One on one with Nolan Smith

One of the most popular players in Duke history, Nolan Smith enjoyed tremendous success during his time in Durham. Not only did he accumulate a number of individual award, he also helped his team to the 2010 National Title and was a regular star of the program’s social media channels. Since leaving Duke a lot has happened with Smith and we sat down to discuss it all…

To start Nolan I wanted to ask how you are holding up dealing with the ACL injury?

Nolan Smith: It’s going good being back at Duke, I’m in good hands. There’s a great staff here with Nick Potter and Jose, they are going to take care of me and make sure I come back stronger than ever.

Did Nick and Jose offer to help or was that more at your request?

Yeah, the D-League team I’m with in Delaware, they gave me the option to do my rehab and surgery wherever I wanted. Of course Jose heard what had happened with my injury and they are always on top of things with players to help us recover. They are excited to get me down here. I’ve already had the surgery about a week ago, it’s looking good and we have a thing on my leg right now, but it’s all good, just all part of the process.

What’s the rehab process going to look like for you in terms of when it officially starts and how long is it expected to go?

They are saying right now from 6-9 months, that’s the period of time that most doctors say and what they told me. I’m expecting a good, lengthy process, but I’m going to put in my time with it and come back stronger than ever.

Dealing with your first major surgery like this Nolan—what’s helping you stay in it mentally?

Yeah, this is my first major injury like this, first surgery. My family is helping me a lot, they are right by my side, helping me keep my spirits up and obviously a big reason for me in choosing to come to Duke for my surgery and rehab was the Duke Family being here with Coach K and everybody, getting to see them every day. They are always going to keep my spirits up.

Speaking of the Duke Family—it’s obvious that you like to spend time around the team since you have left—have you always had a natural influence in that regard when you are around the team?

Yeah definitely, that’s always been one of my big things in doing that because I had a really good four years here and I have built such a great relationship with Coach K that we speak on the regular. Because of that I always want to come back for K Academy or Duke Basketball Camps or whatever, just because I want the team to continue to see me and I know they always like it when I’m around. You always gotta check up on your family and that’s the way I look at it there, it’s a real family.

Are you the big brother type in your approach with the guys when you are around— or is it a different feel to the type of influence/example you set?

Definitely the big brother type with them. It’s a good thing when I’m around them because I’m not a coach, they just see me and they know I’m a friend to them while I’m also willing to talk with them about what they need to on the court and off and what I went through in my career. I tell them that because I want them to know that if they are going through something in their time at Duke, I can talk with them about what I went through because I went through a lot in my time at Duke, so I know what they are feeling when they come into the gym.

Since you mentioned going through some things I wanted to ask —what helped you work through those struggles you faced early on at Duke?

Yeah it was hard at different points … I remember not playing a lot freshman year and then dealing with lineup changes and whatnot my sophomore year and then coming back junior year trying to become the player I really wanted to become by my senior year. A career like that I’m always going to look back and know that I didn’t give up, I didn’t quit. I trusted Duke, I trusted Coach K. Coach Dawkins when he left to go to Stanford he told me to stay at Duke and I trusted him and I trusted Coach K who told me and Coach Dawkins told me that everything was going to be ok and I just listened to him telling me that was  huge thing for your career.

Hard work helped me too, I just always kept working hard and staying in the gym because I knew that there were things I had to work on to become the player that I wanted to be and that Coach K thought I could be. So I kept working and learning the game and eventually it just clicked to where I started playing the way I wanted to play. I knew I wasn’t a point guard in the traditional way but I figured out how to play it the way I could and to play my best at it, then I became who I ended up being.

Who made a big difference in your time at Duke in terms of helping you really grow on and off the court?

I think all the coaches had a hand in it. Especially when Coach Dawkins left, that was my guy, that was who recruited me, I mean that was Uncle Johnny, that’s family right there. So all the coaches made sure that I was good and that I had somebody to talk to at all times. Honestly in the summertimes between those years my trainer Gary, he did a great job at keeping me focused and knowing that great things were ahead of me instead of pouting and doing what most kids do these days in transferring when they aren’t happy. That was never an option for me, I always knew that things were going to be alright and the people in my life just really helped me keep it going.

You didn’t pout or complain when things were rough…why?

I think for me I’ve always been mentally strong. That’s something I learned at an early age with just dealing with life that comes your way. At Duke, it was tough because it’s a top college team and you come in as a McDonald’s All American, you expect things and you think you are going to in there and take this guy’s spot, this and that but when it doesn’t go your way, you can’t run from it. I never wanted to run from anything and that’s just who I am as a person. I knew it was going to work out.

You mentioned that you trusted Coach K during your time at Duke—how did that trust develop?

My trust in him was really built strong with him during my in-house visit with him in high school. He came into my house and I remember watching him and you always trust your mom and family when it comes to people and their character and she really trusted him right from the start. He didn’t come in there and tell me any lies, he came in there and honestly told me and when I look back at that day when he came in there, he didn’t tell me that I was going to come in there and start, he didn’t tell me that things were going to roses and great all the time. It was then that I knew that my trust in him was going to be just fine and me and him started to see eye to eye on things and at that point, things were really on me. He told me to take my time and make the decision I wanted to make and that right there showed me that he trusted me and I knew I trusted him.

What for you solidified when you knew that Duke was the place you really wanted to go to?

I think it’s the family thing, I think it’s kinda like one of the main reasons why I’m back here at Duke now, it’s because of the family thing here. I think there’s a lot of colleges out there right now that I’m pretty sure that when a player gets hurt, there’s not too many guys that can go back to their college and just be around 24/7, getting rehab and just being in there around the team. But Coach K, he doesn’t have a problem with that because of the type of family environment they keep here. When they recruited me they told me that this is a family that extends beyond your 4 years there. When you need us, we’re there for you and that’s what I’m all about as well. I’m all about family, if I’m with my mom and family, it’s just like with Duke because of their beliefs and their morals are just like mine.

Was Coach Dawkins being there when you decided on Duke also one of the main reasons you picked Duke, or was that more an added blessing?

That was an added blessing definitely. Obviously it was first and foremost Coach K who sold me but him being there it was just like I knew that there was going to be somebody there who was just like family that’s going to have my back. That was an added bonus.

Continuing with the family theme—Gerald Henderson mentioned in the first interview for this series just how deep a friendship it was for him with you and Jon Scheyer when you were at Duke together. For you Nolan what was the relationship like with him?

Oh yeah, Gerald and I go way back, way back to when our dads were playing together when we were young kids. We go back to Duke Basketball Camp days, so our relationship goes very far back and it’s crazy that we both went to Duke and we both ended up becoming Duke Basketball players. Going from there obviously we’ve gotten closer and closer. Even as we’ve gotten older and to this day, we still talk all the time, that group with him, me and Jon Scheyer, we are as close as it gets.

Gerald also mentioned what it was like experiencing the learning curve you guys did as underclassmen at Duke—what was that like for you, Nolan, with growing through those early team struggles and growing pains?

It was a lot. When you come to Duke as a young guy, you definitely have a lot to learn. I think the seniors on the team do a great job helping you mature along with maturing on your own. Great veterans and people are there to help you along with your time, especially in preseason when the preseason conditioning gets tough, they tell you how to get through that.

You were part of the team that won Duke’s last national championship, I’m curious to hear if there was a period of time as a team in your time at Duke where you started to know that this team could potentially  be strong enough to compete for a national championship? Was there a point in time where that started coming together?

I don’t think we really knew until we got to the NCAA Tournament after the ACC Tournament and winning it that year. It was then that we realized how close we were, how together we were and we were a bunch of veterans who had played a lot of minutes. We knew we wouldn’t give up and we knew that we could get wins in the Tournament. We knew we were good then and ready to play.

Who were the guys that really set the tone in practice and just with the team in general that year? What were the dynamics of that team?

We had so many guys that were leaders every single day in practice. From the main with Jon, Kyle, Lance and Zoubek, those 5 guys with myself—we literally brought it every single day in practice. With the young guys, it was always a spirited practice with us even though it wasn’t always the longest, but we had our 5 and we made sure that those young guys came in and worked extra hard literally from the time we started practice and all the way through. We just had great chemistry with the whole team, we did stuff together off the court and that just made us complete. We knew we were a family.

I’ve heard Coach K say in the past that he’s had juniors and seniors who really kinda set the standard for how the team was going to be on a given season. For you, with that group, what kind of standard did you guys set as a team?

We were just a focused team and we didn’t take any crap from anybody, even in practice. If you came to practice and didn’t compete hard enough we would be kicking guys out of practice. We were one of those teams that they hadn’t had in awhile leading up to then, just 5 guys starting who were all juniors and seniors, 5 guys who been through a lot of experiences together. It’s something that’s been missing around here recently but I think this year with this team, I think they have a good chance this year because they have good leadership like we did. If you are a leader on our team, you knew you were going to set the tone and let everybody know that this is how things are going to be and that’s always been there with the really good Duke teams.

Your national championship team also went through a defensive approach change that year—what was the adjustment process like for you guys as a team to playing that new style of Duke defense?

It was great and I think it fit our team great. You know we had Zoubs, Kyle Singler at 6-foot-9 on the wing and then Lance who wasn’t the most athletic but he had great hands and he could defend and he had a great mind like we all did. So when we started to pack it in and play tight defense and making teams kinda beat us from the outside because we knew we could beat anybody on the boards with our rebounding. It fit our team and it made us a special defensive team and we really had an identity.

We picked it up pretty quick too, the main thing with Coach was we needed to have our foot on the 3 point line on the perimeter and keep your man in front, so once we started doing that, it wasn’t hard to figure it out.

Aside from winning the national championship, were there any special or memorable memories for you that you remember personally from that championship run?

I think my best experience through the whole thing with that was the Elite 8 game against Baylor. I think that was my best game individually but for me it was monumental because of the Final 4 being back in Indianapolis where my dad played in his and won his national championship. A really cool story for me was throughout that whole tournament I was carrying my dad’s national championship ring around with me. Having that motivation was great because I would look at it before and after every single game and it just let me know where I wanted to get to and what I wanted to win. I knew we could do it.

How were you guys generally as a team going into the national championship game against Butler? Nervous, calm, excited?

We were very calm. I think it just showed that we were very sure of ourselves and we knew that nothing was going to change with us. We all knew what I was going to do, what Kyle was going to do, like I mentioned before within that core, that starting group, we knew what we were going to do and I think as a team, with Coach K, when you don’t have doubt going on that court it just alleviates everything because you can look to your left and to your right and you know that your teammates are going to be there no matter what. You know you can just go out there and play basketball.

With as close as that game was all game—what kind of things were you guys saying to each other in the huddles?

Yeah it was very close but I think throughout that whole game we were so confident. We always felt like we were in control of that game and we knew that they were going to make their run and make some shots but we knew that if we stayed with it and kept playing hard, we just kept telling each other to stay positive, let’s get some stops, stuff like that. We knew we were going to win that game and we knew that it was going to come down to the wire because they weren’t going to die or quit at any point.

Once the final shot was in the air—what was going through your mind?

I was nervous for real. Once Zoubs missed that free throw and it came off kinda hard and it bounced perfectly to Gordon Hayward and he came up the court and I was kinda the last guy to run past him and when he put up his shot, it looked good, it was on a good path, good follow through. I thought that’s the kind of shot guys make in practice and when I looked back and hit the backboard and go off the rim, I just had such relief.

How was the celebration for you the rest of that night?

It was just amazing just to be able to spend time with your family and friends downstairs in the hotel, seeing the Crystal Ball Trophy we were awarded back at the hotel, it was just a great feeling and it was even better to get to spend that time with your brothers that you worked hard with all year long. It just meant a lot and as a team we realized that all year we were talented and we felt good about our team and that we were a veteran team who also had a lot of talent and that we were supposed to win.

What was Coach K like with you guys after winning the game?

It was funny because all year long he told us that you guys are a good team. Then I think after we won the ACC Tournament he said you guys are really good team. Then after we won the Elite 8 he said you guys are a really really good team. It was kinda like he didn’t want to tell us that we were a great team because he didn’t want us to get a big head. So finally in the locker room after winning the national championship, he told us that you guys are a GREAT team. He just kinda smiled and we brought it in and that was his message to us. It was special.

After that season you had a decision to make in whether to go pro or come back for your senior year. What was that decision making process like for you?

My decision was more based on Kyle. I felt like we both honestly had a chance to go pro but 9 times out of 10 you are going to get drafted, but I was really just waiting on Kyle to make his decision because honestly I didn’t want to go through a lonely senior year being the only senior, it would have been a tougher task without him but I would have been ready for it. Kyle was my running mate, he was my roommate, he’s the guy I came into school with and as I soon as I knew he was staying, I knew I was going to be staying at Duke.

How much input if any did you and Kyle have with each other in that process?

I didn’t really talk to him to be honest. I gave Kyle his space and let him make his decision on his own. I think he knew what we had coming in and we all talked with the coaches, we both met with the coaches individually and they wrote the pros and cons for both of us on the board individually. Talked about who was going, who was staying. Coach told me everything that I could potentially do in coming back and the crazy thing was that everything happened that he wrote on that board that could happen for me. Winning ACC Player of the Year, being First Team All-American, potentially winning back to back championships. All of those things sound great but for me, having been in college for 3 years I thought to myself, might as well be in it for 4 and get it done. I was already thinking I’ve been here this long, why not one more year so I can get my college degree. That’s why I went to Duke University, was to get that degree. The money could wait.

What do you think that says to you Nolan about your relationship with Kyle seems to have been one of the determining factors in you choosing to come back for your senior year?

Man, Kyle’s my brother and we are still brothers to this day. My thinking was that if one of my brothers was gonna leave, I was going to leave with him. That’s how close we were and he knew what my decision was going to be without him even having to ask me what I was going to do.

So did he give you the advance preview that he was coming back or did you find out when everybody else did?

He told me in advance and I went over there, he didn’t say that “I’m staying”. He did it in a way that’s very Kyle Singler-esque. He told me that he wanted me to know that I’m staying in this apartment next year and I kinda looked at him and was like “ohhh, ok”. I was like “alright, I hear you”.

Obviously you had a small sample size with your senior year of playing with Kyrie Irving before his injury, what was it like for you sharing a backcourt with him when he was able to play?

Oh man, it was a lot of fun. In those first eight games we had a lot of fun going up against some of the best competition out there with Kansas State, Marquette, Michigan State and Butler. The three headed monster of myself, Kyle and Kyrie was something special. If it wasn’t for one toe injury, it could have been a very special year.

How did you guys as a team deal with the adjustment to not having Kyrie on the court and how did you guys help him through his injury rehab process?

I think for Kyrie it was hard but he stayed positive while dealing with being frustrated. He stayed with the team, he stayed positive. It was hard for me a little bit because I had to shift to full time point guard from shooting guard but he was great for me. He was a great teammate, he was just a great teammate. He could have been selfish and thinking that he was going #1 pick in the draft which he was going to be doing irregardless, but he stayed locked in with the team and he supported us and we supported him.

We adjusted well to playing without him and we kinda went back to playing the way we had played the year before because we had Kyle and we had to adjust and we kept communicating. I stepped into the leadership role at the point guard spot which was kinda a little different from playing on the wing. We all felt good, Kyle and myself were the seniors that year and we were already leading but because of Kyrie being out, we knew we needed to expect even more from everybody. It was a great year.

Once Kyrie came back in the NCAA Tournament—was it a tougher adjustment to playing with him than some would think, or was it a lot easier than some would think?

I think it was definitely a bit of a tougher adjustment just because he had missed so many games and everybody’s positions, we had kinda gone back to what they were. To change roles a little bit when he came back late in the season was a bit of an adjustment but we still welcomed him back. Unfortunately we all didn’t adjust the way we should have in that last game and click like we wanted to in the tournament which was unfortunate.

Finishing your college career having won a national championship within it—was that beyond your wildest expectations looking back at coming in as a freshman?

Oh yeah definitely. You think about that as a kid growing up, going to high school and then going to college, you think about wanting to win a national championship. Look at the odds you know, not too many dudes win it, there’s only one team every year that wins it, 13 players, probably over 500 college basketball players on the rosters in Division I, so that’s not a lot of players who even have the chance to play for the championship. Looking back, now when I go into Cameron anytime I can see that national championship banner up there and I know that I helped do that, I was a part of that team and it’s just a very special thing to me to be able to come back here and know that I am forever a champion in the minds of all Duke fans.

How do you think your Duke experience helped prepare you for your professional experience—both personally and on the court?

It really helped me learn how to deal with the ups and downs of my professional career. Obviously there’s more business into it than in college but Duke and Coach K they prepared me for the mental things you have to deal with as a pro and that’s the main thing. You can’t get down yourself even if you are frustrated, that’s what Coach K teaches guys, to always be ready.

What’s your overall thoughts on how your pro career has gone so far?

I think right now it’s gone good outside of this injury. There were things in Portland that were outside my control after my first year, which I think my first year was a good year. I had good minutes, I got to play, I was with a new coach, an interim coach and then the next year I was with a  new GM and a new coach. Anybody who knows the business that when you get a new GM and a new coach, you are not in their plans if they didn’t draft you. That’s something you can’t control. That summer I had an injury right when I was getting ready to sign with another team’s summer league team and things were going great with them and I was excited but then I had a little calf injury, a little minor setback. So that’s when I made the decision to go play overseas for a year just so I could get back to playing basketball. My time over there was great, I won a Croatian national championship and it was a great year and I set myself up well for the next year because every big team in Euro League was wanting me. From there it was kinda a decision to either stay over there and then I ended up coming home after an unfortunate situation overseas. Now I’m excited to come off my surgery and keep getting better and better.

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