Detroit Pistons coach John Kuester spent seven seasons as an assistant with the 76ers, all while Allen Iverson was part of the team. He has seen Iverson grow from a young phenom into the player and person he is now, mostly from proximity.

He describes Iverson this way: "Pound-for-pound, I tell people all the time, he's as good a player as I've ever coached."

Kuester is mired with his own problems, as his team has had its two stars, Tayshaun Prince and Rip Hamilton, for a total of four games. Prince is out with a ruptured disc in his lower back while Hamilton is nursing a sprained right ankle.

Still, when the topic is Iverson, especially for someone who has been around him so long, it's an easy subject to discuss.

"I'm happy for him," Kuester said before last night's game. "He's excited about playing, he still has a lot of playing ability left."

Although Iverson might not be the same player, the Pistons' head man thinks No. 3 has a lot to give his new/old team.

"One of the things you want out of your best player is to always be a leader," said Kuester. "He's coming into a little bit different role than in the past. But I can see that he's going to assert himself. I think the one thing that Philadelphia is getting is a player who wants people to have a good taste in their mouth about him at the end. And I think that's one of the things he'll be trying to prove to them that, 'Hey, listen, I've got a lot of basketball left in my life and I want to give something special back to Philadelphia.'

"A.I. is one of the most special athletes that I've ever seen. My first year with coach [Larry] Brown in '97, he went out and never ran a mile before, and I think he went out and ran a 4:30 mile and then went out and practiced. He's so gifted athletically. What separated him was his heart. He could run all day, but the length of his arm and the size of his hands to go in for those layups? Because a normal guy would go in for that layup and they'd block it, but Allen had that extra little reach that made him special. As you get older, you get wiser. I think one of the things that has to happen right now with his game is that he understands he has to do a few things differently."

As for Iverson helping the team this year, specifically when the Sixers get Lou Williams, Marreese Speights and Jrue Holiday back from injury, Kuester said it's a no-brainer.

"You're adding a Hall of Famer, that should make you a lot tougher," Kuester said. "The team that they have here is very talented, very gifted, well-coached. This group is a team to be reckoned with. If you don't come in here ready to play 48 minutes, you're gonna lose. I know they're going through a rough stretch, but they're a talented group. I think he adds a lot to that team."

Smith's self-evaluation

Usually when a player utters the words "That's just me saying what I feel," it's not a good thing.

But when forward Jason Smith spoke them last night, there was no animosity toward anyone but himself. The reason for his disgust had nothing to do with anyone but himself.

Smith has averaged about 9 minutes the past five games and has scored a total of six points. The three games before that, Smith had averaged 12 points.

So what gives?

"It's not a physical thing," said Smith, who sat out last season with a torn ACL in his left knee. "I've just been outphysicaled on the court. I just feel like there's a few games that either I'm not prepared or something's going on. I've just got to get my mind right to go in and give energy off the bench and I haven't been doing that.

"Obviously if you don't do your job, you're not going to get playing time. That's just me saying what I feel. I just wasn't doing my job. I think that's what coach [Eddie Jordan] and I kind of agreed on. If I go out and give it my all, I'll get minutes. But if I don't give it my all . . . "

Jordan explained yesterday that Smith's limited minutes lately were due to Jordan trying to get more time for Elton Brand and the need for Dalembert to protect the rim defensively.

"Jason has been great, he just gets caught with me trying to get Elton going more and then at times when teams go big, Sam's a better matchup," Jordan said. "Sometimes for him it's just about matchups."

Six Shots

Rookie Jrue Holiday sat out his third consecutive game with a right rotator-cuff strain. He did go through the morning shootaround and was on the court before the game, mostly shooting lefthanded jumpers . . . Detroit's Ben Gordon was scratched due to an ankle sprain. With Tayshaun Prince and Rip Hamilton also out, that's a lot of lost firepower. Gordon averages 18.7 points a game . . . Allen Iverson arrived at the Wachovia Center at 4:50 p.m., more than an hour earlier than his first game back on Monday.