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'An amazing day': Nolan Smith's promotion to assistant coach signifies next step of his journey

Smith was previously Duke's director of operations and player development.
Smith was previously Duke's director of operations and player development.

If the impact Nolan Smith has had on the lives of others wasn't already clear, it is now.

As soon as Duke announced Thursday morning that it had promoted Smith to the role of assistant coach, countless figures across the sports world—both those connected to the Blue Devil program and not—offered their congratulations.

Kevin Durant, Todd Gurley, Jayson Tatum—the list goes on and on. And that's not even counting those who reached out to Smith directly.

"Today's an amazing day," Smith said in a Zoom with the media Thursday afternoon. "I've been overwhelmed with all the texts and outreach that I've received today with this promotion."

There was a reason for all those congratulations.

Smith's change in title—he was previously Duke's director of basketball operations and player development—may have been expected, but it was a pretty significant step for the former national champion. For one, he'll finally get to work directly with players in practice, allowing him to show off some of the skills that made him ACC Player of the Year and a consensus first-team All-American just a decade ago. 

"Being on the court with the players," Smith said on what he's most excited about with the new role. "It's been a long journey since I've been back behind the scenes working and not being able to be on the court. But now I get to be out there actually teaching them—I was reading [Coach K's] quote about me before I sat down and he mentioned that I could still play (laughs), so I can actually show them a thing or two now, too."

He'll also get to work with the coaching staff on opponent scouting reports and consistently go on the road for recruiting trips. But most of all, this promotion signifies the continuation of a journey. 

Smith has always known he eventually wanted to be a coach. His father Derek Smith had been an assistant coach with the Washington Bullets for two years before he tragically passed away in 1996. So when the younger Smith's playing career was cut short by injuries in 2016, the natural fit was returning to Durham.

"The People's Champ" started off as a special assistant. Two years later, he was promoted to director of operations and player development. And now, after former associate head coach Nate James left to become the head coach at Austin Peay, Smith finally has the word "coach" in his title, the next step toward the ultimate goal of becoming a head coach of his own.

But Smith wasn't forced to wait this long to take that next step.

Last summer, he was offered and interviewed for an assistant coaching role under Penny Hardaway at Memphis. However, Smith said he's "an ultimate believer in trusting the process," which is why he decided to stay the course at Duke.

Some convincing from Coach K also helped.

"Memphis came in with the offer last summer, and Coach pulled me in his office right away. He said, 'Look, someone's gonna get a head coaching job, and you'll get moved up.' He said, 'Stay here, trust me,'" Smith said. "It's funny—he's always said, 'Trust me.' And I always have, I always have. I've never wavered my trust from Coach, and he said, 'You're on the right plan. You're on the right path.' And it worked out."

It was always clear that if he wasn't poached elsewhere, Smith would eventually become an assistant coach with the Blue Devils. His nickname is "The People's Champ" for a reason. He's been called "the mayor of Duke." He's one of the most prominent young figures in all of college basketball. 

Durant, Gurley, Tatum—they'll all attest to the kind of person Smith is and how he impacts others.

However, with those distinctions also come knowing your place in the pecking order, something a media member jokingly reminded Smith of Thursday.

"I'm sure at some point, they will," Smith said with a laugh of whether current associate head coach Jon Scheyer and assistant Chris Carrawell will need to remind him of his place on the bench. "Like, 'Hey young blood'.... They'll have their ways where they put me in my place. But they're excited."

Even if Smith has to do some of the dirty work that comes along with being the third assistant on the bench, he'll know it's part of the journey toward his goal of leading his own program one day. And there's no place he wants to continue that journey more than Duke.

"There's one thing I'll say about today—to love what you do is one thing, but to work at a place that you love, and with people that you love, it doesn't get much better than that," Smith said. "And to be the assistant coach here for Duke with Coach K, who has trusted me since 2007 when he came into my living room and offered me to come to Duke, to this day that trust and that bond is still there. So just honored to be a part of this program and make it continue to be great and continue to hunt championships."

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