When the December news of Kyrie Irving’s injury began to spread quickly via Twitter, text message, email and any other modern day communication, a collective gasp could be heard across Duke Nation. Angst-filled text messages of “uggh, oh no, now what,” among many others, followed when Coach K mentioned that Irving “could be lost for the season” and many wondered what Coach K, the miracle worker, would do.
Well, the coach who’s won four NCAA championships, an Olympic Gold and a World Championship simply re-introduced Nolan Smith as his starting point guard. And as brilliant as Irving had been in his brief freshman campaign, the unfortunate circumstance may have just led to another back-to-back title run.
On Sunday, the Blue Devils will host Maryland and will begin their second month without Irving. Since the ultra-talented point guard suffered the bizarre toe injury against Butler on Dec. 4th, Smith has stepped in and filled the role quite well, averaging 22.2 ppg and 6.3 apg in six straight wins.
Take away his two-point effort against Bradley when the senior was trying to re-acclimate himself in the point guard role in the first appearance without his frosh sidekick and Smith is putting up 26 points a game, including setting career highs back-to-back with 28 against Miami on Jan. 2 and 33 against UAB on Jan. 5.
“I think Nolan’s probably playing as well as anyone in the country right now,” Krzyzewski said following Duke’s 85-64 win over the Blazers.
Smith’s second jaunt at the one spot appears to be on a much better trail than his first venture as the starting point guard. Originally recruited as Greg Paulus’ understudy at the position, Smith was handed the reins after showing flashes of brilliance in his freshman season.
The sophomore campaign started relatively well with Smith compiling 32 assists against 26 turnovers while averaging 10.6 ppg over 14 games. But once 08-09 ACC play began, Smith faltered and the Oak Hill Academy product struggled to adapt against the likes of Toney Douglas, Tyrese Rice, Ty Lawson, Jeff Teague, Malcolm Delaney and Greivis Vasquez.
Facing the Seminoles’ Douglas in the Blue Devils’ first conference game, Smith managed to score 12 points in Duke’s 66-58 road win, but his seven turnovers against one assist was the beginning of the end for Smith at the helm. Over the next six games, his minutes and numbers began to drop considerably and, after a 74-47 blowout loss to Clemson (the worst Duke loss since the 103-73 debacle against UNLV in the 1990 NCAA title game), Smith was relegated a reserve role.
He missed several games after suffering a concussion against Maryland a few weeks later and by the time he returned, Paulus had gained the confidence of Kryzewski. While Smith had a few strong performances off the bench, he hardly looked like a star-in-waiting and finished the season averaging 6.9 ppg with 26 assists and 29 turnovers over his last 20 appearances.
Flash forward to his re-introduction and Smith has had eye-popping results as a point guard for the Blue Devils, hardly resembling the older version. While Irving quickly made his mark on the basketball world, having Smith back at the helm could be a championship-saver.
Over the past decade, star-studded frosh point guards like John Wall, Derrick Rose, Chris Paul and even Duke’s own Jay (formerly known as Jason) Williams couldn’t help their teams win a title. The last freshman point guard to start on a championship team was Duke’s Chris Duhon (nine points, six assists) in the 2001 win over Arizona and the last diaper dandy guard to put up big numbers in a NCAA Division I championship was Mike Bibby, who had 19 points, nine rebounds and four assists in the Arizona Wildcats’ 84-79 victory over Kentucky in 1997.
This isn’t to say that Irving wouldn’t have been the next freshman to lead the Blue Devils to another title or couldn’t if (see Irving update) he returns. It’s just a reason to say that Duke is in good hands with the new and improved Smith at point guard.
About the Author
Written by Chris Girandola
I currently write for the St. Petersburg Times, MLB.com, the Naples News, Demand Studios, LiveStrong, Fuel Football, Fuel Basketball and Fuel Football.