before the season make the results so far even more special?

IS: Yeah, I think so. You can go down the line with everybody: Goran [Dragic] got traded to Houston. There, they wanted to put Jonny Flynn over him and different guys. By the end of that year, he was the best player on their team. You can go down the line with everybody about that. Like, people didn’t know if Bled [Eric Bledsoe] could run a team or if he was a true point guard, and he’s proven them wrong. Everybody on this team has their own story. That’s what makes it so special.  

SLAM: As for you, your spot kind’ve got blown up a few months ago when Kevin Durant shouted you out on Twitter as being one of the two fastest guys in the League. When did you find out about that?

IS: It was crazy! I was coming out of practice, and I didn’t even know about it. Somebody was like, Yo, did you see what KD said about you? Then I went and saw it. I was like, What?! KD?! That’s a lot of respect from one of the best players in the NBA, who’ll probably be the MVP. It means a lot coming from him, and it opened people’s eyes to me and our team. Anytime you get personal [accolades] it goes right back to the team.

SLAM: Let’s keep it real—do you agree with KD?

IS: (Laughs) There’s a lot of fast people in the NBA. Russell [Westbrook] is fast; Ty [Lawson] is fast; there are a lot of guys who are super super fast. With me, I don’t play at one speed; I try to change gears; and I’m super shifty. So he said it, and I don’t mind agreeing with him, but it’s a lot of fast guys out there so I’m not going to say I’m numero uno.

SLAM: It’s funny he mentioned you with John Wall, since you’re both from North Carolina.

IS: That’s a lot of North Carolina love. And John, obviously, to be that big and that fast is a rarity. Anytime we can put some love on the hometown, we’re gonna do it.

SLAM: Did you guys play against each other in high school at all?

IS: We didn’t play any AAU together, but we heard about each other and then we played against each other in college. (Kentucky, led by Wall, defeated Wake Forest, Smith’s school, 90-60, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2010.—Ed.) Bled won’t let me live that down (laughs). 

SLAM: Well, at least you host a summer camp for kids back home in NC. How’d that get started?

IS: This’ll be the second year. Last year, my mom, my sister and my brother came up with the idea. They said,”Let’s run a camp.” I said, “Cool, we can do it.” So it was their idea, and they got it rolling. I wasn’t home—at the time I was in Milwaukee working out, under contract. Then it started falling through a little bit, but it kept rolling cause we’ve got to give back to the kids. It came together in like two weeks, but we had a crazy turnout—it was like 80 to 100 kids. So this year, we’ve done it the right way. We got the info out early. I give the credit to my family. We’re tight-knit and close. They’ve made it easy on me—all I have to do is show up and have fun with the kids.

SLAM: You got the fun part.

IS: (Laughs) I remember growing up, going to Chris Paul’s camp and Josh Howard’s camp, and I’ve went to some camps where the players who I won’t name weren’t too hands on, but Chris and Josh were hands on. I said, When I get my camp, I’m going to do it just like they did it. So I’m super hands on; I probably have more fun than they have.

SLAM: Was there any moment when you were young that you realized you were good enough at basketball to play for a living?

IS: It’s kind’ve like this year. You really don’t notice it; you’re kind of just playing. You don’t even know. I think about a Drake lyric, “I just been playing/I ain’t even notice I was winning.” I think that’s more or less what you do: You just go out there and give it your all, and you start realizing it’s starting to happen before your eyes. I don’t think there’s been one time where I sat back and realized it, but I think after this year we’ll sit back and realize that this was a special year.