By Jake Espinoza. Photography by Andrew Roles.
I met Nolan Smith at the Westin Hotel just before 11am on a Saturday. His slim 6’2” frame doesn’t exactly stand out in a crowd, but he has the NBA lockout to thank for the fact that he was unnoticed on our six-block walk through Portland to Henry’s for lunch.
The Blazers selected him as the 21st pick in this year’s NBA Draft. The High School National Championship, McDonald’s All-American, NCAA National Champion, ACC Player of the Year, NCAA First Team All-American, has an impressive resume, but what may be most impressive is his lack of an ego considering all he has accomplished on the court.
He is a glass half-full type of guy who drinks cranberry juice on the rare nights he goes out.
“Sometimes people think that I’m vibin’, but I’m really not,” he said.
The NBA lockout has become a frustrating time for many people in the league, but things haven’t changed much for rookies like him who aren’t used to NBA checks. Right now he’s still in North Carolina living the college life minus the classes, and spending his free time—and paying his bills—by taking on leadership speaking engagements and playing in celebrity summer games. He recently had 30 points and 13 assists in an all-star game hosted by BYU’s Jimmer Fredette.
“Of course we play for the love of the game first, but we’ve all paid our dues and it’ll be nice to get that first check.”
Smith grew up in a privileged environment, but lost his father (former NBA player and Coach Derek Smith) to a sudden heart attack while he was only eight years old. This loss is one Nolan takes with him with every decision he makes—both on the court and off. Those of us who lost a parent at a young age understand that the experience will generally lead a person down one of two roads. Nolan Smith fortunately took the high road, focusing his energy on improving his skills on the court, and starting a foundation with his sister Sydney called the Sydney & Nolan Smith Foundation.
Their mission statement is, “To offer support and resources to youth struggling with grief from the loss of a loved one; and to provide them with opportunities and the encouragement to persevere through life and remain kids.”
The NBA Lockout has given him some free time to focus on the foundation. They are holding an event sponsored by Microsoft on October 13th in Washington, DC as a way to raise awareness (To learn more visit http://www.sydneyandnolan.org).
Smith said he plans on spending his summers off from his NBA seasons coaching a traveling AAU team.
“Does Portland have an AAU team?” he asked.
Although he assumes that Adidas would be the team’s sponsor, he said they would be a behind-the-scenes sponsor. He’s seen firsthand how the attention sneaker companies give high school athletes can ruin kid’s careers, and he’d like to run a team that works without this type of after effect.
Portland is going to love this guy.
If NBA blesses us with a 2011-2012 season, Nolan will be competing with Ray Felton for the Blazer’s point guard position. Having a Blue Devil competing on the same team as a Tar Heel should add an entertaining element to this season for the Blazers, even if both Felton and Smith say it won’t change anything for them.
Many fans were surprised when Smith was announced as the Blazer’s first selection in last year’s draft, but he’ll fit in great with Nate McMillian’s defensive-minded game plan. McMillian also has a great relationship with Duke’s Coach K; the two coached together during the 2008 Bejing Olympics and will work together again during the 2012 Olympic Games in England.
Portland basketball fans may have watched Smith play in Portland against the Ducks last year at the Rose Garden, or as an Oak Hill High School student in the legendary game against South Medford and former Duke teammate Kyle Singler during the 2006 Les Schwab High School Tournament.
“That game was crazy. I think I had 30, Brandon (Jennings) had 30, Kyle had 30 and their point guard (Michael Harthun) had 30. You don’t see that very often in a high school game,” he told me as we sat down for lunch.
His friendly, respectful demeanor off the court has earned him the title as “The People’s Champ”, while his online presence has led to endorsements from Deuce Brand watches amongst other companies (he told us a Blazer colored Deuce Brand watch is in the works).
“I treat Twitter like a text message. Sometimes people will say, ‘What up?’ and I’ll respond back, ‘Not much, what are you up to?’ like we’ve known each other for a while.”
Portland will eventually become his home, but he was in town last weekend as a guest, attending meetings with Adidas, and enjoying Portland’s nightlife with some of his teammates.
“I’m not really a nightlife guy, but since I’m here (in Portland) I might as well enjoy it.”