SINCE journeyman point guard Ish Smith signed with the Sixers on Feb. 22, franchise big man Nerlens Noel has become a valid Rookie of the Year candidate.

Noel improved in every area: points (14.0 vs. 8.3), rebounds (10.5 vs. 7.2) and field-goal percentage (48.9 vs. 44.8). Noel's increased production meant increased minutes (33.0 vs. 30.2), and his improved confidence helped spike other numbers, such as blocks (2.1 vs. 1.8) and steals (2.2 vs. 1.6).

Why? Simple: Smith is a classic, pass-first, penetrate-and-dish point guard around which the best teams in every era of basketball have been built. Smith also is a man older and wiser than his years. A religion major out of Wake Forest who is with his eighth franchise in less than five seasons, he is as well-traveled as his biblical namesake, Ishmael.

Only 6-feet tall, Smith has been viewed as a disposable entity: an unremarkable, smallish scorer in a league that covets big scoring guards. Still, in his 20 games as a Sixer, he has managed at least seven assists 10 times, despite limited playing time.

Smith's greatest gift is his personable nature, as Marcus Hayes discovered. Smith's quick smile and his expanded world view help him understand people. He should: He has been around quite a variety in the past few years.

Q You could stock the United Nations with your past teammates: Yao Ming of China, Luis Scola of Argentina, Hasheem Thabeet of Tanzania, Slava Kravtsov of the Ukraine, Marc Gasol of Spain, and now Joel Embiid, of Cameroon. Which one left the biggest impression?

Yao was the most interesting, from when I was with Houston. I've been around Dwight Howard, who's a star, Kevin Durant, who's a star. But Yao? He's a mega-mega-star. Everywhere he went, people followed him.

We went to China, and Yao, being a normal guy, wanted to walk from the hotel to this event right around the corner. Before you knew it, there were, like, 500 people following him.

When we practiced in China, at this college, people saw us walking through campus and stuck their heads out of their dorm rooms. But after practice? We came out and there were thousands and thousands of people waiting for us. I mean, they were rocking the bus as we drove through them.

Q We're talking about international stars, multilingual men who have lived all over the world. How did being around that sort of international influence affect you?

They were from the foreign countries, but they all mentored me. Each was great in his own way. The good thing about almost all of those guys - I got them when they were older. Their learning curve was done.

Being on an NBA team was no longer awkward for them. Instead, they were able to comfort me when I came to the new team as the new guy. Being frustrated, not playing - they'd all been through that. They understood it.

Q You've also been around a lot of superstars - Dwight Howard, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook. Have any of them left you in awe?

Dwight, in his own way, but Kevin and Russ - especially Russ. He never loses that fieriness, in practices or in games. Never. He's always upbeat.

People don't understand how great of a dude he is, too. Watching him play was unbelievable. And it was awesome, too, how easy the game is for Kevin.

Q You make friends fast, I imagine. Who is your best friend in the league?

Actually, it's funny, I'm real good friends with the twins Marcus and Markieff Morris, who I played with in Phoenix. I know, right? They're from Philly.

Q What's been your favorite city, with the best food? And the worst?

Phoenix is a nice city, and I liked the food. There is no worst city . . . just Milwaukee, how cold it is. It's gorgeous during the summer. But so cold in the season. I mean, I'm from Charlotte.

Q That's Bible Belt country. Given your name, and your degree, you must be very religious, no?

I'm glad you asked that. When you get a religion degree, you actually learn about all religions. It opened my eyes up.

When I went to college I had a one-track mind, being raised in a Christian home in the South. It opened my mind. The major respects every religion.

I still practice Christianity - nondenominational. Yeah, Ishmael is out of the Bible, and my mother and father are very spiritual . . . but that's it.