Nolan Smith grew up a short drive from the nation’s capital, and although he attended Oak Hill Academy in southwest Virginia and played college basketball at Duke, the native of Landover still has a particular affinity for the D.C. area and its professional basketball team.
A significant portion of that loyalty comes from when his father Derek was an assistant on the then-Bullets staff when he died from a heart defect in 1996 while on a cruise ship. Derek Smith and teammate Tim Legler had both volunteered to conduct basketball clinics during the voyage. Nolan Smith, his mother and his sister were on the cruise as well.
Friday morning, the combination guard in college was back in town on a business trip, participating in a pre-draft workout for the Washington Wizards, for whom he was a ball boy in elementary school, at Verizon Center. Smith was one of seven players who worked out this morning. The other six were guard Malcolm Lee (UCLA), forwards Vlad Moldoveanu (American), Jon Leuer (Wisconsin) and Chandler Parsons (Florida) and centers Vernon Macklin (Florida) and Jeremy Tyler (San Diego HS).
A regular each season at Comcast Center to play ACC rival Maryland, Smith last stepped on the Wizards home court two seasons ago when the Blue Devils played Georgetown in front of a packed house that included President Obama.
Duke was ranked No. 7 at the time, and while Smith scored a team-high 19 points, that was hardly enough to overcome a combined 62 points from the eighth-ranked Hoyas’ big three of Austin Freeman, Jason Clark and Chris Wright in an 89-77 loss.
“It was cool seeing the President walk in and sit and watch our game, but other than that, Coach K wasn’t very happy or my team that night, so I left D.C. very upset,” said Smith, referring to Duke Coach Mike Krzyzweski.
Smith reflected only briefly on that disappointment during his postworkout news conference today, preferring instead to look ahead to the NBA draft on June 23, when the Wizards perhaps could selected him with the 34th pick overall. Some mock drafts have Smith going earlier that than, but should he be there when Washington makes its final selection, he could be an intriguing prospect.
The Wizards need to upgrade in the back court, where only John Wall, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, is assured extensive playing time next season. Smith is listed at 6 feet 3, so all signs point to him playing point guard in the NBA, and he said he and Wall have become good friends over the past several years.
“I don’t really pay attention to mock drafts or pay attention to where I go because I know anything can happen on draft night,” Smith said. “Right now I’m just really taking the process in, trying to go every team and give it all I have.”
Smith’s stock rose considerably this season following an injury to freshman teammate Kyrie Irving, who is projected to go at least in the top three. With Irving unavailable much of the season with a right toe injury, Smith absorbed the bulk of the ball-handling duties and developed into a top-level college scorer.
Smith finished as the Blue Devils’ leader in scoring (20.6 ppg) and assists (5.1) as a senior and also averaged 4.5 rebounds. Smith three times scored at least 30 points last season, including twice against arch rival North Carolina. He had a career-high 34 points against the Tar Heels in a 79-73 win on Feb. 9 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“When Kyrie got hurt, it definitely allowed me to show scouts and team I can play the point guard position,” Smith said. “That I could lead a team to wins, lead a team like Duke and be a point guard at this level.”
Washington certainly has lacked leadership over the past several seasons, and because Smith stayed all four seasons and learned under one of the most respected coaches on any level, he could provide that intangible even as a rookie on a roster that’s evolving.
The Wizards enter the draft with seven players under contract, including just two guards, although league sources have said the club intends to bring back shooting guard Nick Young.
“Playing for Duke is huge,” said Smith, who arrived in the District around 2:30 Friday morning because of travel issues in New York. “For one I’m playing for Coach K, playing for one of the best coaches out there who knows a lot of NBA guys. Just having that experience will prepare me for this level.”