Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
Ever since Duke freshman point guard Kyrie Irving went down with a toe injury Dec. 4, Nolan Smith has elevated his game to a new level.
The Duke senior is on pace to become the first player in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference to lead the league in both scoring (20.1 ppg) and assists (5.6 apg).
In a National Player of the Year poll on ZAGSBLOG.com, Smith currently ranks third in voting (10 percent) behind UConn’s Kemba Walker (43 percent) and BYU’s Jimmer Fredette (41 percent). Nearly 1,300 votes had been cast as of Monday afternoon.
In the 12 games since Irving’s injury, Smith has scored 20+ points seven times, including a career-high 33 against UAB Jan. 5.
“The great players in our league, not just at Duke, they have a lot of responsibility and they want it, they prepare for it, they thrive on it, and Nolan has to continue to do that,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Monday.
“If people try to defend him and do things against him, then we have to come up with counters so that we use him in different places or else we’re not doing our job using him.”
Coach K also praised fellow senior Kyle Singler, another All-America candidate averaging 18.1 points, fourth-best in the ACC, and 6.3 rebounds.
“Kyle is going to end up being one of the top five stat guys in the history of our program,” Coach K said.
“He just has gone quietly about getting 20 points and eight rebounds and playing defense and being a warrior.”
While Duke fans hope that Irving, who’s still in a cast, may be able to return for March Madness, Coach K says he’ll ride Smith and Singler as far as they will take the Blue Devils.
And Coach K hopes that is to a second straight NCAA championship.
“The number of minutes and level of responsibility is not going to go down for [Smith] or Kyle,” Coach K said. “That’s what they’ve prepared for. That’s what they want.
“Whatever that last game is, hopefully it’s a win for us, but if we lose in March, it won’t be because those two guys are tired. It will be because somebody was better than us on that day.”
No. 3 Duke (18-1) hosts Boston College Thursday before visiting Steve Lavin and St. John’s on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
“[St. John’s] has won big games and Steve has a veteran team,” Coach K said. “He has more seniors than anybody in the country on his team. He has a great staff. We’ll study them after we play Boston College.
“It’s always an honor for us to go up and play St. John’s in the Garden. In the history of the game, two programs like Duke and St. John’s, to be at Madison Square Garden, it’s a pretty good day.”
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.