It is well known that what separates the Portland Trail Blazers from being a bona fide playoff contending team and a pretending playoff team is their bench. What is disheartening is that their bench is home to a number of their recent first round draft choices. One of those former first round picks is point guard Nolan Smith, the Blazers 21st selection from Duke in the 2011 NBA Draft.
Over the course of last season and for most of this season, Smith has been a disappointment. The 2011-12 season was a debacle for all Blazers involved. It was expected that in a lockout shortened year in which Nate McMillan, the Blazers’ head coach, was fired, it would be hard for any rookie to find a groove. The hope was that Smith would battle this year’s first round pick Damian Lillard for the starting point guard spot. Obviously Lillard left Smith at the starting line. But not only did Smith not push Lillard for the starting spot, he hasn’t played well enough to deserve back up minutes.
However, in February, Smith seems to be finding a rhythm and a sense of place. In the three games this month, Smith is averaging 6.7 ppg and 2 apg. Against the Utah Jazz on Saturday at the Rose Garden Smith shot 71% from the field including 2-3 on three point field goals to finish with 13 points. On Monday evening against the Minnesota Timberwolves, in just 10 minutes of play, Smith shot 66% for 7 points and 1 for 1 on 3 pointers, as well as 3 assists. His play of late has been efficient and aggressive.
It would be a surprise if the Blazers have already written off Nolan Smith. First round picks are an investment. Despite Lillard’s rise to prominence in the Blazer backcourt, it would be a nice luxury to have Smith become a guy who can come off the bench and provide energy, good passing and efficient scoring.
How the Blazers plan to handle Smith during the offseason will be interesting. He becomes a free agent this summer. It is obvious that he will be playing behind Damian Lillard for the foreseeable future. Smith has a lot to prove down the stretch this season. He is auditioning if not for the Blazers’ backup point guard spot, possibly a starter or backup on another team.
For the sake of both the Blazers and Nolan Smith, it would be a pleasant surprise for him to come into his own during the remainder of this season. Retaining first round picks and having them develop is something the Blazers have struggled with over the past few seasons. It would be fun to watch Smith carve a niche coming off the Blazers bench.
Patrick Hughes is on Twitter. Follow him at @phughespdx