Local Hoopster Nolan Smith is Working Hard to Get Back into the NBA
His father, the late Derek Smith, was a journeyman guard in the league, playing nine seasons with five different teams after a successful college career at the University of Louisville, which included a NCAA Championship in 1980.
Derek was known in basketball circles for his tenacity, grit and relentless drive. He would acknowledge that other players may have more raw talent, but no one was going to outwork him.
"Hard work is definitely who he was," said Nolan about his father. "No matter what it was, tennis, track, basketball, school, he always preached working hard."
For the first eight years of his life, Nolan was Derek's shadow. He quietly and intently studied and internalized his father's every word and move. Nolan idolized Derek, and wanted to be exactly like him: competitive, but with an unwavering positive attitude and an out-sized joy for life, his family and the game of basketball. Eighteen years later, he still does.
Derek passed away suddenly and unexpectedly from an undetected heart defect in 1996. At the time, Derek was starting his third year as an assistant coach for the Washington Bullets (now Wizards) and brought Nolan to countless practices and games, just so they could spend time together. That was part of Derek's deal to accept the job--Nolan had to be welcome to tag along for everything.
"He always just told me watch--watch what [the pro players] do, how they carry themselves, how they handle their business," said Nolan. "I watched them, but I also watched him. Every day."
Nolan lost his hero and North Star. Derek's NBA friends stepped in to help fill the void--Juwan Howard and Johnny Dawkins assumed "big brother" status. Coach Jim Lynam took Nolan under his wing. Their mentoring and support were invaluable, but it was the lessons, love and wisdom from his father that formed Nolan's foundation as an athlete and person.
Talent was clearly inherited. People often say to Nolan "you look so much like your father," or "you move like your pop."
"I love that people see him in me," said Nolan.
But it is in his commitment to hard work and his joie d'vivre that he most resembles his father. These are the comparisons he cherishes. And this is what will carry him through the toughest stretch of his short professional career as he works he way back into the NBA.
Nolan was drafted out of Duke in 2011, with the 21st pick by the Portland Trail Blazers. It was a somewhat surprising move, because the general consensus from pre-draft camps had Smith as a second-round player with the leadership skills, but not necessarily the technical skills, to handle the point in the pros. Scouting reports noted that his limited shooting range and 6'1" size excluded him from shooting guard options in the NBA.
Draft Express scout Jonathan Givony posted in 2010, "From a physical standpoint, Smith isn't likely to blow anyone away with his athleticism or upside...[he] is more smooth than he is explosive, relying on his smarts, timing and outstanding fundamentals to get the job done."
As a combo guard, Smith needed to find the right role in the right system in order to gain a foothold in the league. Portland wasn't the answer.
He spent his first two pro seasons as a backup point guard, parked on the bench of a mediocre Blazers team. Despite his familiarity with the NBA, Portland was an adjustment, and he never found his groove, only averaging 3.3 points, 1.2 assists and one rebound per game with limited playing time.
Smith joined a middling franchise from a top-notch college program where he finished as a (rare) senior who racked up national accolades including first-team All American in 2011, and a 2010 national championship. Smith may not be flashy, but he knows how to win--he was part of a senior class that compiled a home winning record of 65-2.
However, in the NBA, your resume and pedigree don't matter. It's a "what have you done for me lately" business. Athletes who find their niche and produce are the ones who endure.
The Blazers did not exercise Smith's option in 2013, and he became an unrestricted free agent. Opportunities within the NBA were limited, and Smith landed in the Euroleague for the 2013-14 season with Croatia's Cedevita Zagreb. He was the starting point guard, and played significant minutes averaging 13.8 points, 3.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game for the season and shot 46.3 percent from the field.
It was a solid, consistent season, but not in Smith's desired league. His dream has always been the NBA, like his dad. Playing well in Europe didn't satisfy him.
So, Smith, at age 26, is back in the U.S. for NBA Summer League, and is hoping to snag a roster spot in the NBA for the upcoming season.
Summer League is a proving ground. It's where teams learn the true strengths and weaknesses of the players they drafted and where guys who have been riding the bench in the regular season can claim minutes to show what they can do with an opportunity. It's also where the players on the margins--the ones in the D-League or toiling in the outposts of Europe and China--can prove that they have what it takes to compete every day, in the NBA.
Historically, the Summer League hasn't been kind to Smith. It was cancelled his first year in the NBA, due to the lockout. In 2012, Smith suffered a concussion during the last few seconds of a mid-tournament game. He had racked up 27 points, five rebounds, five assists and two steals before the injury and had to halt his training for the summer to recover. Smith signed with the 2013 Celtics Summer League team and suffered a right calf tear in the first game.
He gave it another shot this summer with the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team looking for a new backup point guard, after Derek Fisher left to become head coach of the New York Knicks.
Smith played significant minutes in two of five games, with his best performance against Brooklyn accumulating 11 points, 4 assists and 3 steals in 22 minutes. But shortly after Smith was added to the roster, the Thunder signed free agent Sebastian Telfair, another guard drafted by the Blazers (2004) who spent last season playing overseas (China).
This does not change the course Smith and his agent, former NBA point guard BJ Armstrong, charted earlier in the summer. That plan includes plugging away at his game every day and finding quality minutes in competitive forums.
Armstrong's counsel has been consistent, "Focus on the process and don't worry about the results. Nolan is doing the work and I give him all the credit. Everyone wants the results and no one wants to go through the work necessary to get there."
No one can say that about Nolan--it's where his father's imprint peeks through: hard work, perseverance and a positive attitude.
Hard work means weights, treadmill and court time every day. Smith is also working with Philadelphia basketball trainer "Chuck" Ellis Gindraw to refine his ball handling and hone his decision-making.
"He's hungry right now--his work ethic is through the roof," said Gindraw. "We're focused on playing like an old school point guard--how he gets to his spots and makes others around him better, or gets defense to commit and then dish, or getting and taking the open shots."
Smith is facing a big decision in the next few weeks: take a guaranteed contract with a Euroleague team in Istanbul, or accept an invitation to training camp with the Thunder or another NBA team, knowing that the odds of securing a permanent roster spot are slim.
"There's no formula of how to get to the NBA," said Armstrong. "There are an infinite amount of choices, so you have to figure out what's the best for that person to reach [his] potential and be the best [he] can be."
The NBA D-League is also an option, but one that Smith is not considering.
"The name of the game is to make money at this point," said Smith. "I'm still young and I still want to play basketball. There's not as much money to make here [in the D-League], so I'm looking at Europe."
This should not preclude him from realizing his goal to make it back to the NBA. With advances in technology, scouts can follow athletes in real-time, regardless of where they play. If you're good and fit the system, an NBA general manager will find you.
"The NBA is about one thing--who is going to help them win games. Period," said Armstrong. "Every team is trying to win. That's the one thing we all share--players, GMs, coaches, [all] want guys that will help them win."
In a recent Summer League game broadcast, NBA icon Isiah Thomas talked about how challenging it is for unsigned players to secure permanent spot.
"Timing is everything, you have to be a little bit lucky...rosters change throughout the year. Every other month someone either is underperforming or someone is getting hurt and you just have to stay ready and be ready."
Smith is ready to play. And, he is not ready to give up his NBA dreams.
"In my ideal scenario, I'm playing the game I love, making good money, having another successful season which will open more doors to get back into the NBA," said Smith.
Smith understands that there are no short cuts and no guarantees. It's all about hard work and a positive attitude. His father's son, Smith is committed to improving his game, every day, regardless of where he lands.
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PODCAST LINK: https://soundcloud.com/teegrec/sports-talk-back