Getting His Chance

by Cub Buenning

Two years ago, Duke University sophomore guard, Nolan Smith was a prominent member of that highly-decorated class of high school seniors that included Michael Beasley, Derrick Rose, O.J. Mayo, and Kevin Love. One year later, Smith was a part-time back-up, never once thinking of making the leap that his prep brethren were sure to make, but a future piece at one of the most successful college programs, nonetheless.

Now is Smith’s time. Gone is four-year starter, DeMarcus Nelson. Sure, Greg Paulus is back for his (seemingly) twelfth year in Durham, and he is certain to handle most of the point guard duties, but having two true points in the back court always has value.

“We look at it kind of like how the USA team had Chris Paul and Deron Williams, two point guards on the court,” mentioned Smith in between fall classes in Durham. “Greg and I both feel we can play together, we can both score, Greg is a great shooter and we can both play the one. With that, we’ll be able to give different looks to every single team that we play.”

In his sole season on the college scene, Smith averaged a modest 6 points, 1.5 rebounds, and 1.3 assists in just 15 minutes of burn a night, but when given the chance to shine, the Maryland native, by way of Kentucky, shone bright.

Fourteen in a big win versus Maryland, 17 in a nationally televised win over Michigan, and 21 against Wake in a disappointing loss were just some of the games that give the Cameron Crazies more than enough faith that Smith will be able to fill the large shoes left by Nelson.

“For me as a player, I took this summer very seriously, to come back and improve individually, as well as improve my team. We have just one senior in Greg, so I think the team and the coaches are really expecting a lot of me this year. When I left here this spring, I left on a mission. That mission is going to go all the way until April, when we take Duke Basketball as far as we can go this year. I took the summer to get stronger and faster and worked on parts of my game to the point that I feel I am the most ready sophomore going into the season in the whole country.”

Smith’s prep story has been pretty well documented, and his relationship with Beasley still lends itself to daily phone calls. The two lived and played together under the same DC-area roof, with Smith’s mom and future step-father Curtis Malone. Not only did the “brother-like” tandem play together during the school year, but Malone just happened to be their summer time boss, as he is the head coach and founder of the boys’ DC Assault team.

The son of former NBA forward Derek Smith, Nolan was immediately “adopted” by his dad’s teammates following his father’s shocking death to a heart defect in 1996; among those were former teammate Gerald Henderson (who can be seen these days courtside at Cameron Indoor Stadium watching his son Jr. play) and Blue Devil legend, 1986 National College Player of the Year, and longtime Coach K assistant, Johnny Dawkins.

“Coach Dawkins has been like a father figure for me since my father passed away. He’s been watching me for a long time and he came into the picture when I told him that Louisville wasn’t a lock,” recalls Smith. “It was very simple. Just having that father figure, or uncle figure, whatever you want to call it. Coach Dawkins has always been there for me. Even though he isn’t here now (Dawk was just hired this past spring as the Head Coach at Stanford) he still calls me. He sends me encouraging texts, just letting me know he is going to be watching me this year and is very proud of me and expects big things this year.”

Despite never verbally committing, it was long assumed that the younger Smith would follow his dad to Louisville (where Derek finished his career 2nd and is still the school’s 6th all-time leading scorer) but Nolan used the 11th hour to pass on the town and campus where he cut his youthful teeth.

“Everybody thought I was going to Louisville. My father’s legacy there and me being from Louisville, but coming from Duke, Coach Dawkins made it very clear to me that the coaching staff was going to take care of me and that life after basketball; Duke basketball was going to take care of me.”

On the court, however, things weren’t necessarily taken care of last year. A second-round loss to West Virginia deflated an encouraging 28-win season but the Blue Devils were again without that intangible toughness. Lacking true size and strength, instead relying more on quickness and perimeter shooting, Duke has often been known for little grit. When the “soft” tag was attached to his team, Smith took it personal and it burns inside him today.

“In some games, like against West Virginia, we were treated like little boys. Looking back at our last game, we are getting stronger and are going to be ready. We now have a huge chip on our shoulders. I was telling the guys in pick-up, ‘Don’t be soft!’ People think it’s Duke, and guys can stand over us and we won’t do anything. When it comes to the Carolina game, we are going to be ready to fight.”

As far as the big Tobacco Road rivalry (which looks to be as heated and competitive as ever) Smith looks forward to even more battles with the preseason no. 1, Tar Heels from UNC.

“Last year, they got us once and we got them once, but all their guys that people thought we’re going to leave, all came back. So, in our eyes, it’s the same scenario, we’re just missing DeMarcus. But we have guys that are ready to step up even more. Myself, John (Scheyer) and Greg took our games to a whole other level, we just look forward to playing those games. We are excited for that challenge.”

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