When Duke took the court versus Coastal Carolina in the NIT Season Tip-Off, big names and big guys alike reigned supreme.
ACC Player of the Year candidate Kyle Singler and senior point guard Jon Scheyer got most of the attention, with the young frontcourt players also receiving the spotlight.
One thing was missing when the last buzzer sounded, when Duke had wrapped up a 74-49 victory over Coastal Carolina and advanced to the second round of the tournament: Nolan Smith.
While freshman guard Andre Dawkins carried most of the load at shooting guard, racking up 13 points in only his second game at Duke, the last piece of the puzzle seemed to be missing.
The junior shooting guard Smith was suspended for the first two games of the season by the NCAA for playing in an unsanctioned summer league during the offseason. While it may not seem like a big deal at the moment, imagine if Duke lost Smith to some type of injury this season.
Who would help carry the load? Who would be the leader on the floor when Scheyer and Singler aren't in the game? Who could fill in for Smith?
The answer to the questions above is no one. No one on this Duke team can penetrate through double teams and drive to the hoop like Smith can. No one possesses the natural athletic ability and swagger that Smith offers to Coach K and his staff.
No one will be able to fill the void during the season if something happens to Smith, and that was made apparent during the first two games of the season for Duke. With Smith out of the lineup, Duke had to play at a slower pace.
Scheyer is a great point guard, and has fit in the role perfectly; however, he is not equipped to lead Duke on the fast break.
That’s where Smith comes into play.
During the first part of last season, Coach K inserted Smith as the point guard of the team. Although he was not able to hold that position for long, he proved to Coach K that he could lead Duke on the fast break, most of the time swinging the ball out for a wide-open three-point attempt from Scheyer, Singler, or Gerald Henderson.
Singler is the focal point of this Duke team, with Scheyer a statement of consistency. Both are very valuable to Duke’s season, especially if they want to be in contention for a Final Four appearance.
However, the key player to Duke’s success and season is Nolan Smith.
If Smith can develop his game and make it look somewhat similar to that of Henderson’s from last year, there is no telling how far Duke can go in the NCAA Tournament.
Smith is the piece of the puzzle that has been missing during the first two games of the season. When he is inserted into the starting lineup in the NIT second round matchup versus Charlotte, look for Duke to resemble a team of excellence, pride, and a team that has a newfound “swagger.”
It is this “swagger” that makes Nolan Smith the most crucial part to Duke’s success and season.