Nolan Smith, another of our Player of the Year finalists, has an NBA-ready game and pedigree: his father, Derek, was a consistent scoring threat, averaging over 20 points per game for the Clippers in the early ’80s before an ACL tear prematurely sent his career into a decline. Like Derek, Nolan starred on an NCAA Championship team, leading Duke to the 2010 title, and reaching the Sweet 16 this year. Listed by Duke at 6’2, 185 lbs, he beat out three-year starter Greg Paulus for the point guard spot as a sophomore, then slid over to shooting guard to make way for Jon Scheyer and then Kyrie Irving. After Irving’s toe injury, the senior was asked to take over point duties again, and led the Blue Devils to another #1 seed. Although versatile, we will evaluate him as a point guard, as he will not be asked to play and 2 in the NBA.
Smith can do everything on the court well — he is the definition of a good player. He’s an above-average shooter who has played at the highest level of competition available to him since transferring to Oak Hill Academy for his sophomore year in high school. A crafty finisher in traffic, he relies on a nice repertoire of headfakes and double-clutches to get his shot off above and around opposing big men. If he finds a defender napping, he has just enough explosiveness to blow by him and gather himself for a dunk if he is given an open lane. He is a creative dribbler, and forces misdirection and holes in the defense with his crossover, allowing him to find better angles for passes. While not a natural passer, Smith has grown comfortable sensing when his big men get open in the paint, and trying to get them the ball in those positions. On the other side of the floor, he’s a capable, energetic defender with long arms. Playing under the tutelage of great coaches for the past seven years, he has a great sense of when to gamble, when to back off, and when to be physical in both man and zone defenses.
While he is very good at many things, he is not great at anything on the court. Most glaringly, he will have a difficult time creating separation against NBA defenders, limiting his ability to contribute as a primary ball-handler and passer. While his passing has improved, Smith isn’t a born point guard, and will always struggle keeping his turnovers down when the ball is in his hands. Against NCAA competition, he also had trouble getting his own shot off, and at the next level will be best suited coming around screens and spotting up rather than shooting off the dribble. Without a great first step, Smith has a hard time getting past defenders when they are keyed in on him, and did most of his damage against zones and sub-par defenses. When attacking the basket, Smith needs to put a ton of work into finishing with his left hand in the paint; everything in the lane is shot with his right, including layups from the left side of the rim — those will be consistently stuffed back into his face by help bigs once he’s drafted.
As a four-year college player who will be 23 by the time his rookie season starts, he lacks projectability, running the risk of being passed over in favor of lesser players with higher upsides. Almost all of the negatives surrounding Smith are exacerbated by his less-than-ideal athleticism and size — if the pre-draft Combine measurements mark him any smaller than Duke does, that will severely hinder his ability to stick with a team as a top-8 rotation player. The foundation of a point guard’s game in the new, perimeter-oriented NBA is the one-on-one game, and he will struggle to open up space for himself to create offensively. However, the ACC’s leading scorer this season does have something to offer, and will be a stable, safe pick. He’s best suited for a team that has other offensive creators, where he can be counted on to stay in front of the opponent’s bench scorer, and play 16-20 smart, mistake-averse minutes a night.
Current NBA Comparison: Mario Chalmers
2010-2011 Final Stats: 20.6 PPG, 5.1 APG, 4.5 RPG, .458 FG/.813 FT/.350 3PT, 1.6:1 AST/TO