Memphis, Tenn. -- It's been a rough professional start for the No. 21 pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, thus far. The Portland Trail Blazers selected Nolan Smith, the four-year guard out of Duke, with hopes of him potentially being the long-term solution as their floor general.
Fast forward to today, we all know that's not going to be the case. Smith's teammate, a rookie point guard by the name of Damian Lillard, has taken the NBA by storm on his way to two consecutive Rookie of the Month honors and has been crowned the team's franchise point guard.
The Trail Blazers have been playing extremely well, winning eight of their last 11 games with Smith as the team's third-string point guard. According to Head Coach Terry Stotts, it hasn't been anything that Smith has done wrong, he's just rolling with what is working right now.
“It's a long season and I'm sure his opportunity will come again,” Stotts said. “Right now, Ronine [Price] is the backup point guard and we're going to go with that. He just has to stay ready. You never know in the course of a season when that opportunity will come.”
I remember in the summer of 2011, shortly after Smith was drafted, myself and Smith had dinner at an Italian restaurant in downtown Portland. It was there I saw the excitement and anticipation in his eyes about what could become of his NBA career in Portland.
He had every right to be optimistic. The Trail Blazers were taking a one-year chance on Raymond Felton and if that didn't go over well, at some point in that season Smith was hoping for a shot. Well, the first part occurred, Felton didn't play well. The second part did not.
By January of the 2011-12 season, was when I noticed that excitement exit Smith's body. Nate McMillan, the Head Coach at the time, sat Smith down and told him during this lockout year, he was going to ride with his veterans and try to get the most he could out of the season. Though disappointed, he understood.
McMillan was let go on March 15 and Smith saw an increase in minutes as the team focused on getting their youngsters some meaningful playing time. Going into the offseason, that excitement and anticipation was back in his eyes. However, this time, he lost it much sooner.
It might surprise you when it went away. It didn't start to fade when Lillard was selected at No. 6, it was when the team signed veteran point guard Ronnie Price during Summer League to be Lillard's mentor and backup. Smith saw the writing on the wall.
“You know certain things are going on and when you get on the court you just got to do what you do, but at the same time, there are things that go on that you can't control,” Smith said. “I approach every single day like it's a game. From day-one of training camp, I came in, worked hard, played my game. I feel comfortable.
“Last year was different because there was no training camp, no nothing. So last year, yeah, I didn't really know what to expect [or] what was going on. But now, I know what I can do when I get out on the court so it's even more frustrating from that standpoint. But like I said, it's a business and my opportunity will come.”
This past October, the Trail Blazers elected not to pick up the third year of his rookie contract, making him an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2012-13 season. In 62 career games, Smith is averaging 3.4 points, 1.3 assist, shooting 36 percent from the field and 24 percent from three-point range.
That's not a huge body of work and the stats don't indicate he's found a niche in this league, but he's confident going into free agency that NBA personnel know what he's capable of providing to an organization.
“I think teams know [what I can do],” he said. “I think there's players in this league that have been buried on the bench, as people would say. And there's a lot of people that know what I can do. I've shown in spurts what I can do. It will be seen and I think when the time comes, whether it's here this summer when I'm a free agent and I'm working on staying on this team or getting on another team, whatever it may be, people know [my game].”
By simply gauging the stats and performance, it doesn't appear that Smith was worthy of being selected the No. 21 overall pick in the draft. Especially when you look at the double-double monster Kenneth Faried has become in Denver after the Trail Blazers passed on him to select Smith.
Smith implies that he and Faried were just put into two different situations and he without a doubt, believes he was worthy of the first round selection.
“I definitely do,” Smith said. It is what it is. The numbers aren't showing it, but the minutes aren't showing it either. So, it's a two-way street. People are always going to point the finger at somebody, if they want to point at me, that's fine. But, it's a two-way street in this business.
“People don't know what goes on in this NBA business. I didn't know until I got here. There are a lot of things that go on. Kenneth Faried is doing great, but at the same time, he went in there and had the opportunity to play from day one. Somebody got hurt and he stepped in and had the chance to play 20 to 30 minutes right off the bat. So opportunities comes at different times, that's just life.”
In the meantime, Smith is on a mission to prove that he's not a bust. He continues to be the first one at practice and the last to leave. On game days, he arrives almost three hours before tipoff to get some work in with Assistant Coach Dale Osbourne.
He's not sure what his future holds in Portland, but before his time ends here, he would like to show this city what he can offer. On the other hand, he's realistic and knows he probably won't be able to prove his worth until he's on another team.
“Change is good for everybody,” Smith said. “Change is good for everybody,” he repeated. “I love Portland and if I'm here, I'll be happy to be here. But at the same time, everybody knows that when change comes, there's a lot of players in this league that when change happened, great things happened and that's what I'm looking at. We'll see what happens.”
Through all that has transpired during his brief professional career, Smith still carries that infectious smile on his face and you wouldn't be able to tell that he had a million different things on his mind. Stotts says Smith has handled this whole situation with class and calls him a “great teammate to have in the lockeroom.”
That's what you get out of Smith: a great person, teammate, and a diligent worker who just wants to play the game that he loves. His time will eventually come, but the question is where will it come at?
“It's frustrating, but at the same time, I'm loving this team,” he said. “I'm having fun being part of this team and watching everybody. But at the end of the day, everybody basketball player wants to be on the court. Every basketball player wants an opportunity to play, play good minutes, and get comfortable and play their game. I'm going to keep working hard and be patient. I'll get my chance.”