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Ex-Duke star stays busy during lockout

One way or another, Nolan Smith was going to spend a week in Las Vegas this month. He just wished his visit had come last week instead of this week.

Smith, the former Duke All-America guard who was selected in the first round of the NBA Draft last month by the Portland Trail Blazers, was hoping to get his professional baptism in the NBA Summer League at UNLV. But when the NBA locked out its players after failing to come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement, the summer league was canceled.

That left Smith and every other drafted player to figure out what to do.

“It was disappointing,” Smith said. “I was really looking forward to the summer league and getting started. But I knew pretty early on there was going to be a lockout, so I was prepared (mentally) that I wouldn’t be playing.”

Instead, Smith, the 6-foot-2-inch son of the late NBA player Derek Smith, chose to help out his stepfather, Curtis Malone, who coaches D.C. Assault, one of the nation’s top AAU basketball programs. D.C. Assault is participating in this weekend’s adidas Super 64 at Rancho High School.

“It’s a way to stay busy,” Smith said. “I’d rather be playing, but I’m still involved with basketball, so that’s a good thing.”

Had Smith opted to leave Duke a year early, he’d have a year’s salary — a couple of million dollars — in his pocket. Instead, he chose to return for his senior season after helping the Blue Devils win the 2010 NCAA championship. Despite the fact he’s not drawing any income at the moment, he believes he made the right decision.

“I can do more on the court,” he said. “I’m a point guard now. I can run a team. I can help my team win with the ball in my hand rather than just being a shooter.

“I also got my degree, which is very important.”

When he’s through working with D.C. Assault, Smith will return home to Upper Marlboro, Md., to work out with his trainer, Gary Lampkins, and make sure he’s ready to go whenever the lockout ends. He met with Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan briefly after the draft in late June, and Smith said the message from the coach was clear.

“They want me to stay who I am as a player,” Smith said. “It’s a tough transition going from college to the NBA, especially when you’re a point guard. But staying at Duke will help me make the transition a little easier. I’m more mature, and you have to be mature to play the point.”

As for income, Smith took out a $40,000 loan to tide him over during the lockout.

“I don’t want to get too deep into debt,” he said with a laugh.

It’s part of Smith’s maturity. Unfortunately, he had to grow up quickly when his father died of a heart defect while the family was on a cruise in 1996. Nolan, who was 9 at the time, his sister, Sydney, and his mother, Monica, underwent counseling as a family to deal with their loss. He said his father always is in his thoughts.

“If it’s not every day, it’s every other day that someone brings up my father to me,” he said. “But I’m fine with it. I wish he had been alive to see the national championship, getting drafted and watching me play (in the NBA). I think it would have given him a great deal of satisfaction.”

Smith’s not a big fan of tattoos, but he does have one that honors his father. The tattoo on his right biceps has the words “Forever Watching 4RIP3” with an image of Derek Smith underneath and below that “Derek Smith 1961-1996.”

“At first, I questioned why,” he said of his father’s death. “But we realized that things happen for a reason. It makes me feel good that God has helped me realize my dream and grow as a person.”

Smith said he’ll get something positive out of his week in Las Vegas, even though he won’t be playing.

“I tell the young guys to stay dedicated to the game,” he said. “Sometimes you’ve got to tell your friends no when they want you to go out with them because you need to be in the gym working. I’ve been where they are. I see them make the same mistakes I made on the floor. So if I can help them get better and have some of them one day get to where I’ve been, that would make me feel very proud.”

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.

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