In college basketball, there are players who are stars from the moment they set foot on campus. There are some who take a few years to mature, and others that simply find a niche and fill a role. Their careers are full of accolades and on-the-court accomplishments, and their story is relived in highlight reels.
Then there are those players whose journey go beyond the basketball court. Their careers play out more like the plot of a dramatic Hollywood film than anything else, with ups and downs seemingly at every turn.
Nolan Smith is one of those players.
Smith's journey at Duke has been intriguing, unpredictable, and ultimately inspirational.
In his recruitment, many thought he would follow in his father, Derek's footsteps and attend Louisville. The elder Smith won a championship with the Cardinals in 1980 before playing in the NBA for nine seasons. Tragically, Smith's life was cut short by a heart attack when Nolan was only eight years old.
As it turned out, Smith's father was very close to his former NBA teammate Johnny Dawkins. Dawkins became a sort of second father to Smith after the passing of his dad. That relationship brought Smith to Duke in 2007, where Dawkins was serving as Mike Krzyzewski's head assistant coach.
Originally, Smith came in as Greg Paulus' understudy at the point guard position. As a freshman, he averaged double figures in minutes and showed flashes of his potential in a few ACC games, particularly in a mid-season loss against Wake Forest.
But Smith stayed at Duke and, indeed, took over the starting point guard duties at the beginning of the 08-09 season.
His sophomore campaign started well enough. Smith looked like a legitimate point guard with all of the tools to succeed in the ACC.
The 08-09 ACC, however, was a conference loaded with point guard talent and Smith struggled once conference play began. With the likes of Tyrese Rice, Toney Douglas, Ty Lawson, Jeff Teague, Malcolm Delaney, and Greivis Vasquez topping off the point guard talent in the conference, it's no wonder that Smith, a sophomore player in his first year as a starting point guard, struggled to adjust.
After a blowout loss to Clemson in mid-season, Smith lost his starting spot. He suffered a concussion against Maryland a few weeks later and missed several games.
By the time he came back from the injury, all of the hype Smith had received early in the year was gone. He had a few strong performances off the bench, but he hardly looked like a star.
Like the year before, hype started to build for Smith's upcoming season after some impressive summer league performances in the D.C. area. But many were skeptical due to Smith's struggles the previous season.
Throughout the summer, Duke's guard depth plummeted. Gerald Henderson surprised no one and declared early for the NBA draft. Elliot Williams transferred to Memphis to be close to his ailing mother. Along with Jon Scheyer, Smith was the only scholarship guard on the team (guard Andre Dawkins later joined the Blue Devils a season early).
With virtually no guard depth, the Blue Devils couldn't afford for Smith to have another lackluster year. Fortunately, he didn't plan to.
At Duke's Countdown to Craziness season-kickoff event, Smith made his junior season debut to Jay Z's "Public Service Announcement." The song opens with the words, "allow me to reintroduce myself."
"I wanted to send a message," said Smith in a conversation he and I had after Duke won the ACC tournament this past March. "I wanted to reintroduce myself to college basketball, to let people know that I was ready to leave my mark."
It didn't take Smith long to reintroduce himself. He scored a career-high 24 points in his first game of the season and never looked back.
While all the preseason talk about Duke was focused on Scheyer and Kyle Singler, Smith not-so-quietly played his way into the limelight. The expected one-two punch of Scheyer and Singler became the "Big Three" of Scheyer, Singler, and Smith.
Smith finished the conference season as the No. 5 scorer in the ACC. Analysts and commentators consistently talked about him as one of the most improved players in the nation.
He didn't let up in the postseason either.
Smith averaged nearly 18 points a game in the NCAA tournament, including a 29-point performance in the Elite Eight against Baylor.
The result of his breakout season was nothing short of inspirational movie magic—he won an NCAA title in Indianapolis, the same city his father had won his title in 30 years earlier.
Call it divine providence or coincidence or whatever you like, but that is truly moving.
Smith's time at Duke isn't done yet.
Even though his junior season was nothing short of spectacular, he still finds ways to motivate himself.
"A lot of people were saying I should have been first team," said Smith. "It is what it is, but it motivates me to set higher and higher goals."
I'm not sure how Smith can go much higher (save, of course, for a career in the NBA), but he is certainly used to looking up.
He looks up to his father and dedicates himself to making him proud before each game. Right before his brilliant performance against Baylor, Smith tweeted, "This one's for you, Dad. I love you."
As Smith keeps looking up and pushing himself further in his game, he never seems to forget that he has someone looking down on him and smiling.
That is why Smith's journey transcends basketball, and it might just be the reason he keeps reaching higher.
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