Published November 20, 2014
Whether he's shooting or passing, Nolan Smith always seems to make the right decision with the ball.
The versatile Duke guard is on pace to become the first player to lead the Atlantic Coast Conference in both scoring and assists. His production has kept the third-ranked Blue Devils rolling even after they lost true point guard Kyrie Irving indefinitely to injury.
"We have so many possessions in a game, my chances offensively to score are going to come," Smith said Wednesday. "I just want to keep everybody happy, make sure everybody's getting their touches. ... Everybody on this team can score the ball, and I can do it in a way where it's a lot of points at once."
He enters Thursday night's game against Boston College atop the league with averages of 20 points and 5.6 assists for a Duke offense that ranks fourth nationally, averaging nearly 86 points.
Those numbers, plus the leadership skills he developed through four seasons with the Blue Devils (18-1, 5-1), are a big reason why coach Mike Krzyzewski said Smith is "having an All-American-type year."
"He's got a lot on his plate for us ... in handling the ball, defending the ball, scoring the ball, leading the team," Krzyzewski said. "He's done all those things at the highest level."
If Smith keeps this up, a spot in ACC history will be reserved for him. Only six times since 1973 have the scoring and assists leaders even been on the same team, and that hasn't happened since 2005-06, when Duke's J.J. Redick (26.8 points) and Greg Paulus (5.2 assists) did it.
"His scoring has really opened up things for other people," teammate Ryan Kelly said. "We want him to be a score-first point guard, the way he plays. But when he starts to score, defenses have to key in on him even more. They collapse, and that opens up a lot of open shots for teammates, and he's ready to kick (the ball to) them. He really looks for us."
Smith, who considers himself "a natural scorer," entered the season figuring the point would be in good hands with Irving, a prized recruit who was the first Duke freshman to start a season at that position in a decade.
But when Irving injured his right big toe in an early December victory over Butler, Smith's responsibilities changed and he became the team's primary facilitator in addition to one of its most relied-upon scoring threats.
"Once Kyrie went down, coach told me that I would have to step up and do more," Smith said. "He was going to ask a lot more of me, and you know, not thinking, 'I'm going to score, I'm going to get assists.' I'm just doing whatever it takes to win basketball games and continue to play at a high level."
Big numbers followed, in both stat categories. In Duke's first game without Irving, Smith had a career-high 10 assists in a 35-point rout of Bradley. After that, Smith reeled off a string of five straight games with at least 20 points, capped by a career-best 33-point outing against UAB.
Smith has hit the 20-point mark in seven of his last 10 games and hasn't scored fewer than 18 in that span while rarely leaving the floor. He has played all 40 minutes in three ACC games and 39 in two others.
Despite that, and despite everything Smith has been asked to do, Krzyzewski isn't worried about his star guard wearing himself out down the stretch. Smith says he spends time after every practice with Duke's strength and conditioning staff to keep his endurance up, and isn't worried at all about running out of steam.
"I've never heard of a guy who is considered to be an All-American being given too many responsibilities," Krzyzewski said. "That's why they are an All-American-type player. As soon as you start reducing that, then you're playing defense on your All-American player. ... The great players in our league, not just at Duke, they have a lot of responsibility, and they want it. They prepare for it. They thrive on it. Nolan has to continue to do that."