At just 31 years old, Nolan Smith—the 2010 national champion, 2010-11 ACC Player of the Year and current Director of Basketball Operations for Duke men’s basketball—has accomplished just about everything possible for one college basketball program.
In his capacity, Smith deals with everything from setting the itinerary for the team to dealing with community outreach, truly having a hand in all things Blue Devils.
But Smith, going on a year-and-a-half in his basketball operations position with Duke, is not done advancing through the basketball ranks yet, preparing and learning to reach his ultimate goal: becoming a head coach.
“I've always had aspirations of becoming a head coach,” Smith said. “And I think in a way that's why I chose to come to Duke, I wanted to learn from the best and play for the best. But I also wanted to watch [head coach Mike Krzyzewski], to just see how he moved as a head coach.
“So now I'm in this role, being groomed and molded by the greatest coach of all time. This is what I've always wanted.”
Inspired by his late father’s coaching past—Derek Smith was an assistant coach for the NBA’s Washington Bullets from 1994 to 1996—Smith has always seen himself roaming the sidelines one day. But before he moves on to his next role, Smith is taking it all in, enjoying the place that he has called home for the majority of the last decade.
“I love Durham, I love Duke—I wouldn't be back here if I didn't love Duke,” Smith said. “This school, this community, it's a special community to be a part of.”
Smith’s next venture will be about giving back, hosting the third annual Hoop-a-Thon fundraiser this Sunday at Cameron Indoor Stadium, benefiting the Teen Cancer America program at the Duke Cancer Institute.
Although this is the third Hoop-a-Thon that Smith will be a part of, this will be the first year that the event will be a joint initiative between Duke and North Carolina, incorporating the Tobacco Road rivalry by pitting Team Nolan and Team Brice, led by former Tar Heel star Brice Johnson, against each other in a fundraising competition.
TCA seeks to provide better care for teenage cancer patients, whose care often lags behind their child and adult counterparts, resulting in a middle child syndrome of sorts, according to Smith.
The former All-American will venture into enemy territory to make an appearance at the North Carolina portion of Hoop-a-Thon Saturday, putting any bad blood aside.
“I'm sure I'm gonna get some faces as I walk in that gym, and I'm just gonna tell them, ‘Hey, look, I just really came over here to say thank you to them, because I want them all to know that even though I'm a Duke guy, this is bigger than any rivalry,’” Smith said. “So no matter how they might feel about me and what I used to do to them on the court, now, it's bigger than that.”
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On Duke’s campus, Hoop-a-Thon is certainly not the only event generating buzz this week. Tuesday, the Class of 2023 moved into their East Campus residence halls. Although the members of men’s basketball’s highly touted recruiting class have been on campus for weeks taking summer classes, it was the first time that the players stepped foot in their new homes in Wilson Residence Hall.
The Blue Devils’ freshmen crop certainly have a tough act to follow on and off the court—Zion Williamson took the hearts of the Duke community by leading the team to an ACC tournament title to making an appearance at Hoof ‘n’ Horn’s spring musical, and everything in between. But Smith expressed confidence in the newest Blue Devils’ readiness to be the big men on campus.
“I asked [top 10 recruit Vernon Carey] what he's most excited about off the court, and he said [that it’s] just getting to meet new students and be a college kid, really get the full experience,” Smith said. “So just to hear him say that's what he's most excited about shows that he's really unpacking his bags, and he's ready to be a Duke student before an athlete.”
As the director of basketball operations, Smith will have a hand in just about every aspect of the players’ lives, planning their meals and daily schedules.
And when the time comes for Smith to take the reins of his own program?
“I’ll be ready.”