Durham, N.C. - When you listen to Nolan Smith talk about basketball, the talent of which he has inherited and honed from his late father, it’s easier to understand why the so-called truism, “It’s just a game,” is anything but.
It’s not a job for Nolan, though it inevitably will be something from which he will be afforded a paycheck someday if he so desires. But it’s not trivial, either. It’s the fulfillment of a dream; it’s the continuation of a relationship with his dad; it’s aligned itself with who he is, and what he learns and what he does on the court will inform the person he will become.
When Nolan crumpled to the floor last season after being blind-sided by a screener twice his size, he revealed the high quality person he has long been. There was no moaning to the media, no embitterment at losing time on the court. There was only determination to get well, to get back out there, and to play.
And that he did, and quite well, up until the bitter end in the Sweet Sixteen. At the time, it appeared that the Blue Devils would be a force to be reckoned with in 2010, with nearly everyone set to return and a formidable group of freshman heading to campus that fall. Things have changed, with that team’s go-to scorer having ventured to the NBA, and another contributor being called by the duty all sons hold dear in venturing home to his ailing mother’s side.
Nolan knows about the duty of sons, too. He knows about being a relentless worker and a great teammate, more lessons gleaned from the days doting on his father during his NBA career. Up until last year, he didn’t know as much about being a point guard, however. But duty has called, and now Nolan—one of just two scholarship guards on Duke’s current roster for the upcoming year—is looking to meet the need.
“The main thing was just straight hunger and attitude,” Nolan says. “Going into my junior year, I want to be one of the best point guards in the ACC and the country. Being hungry and having goals, those goals that Coach K has set for me and that I’ve pushed upon myself—I want to meet those. I really want to get it going.”
A season ago, Nolan took the reigns out of the hands of a senior point guard, a responsibility earned after a summer of relentless work and play. But mid-season he sputtered, and found himself in a situation he had not anticipated he’d be in: on the bench. It would seem unwise to expect a similar situation in 2010; Nolan’s making sure of that.
“I’d get to the gym around 10, take 30 minutes to get on the bike and then start stretching,” Nolan says of his early summer training regiment. “Flexibility is a huge thing for athleticism. Your jumping and speed increases, so I was stretching a lot. I started out with a lot of ballhandling, trying to increase my speed pushing the ball down the court with no shooting at the end, just dribbling. Then we’d go lift. We lifted, then we’d shoot. In order to keep my form we’d lift then go shoot the lift off, then go lift again, then shoot some more. So it kept my body fresh and it was a great routine. So from 10-2 pm we got in a lot of shots, got in various ball screen coming off the ball-screen shots, various transition shots and definitely some floaters and things like that.”
These are not weapons in his arsenal, however; they are traits being pushed toward perfection. They are part of who Nolan is when the basketball is in his hands—not an extension—he is versatile, preparing himself to contribute despite his size, using the physical and mental gifts he has to his advantage. To mere devotees of the game, they are skills to be learned; to Nolan, this is part of his maturation.
And he’s having fun along the way.
The first half of his summer was spent back home in the Washington D.C. area, and in the evenings after his workouts were complete, Nolan would head to the University of Maryland or to Georgetown and play pick-up games with and against guys that he competed against a year ago. They’re all friends regardless, but that’s no reason for Nolan to veil his competitiveness. It’s all the more reason to unleash it, and to show off the player he’s becoming.
“It gets testy ‘cause they’re defending their home court, so they’re shoving me down,” Nolan says. “And I’m trying to leave a message for the upcoming season: ‘You know I’m gonna do this come ACC time.’”
Point guards have always been at the core of what K-coached teams have been able to do. Rare are the Duke teams in which there are so few guards from which to draw those plans, however. Consequently, Nolan—along with senior everyman Jon Scheyer--will need to do a lot more of everything.
“We’re going to have to be ready to go against other guards that are coming in fresh, so we’re going to have to be ready to step up to the plate and just play our games,” he admits.
That shouldn’t be too hard for Nolan; he’ll just have to be himself.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Duke University or the Duke University Department of Athletics.