A Q + A with Duke junior guard Nolan Smith.
If this story seems a bit familiar, it should. Nolan Smith is no stranger to the basketball universe. About this time last year, Duke University’s Smith was the subject of a Cub Scouts’ column; anointing the Maryland-native as a player most likely take his game to the level most desired by the professional ranks. The last time, we saw the 6-2 185-pound guard, however, he was walking off the court in Philadelphia after his Blue Devils took a non-brotherly pounding by the local Wildcats of Villanova. Smith’s season? A highlight-filled rollercoaster of immense highs, but unfortunately mired by injury-riddled lows.
Smith’s ultimate struggles and his team’s continued mediocrity (by Duke’s standards) could not have been predicted early in the season, when the sophomore busted out of the gate scoring in double figures in nine of the season’s first ten tilts. The only game below the mark, though, was a part of a 30-point drubbing of a solid Southern Illinois program and contained this gem of a dunk that got major national replay. (That can happen when it is an ESPN-televised game at Madison Square Garden.) But one knee injury and a serious concussion left Smith more than dissatisfied with the season’s final resolution.
With classrooms reopening around college campuses everywhere, hope springs eternal. Coaches and their teams can put the past season behind them and stare straight ahead at the upcoming months. For Smith, this is especially true. With Gerald Henderson gone to the NBA and his former backcourt mate, Greg Paulus, now playing football back home in Syracuse, the shoulders to now bear the brunt of the burden reside between Smith, senior guard Jon Scheyer and junior forward Kyle Singler.
Just hours before that opening class bell struck in Durham, Smith took a few minutes to brush up on his “summer reading” with Cub Scouts.
SLAM: Can we start with just the litany of injuries that kept you from blowing up last year?
Nolan Smith: Last year, I started with a bone bruise in the knee after a knee-to-knee collision. I came back after that and it was the concussion versus Maryland. Those were two main injuries that came at crucial times during the year.
SLAM: You ended up missing some big games in the middle of your season, how difficult was it to be kept out of those games?
NS: It was very tough. I missed the last ACC regular season game at [North] Carolina and I missed the couple before that and you never want to be on the sidelines for those types of games. But for safety reasons, the doctors thought I wasn’t ready to go with the concussion. It was really tough to be out when you want to be out there.
SLAM: You seemed to be very aggressive scoring the ball early in the season. Did the concussion make it hard to return to that style of play even after you returned?
NS: It kind of did. I was out for a good amount of time and when I came back, this team was playing great basketball. So, when you miss some time like that, you come back in and try to feel your way back into things. Basically, the team had been playing well and you don’t want to fix anything if it’s not broke. When I came back (start of ACC Tournament), everything had changed, it was all about the wins, at that point.
SLAM: Your season seemed to get jumpstarted from the beginning, even more so after that dunk you had against Southern Illinois. Can you talk about that play? Do you remember that one?
NS: Yeah, I definitely remember that play. All summer I’ve been talking about that one play and it was early in the year. It was one of those plays where I was in a situation where I can make one of those ESPN Top Ten plays and go strong to the basket. You know, early on in the year, I was definitely playing great basketball, aggressive and ready for that break-out sophomore year. But every year, for me, I just take the time to get better. That’s what I did this summer. Prepare myself to be stronger and better than I was last year.
SLAM: The broken record about Duke over the past decade is that y’all have been soft in the interior which has hindered you from making any long tourney runs. Last year seemed no different, as you guys got physically beat-up in that Sweet 16 game against Villanova. Can you talk about how the end of the season left you feeling?
NS: The end of the season left me,… really angry, but anxious for next year. That Villanova game definitely left a sour taste in my mouth, the way they just manhandled us from every aspect, the guards to the inside. This year, I think the program; we are taking that step to be the aggressor in a game like that; hit them first. For me, they had great guards, but I feel that if I am aggressive and I’m attacking the other team’s guards, that’s gonna put them on their heels. And in that game, they were never really on their heels. For me, as a point-guard, shooting-guard, combo-guard, what ever you want to call it, I’m going to look to go out in every game this year, and punch the opposing team’s point guard in the mouth… [chuckles] not literally, though.
SLAM: So, talk about this year. Last year it seemed your back court was crowded and this year it seems a bit empty. How do you guys plan to make up for not only the losses of Gerald and Greg, but also with Elliot (Williams) transferring to Memphis? Does it put some pressure on you?
NS: Yeah, this year, we are going to have a really great team; we are going to be really big this year. We have some great freshmen in Mason Plumlee (joining his sophomore brother, Miles) and Ryan Kelly. Jon (Scheyer) and I are going to take over the ball-handling obligations and both of us have shown that we can run the 1 and both of us have shown that we can score the ball. We are building a relationship that who ever gets the ball, just push it. We are going to have a great 1-2 punch at those positions. We also have Andre Dawkins, who came to school early and he can help us out right away, so I’m just anxious to get back to school and see him and be a big brother to him.
SLAM: Last year, we talked about you sharing the point guard duties with Greg, but are you cool with the same situation this year or would you just rather being the one guy “running the show?”
NS: The way that I look at myself as a player, I am just very aggressive. If I’m running the 1, that’s fine and if I’m on the wing, that’s just fine. The main thing, though, that I’m looking to do this year, is to be the most talkative guard in the country. One thing that really caught my eye this summer was the Kobe Doin’ Work video. Watching how much he talks on the court; he’s a leader; you know, he’s not a point guard, he does it off the ball. Whether I have the ball or if I’m off the ball, I feel that I can vocalize and lead this team along with Jon and Kyle [Singler].
SLAM: A lot has been made about Coach K’s recent time away with the national team, how do you see his Olympic experience positively or negatively affecting the program at Duke?
NS: His experiences are going to positively affect us, in all ways. He got to work with the Kobe’s and the LeBron’s and see their work ethic; see their love of the game; see the passion they have. He’s really brought that back to our squad and just what it takes to be the best team. You could have a team full of All-Stars and win a gold medal like they did. He’s using a lot of the teachings he did with them on us and we are all very responsive to that and we obviously respect what Kobe, LeBron and those guys did over in Beijing.
SLAM: Does he reference those experiences in the brief times since the Olympics? Does he say things like, “C’mon Nolan! Kobe wouldn’t have made that mistake!”?
NS: No, not really. When he’s back at Duke, it’s all about Duke. Maybe in a private meeting, he can talk about what all of us guys strive to be, that is NBA players, he might reference Kobe’s work ethic or LeBron’s work ethic. But in practice, he’s 100% Duke.
SLAM: Name a team or players that you are looking forward to facing this season.
NS: For one, I am looking forward to every opposing team’s guard. Especially, guys like Greivis Vasquez, who is a great friend of mine and he’s a great competitor. I always circle those two games, because I love facing him. I can’t wait to play Maryland, twice. That’s the home team.
SLAM: What is that like playing for Duke against the home squad?
NS: Well, I know all of them. I’m home playing pick up at the University of Maryland with those guys. In the summertime, there’s some tension in the gym when we’re playing.
SLAM: What are your individual goals for this year? Staying healthy?
NS: I think you really said it, staying healthy is the number one thing. The work that I have put in this summer, the hours I have put in and the time watching tape after every game and to just prepare to play the game that I love. But another goal is to leave my mark on everybody’s mind. I want to the whole world to know that Nolan Smith is for real. That was my goal this summer, that’s my goal going into this year. Every game, I want everybody at the end of the game to say, “Man, that Nolan Smith is a problem.”