TUALATIN, Ore. — Nolan Smith gets to work early. By the time most of his Trail Blazer teammates brew their first cup of coffee, Smith is already inside the practice facility.
Coach Terry Stotts has noticed.
Smith, whose four professional career starts all came as lead guard, is the first one on the floor. The gym not yet fragranced by sweaty men. The parking lot not yet crowded by luxury sport utility vehicles. And there he is — the point guard designed in a 6-foot-2, 190-pound frame — squaring up for jump shot after shot like he’s Wesley Matthews.
October mornings should make for minutes in November and beyond. At least, that’s the purpose for these early-bird workouts. Smith may be a gym resident by nature but now it’s a necessity if he wants to capture the up-for-grabs position of reserve shooting guard.
“Nolan has worked really hard,” Stotts said. “He comes in the gym, he’s the first one (here). He gets his shots up an hour-and-a-half before practice. He really wants to improve. He competes, and I think he’s shown progress.”
A hole opened up when an Achilles ripped up.
During voluntary player workouts, weeks before training camp, shooting guard Elliot Williams tore his left Achilles tendon. The promise of Williams’ third season vanished after he underwent season-ending surgery, and the Blazers were left thin for backup behind the starter, Matthews.
“When Elliot went down, I think coaches immediately said that’s going to be more opportunities for me at the two-guard spot,” Smith said. “I’m ready to do (it).”
“Just ready to do whatever the coaches need me to do.”
The two-guard position is not completely foreign to Smith. In his last year at Duke, Smith played off lead guard Kyrie Irving — even if the experiment lasted only 11 games. This summer, Smith and rookie teammate Damian Lillard connected just fine during the games in Las Vegas, the two forming a point-guard buddy system.
“If I’m on the floor with Nolan, we’re interchangeable,” Lillard said. “He can bring the ball up, and I can play off the ball, and we can both switch it up that way. I have a great relationship with Nolan. A lot people were putting us up against each other. ‘Who’s going to compete for the point guard spot?’ We blocked that out, and that’s who I bonded with the most. We worked out, we still do, every morning together.”
During the past week of Blazers’ camp, Smith has played as the combo guard. On Monday, Stotts answered that it was “tough to say” whether Smith will see more time at the reserve one or two spot, and only time will reveal if Williams’ spot becomes his.
“Obviously with Elliot (out), he’s got to be considered in the mix for some of those minutes,” Stotts said, “but that will play out over the course of this season.”
Either way, whether it’s playing off Lillard or setting up Matthews, Smith said he’s comfortable in any role.
“It allows me to just be aggressive, but at the same time, now we’ll be able to have two point guards out on the court, two guards who can push the ball,” Smith said. “Me and Ronnie (Price) out there at the same time, whoever gets it, runs the offense and the other can be aggressive.”
Smith showed that mind-set during the end-of-practice scrimmage on Monday. Smith started play in the same backcourt as Price for the white squad. The scrimmage consisted of game-like conditions with referees making seldom calls and a 24-second shot clock hurrying up sets. During one broken-down play, the ball swung back up top for the point guard. It found Smith.
With LaMarcus Aldridge dropped into a defensive stand in front of him, and the clock ticking down, Smith brought himself some moments to think of Plan B by dribbling beyond the arc. But, he heard the count down from the sideline, and so Smith transformed into aggressive two guard in an instant and raced past Aldridge to finish a reverse layup at the buzzer.
The mornings make all the difference.
“He’s a smart player,” Stotts said. “What I see is him incorporating the offense and knowing two positions and just being a smart basketball player. He needs to improve, he needs to improve his decision making, he needs to improve his ball handling. But he’s being aggressive, and he’s working hard and that’s all I can ask right now.”