For Duke's Nolan Smith, it's all about 'the switch'
By Dan Wiederer
Nolan Smith leans forward in his chair, unfolds his hands and rubs his thighs for a few seconds. He knows exactly what you're talking about - and is more than eager to share his expertise.
Surrounded by a pack of interested reporters, Smith has been asked to discuss his growth as a basketball player. And like Bob Villa detailing his latest home renovation, he relays the how-to of his personal transformation with a sense of pride.
“After my sophomore year, I saw my reality,” Smith says. “And I got an understanding of how serious I had to get. I knew that if I wanted to one day make it to the NBA, I had to learn to get mad every time I stepped on the court. I had to condition myself to always be in attack mode. You have to have that switch and know how to use it.”
In a big way, this is what helped Smith transform from a friendly and versatile Duke standout into a vicious competitor who finished his college career with a flourish, emerging as a respected All-American and National Player of the Year candidate during his senior season.
For a kid universally adored across the Duke campus and considered one of the true gentlemen of the sport, it’s strange to spend a chunk of time talking to Smith about how nasty he can be. But that’s a side he’s grown proud of.
“That transition wasn’t easy with who I am as a loving and caring person,” he says. “But once I finally figured out I could be both (friendly and ferocious), then it just clicked.”
Here at the NBA Pre-Draft Combine in Chicago, Smith is sharing these thoughts with the media. Yet if he’s smart, he’ll also have this sermon ready for league executives as he continues auditioning for a job before draft night arrives June 23.
Smith sure has a lot to sell the chief decision makers in the NBA. He could start with his selfless and grounded nature, delivering proof that he will always be a good teammate.
He could pitch his versatility, reminding execs that he had high-level success as both a shooting guard and a point guard at Duke.
And Smith could also pull out his college resume and point to the one thing all league general managers care most about: winning. In the 143 games Smith played at Duke, the Blue Devils won 121 times, marching all the way to a national title in 2010.
Yet major questions remain about Smith’s fit at the next level. At 6-foot-3, he’s too small, critics says, to play shooting guard full-time. That means he’ll be drafted as a point guard. Yet even with his success last winter playing the point after Kyrie Irving got hurt, NBA folks still aren’t sure Smith has shown enough as a distributor to become a building block for a team.
So what can set Smith apart?
That question is best left to the experts now evaluating Smith as part of a crowded point guard draft pool that also includes Brandon Knight, Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette, Josh Selby, Kalin Lucas, Shelvin Mack, Charles Jenkins, Cory Joseph and Iman Shumpert.
“Nolan is perceived as a guy who hasn’t proven he can see the floor as well as he’ll need to,” says one NBA executive. “But in that point guard grouping, there really isn’t a whole lot of separation. So his individual workouts will be big. When he’s going head-to-head with all these guys, he’s going to have to show his toughness and his edge. We’ve seen his ability to take over by being aggressive and being vocal. He’s just going to have to remember to flip that switch.”
Ah, yes. There it is again.
A perfect role model
Now is as good a time as any to point out that it took Smith awhile to install “The Switch” in his game. It took him even longer to learn how to activate it.
That was always a challenge for the Duke coaching staff early in Smith’s college career. They saw his talent, that blend of elite athleticism and savvy that made him a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school. And they loved his affable personality.
But there was something deeper inside Smith, something fierce they wanted to uncage. No one saw it more than former Blue Devils assistant Johnny Dawkins, who had been a close friend to Smith’s late father, Derek.
During Smith’s first two years at Duke, Dawkins continually pushed Nolan and ultimately felt compelled to relay his own personal insight into what had allowed Derek to vault from an unheralded recruit coming out of high school into a cutthroat competitor who starred at Louisville and later played nine seasons in the NBA.
“You want a young man to know where he comes from and what his genes are,” Dawkins said.
Installing “The Switch,” Dawkins told Nolan, would be his biggest challenge as a college player and the surest way to emulate his father. And yet, Dawkins asserted, that didn’t mean Nolan had to change who he was away from the court.
Dawkins told Nolan how intense his dad always was as a competitor.
“But there was no more loving and caring person than Derek off the court,” he said. “You talk about a true gentlemen and a professional. Derek exhibited those characteristics long before it became fashionable to talk about those characteristics in sports.”
Dawkins knew Nolan had the same DNA, that same courteous makeup. Yet too often, Smith would carry his gracious character onto the court too.
“One of the biggest things in his development was getting him to understand how to flip that switch,” Dawkins said. “When you step between the lines, you have to take on a new persona. You have to become a new character. The game just doesn’t reward the gentleness.”
Now might be the best time to bring Michigan guard Darius Morris into the conversation. Unlike so many people around basketball, Morris got to know Smith in reverse order, first confronting Smith the cold-blooded rival in March before engaging with the lighthearted and gregarious version of Smith two months later
At last month’s NBA Pre-Draft Combine, Morris began to understand why Smith is so well-liked by his peers, his smile always beaming and able to instantly charm a room.
“Getting to know him, you immediately get a sense for how genuinely humble he is,” Morris said.
Yet two months earlier, with Michigan threatening to bounce top-seeded Duke out of the NCAA tournament in the second round, Morris saw Smith turn on “The Switch.” With the Blue Devils clinging to a two-point lead early in the second half and coach Mike Krzyzewski seething on the sideline, Smith dialed in.
In a span of 2 minutes and 10 seconds, he scored 10 unanswered points. Included in that surge was one of the most wicked highlights of the NCAA tournament with Smith executing a blinding crossover that knocked Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. to the floor, then rising up to hit a pull-up jumper.
As the shot fell, Smith turned toward a section of Michigan fans with an incensed glare.
“That was a sick highlight,” Morris said. “Right after that, all I remember is wanting to hurry up and get the ball back across half-court so we could get a timeout. You saw it in the way he was carrying himself. You could sense that as a senior he realized that he didn’t want to take that jersey off for the last time and it showed in his play.”
Certainly, that’s one of those “Switch” moments, on a menu with so many others from the past two seasons.
Let’s not forget Smith’s 29-point explosion in the 2010 Elite Eight against Baylor.
“Big game, big stage, big stakes,” he said. “And I knew what I had to do to attack their zone and get my team the win. So I just god mad.”
And, of course, there’s Smith’s personal favorite “Switch” game, a 79-73 comeback win over rival North Carolina at Cameron Indoor Stadium last February. With Duke trailing 43-29 at halftime, Smith converted his frustration into competitive fuel. He scored 22 of his 34 points in the second half and spearheaded a defensive effort that forced UNC into 37.5 percent shooting after halftime.
“When he flips the switch and gets into that mode, he doesn’t get tired,” close friend Kyle Singler says. “It’s impressive. He’s a guy who we relied on to pressure the ball on defense and to take care of the ball and score on the offensive end. To have all that responsibility can take a lot out of you. But for him to play that way, with that edge and not get tired, you can see that then take a lot out of the other team.”
Now comes the point where Nolan Smith must acknowledge his uncertain future. With two-and-a-half weeks left before draft night, he still hasn’t cemented himself as a first-round selection and must use whatever individual workouts he has remaining to erase the question marks on his scouting report.
“We need to see that he truly can see the floor,” the NBA exec says. “I thought he had blinders on at times, where he was always a score-first guy who could get his assists off of that. But at this level, he needs to operate with a priority of first setting his teammates up.”
Smith knows he’ll easily handle the interview portion of his NBA visits, showcasing his positive energy and able to articulate his biggest strengths.
“I’m always going to compete,” he says. “And I have a track record of having a winning attitude, a winning understanding of the game and a winning feel for a locker room.”
But ultimately, Smith’s draft status and his future place in the NBA will need him to show not tell coaches and general managers what he can do.
Succeeding on the college level and flourishing in the NBA are two totally different feats. Often, the transition to the next level requires a player like Smith to change the way he operates, to change the way he sees the floor, to change the way he asserts himself within his team.
With all that adaptation ahead, Smith grins.
“I know now every time I step on the court I have to attack everyone who tries to guard me and everyone who I’m guarding,” he says. “I want to make a lot of money some day and be able to take care of my family by playing this game. This is what I’ve dreamed of and worked for my whole life. So now when I take the court, it’s all business.”
And it’s all about “The Switch.”