Smith's offseason promotion has given Duke a much-needed spark
During Duke's 11-day break following its 81-73 loss to Michigan on Dec. 6, the Blue Devils' second team schooled the starters nearly every day in practice. To reward their efforts and send a message to first-teamers, who made just 6 of 23 from the three-point range against the Wolverines, coach Mike Krzyzewski gave his second unit -- guards Greg Paulus, Elliot Williams and Martynas Pocius and forwards Miles Plumlee and David McClure -- the start against UNC Asheville on Dec. 17. "It wasn't a surprise," says sophomore point guard Nolan Smith, who had started the first nine games. "[The backups] kicked our butts.
The bench warmers took control with an early 27-8 run and six players scored in double figures as Duke coasted to a 99-56 win against the Bulldogs. Suitably chastened, the first team was back in the starting lineup last Saturday in East Rutherford, N.J., and the Blue Devils (10-1) raced out to a 22-3 lead en route to an 82-64 defeat of No. 7 Xavier. Besides serving as a wake-up call, the role reversal was a reminder of Duke's depth, especially in the backcourt.
What other program can bring a player off the pine like Paulus, the team's captain and a starter for all but eight of his 103 career games before this season? But after last year's second-round NCAA tournament exit against West Virginia, Krzyzewski knew he had to improve the defense, and he demoted Paulus in favor of Smith, a superior, ballhawking defender. Krzyzewski says that Smith, who spent part of the summer working out with Miami Heat forward and former high school teammate Michael Beasley, was the team's most improved player when he showed up on campus this fall.
Paulus, who has been slowed by knee and forearm injuries this season, took the demotion in stride. "We get in each other's chest in practice," says Paulus, who is averaging 19.5 minutes and 5.7 points a game (down from 27.7 and 11.4, respectively, last season). "It only helps both of us."
Smith, meanwhile, has taken the ball and run with it -- literally. More capable of creating his own shot than Paulus is, Smith has doubled his scoring (from 5.9 points per game to 11.5). He's also given Duke the explosiveness it has lacked in recent years by helping create turnovers that ignite the fast break. The difference between the two players was evident against Xavier. When Paulus was in the game, he was constantly attacked by Musketeers freshman guard Terrell Holloway. Whenever Smith was in, Holloway lay back on the perimeter and ran sets. "In terms of quickness [between Smith and Paulus], it's like day and nights," says Xavier assistant Emanuel Richardson.
Smith has athletic bloodlines (his father, Derek, starred as Louisville and in the NBA before his death from an apparent heart attack at age 34), and he's learned how to make other players better. At Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., he benefited from playing with Beasley and guard Ty Lawson, who's now at North Carolina. "I've been able to blend in with other stars and still shine," Smith says.
Against Xavier, though, he committed two early fouls, and sat for much of the first half. But there was Paulus to back him up with a solid 24 minutes. And as his health improves, Paulus -- an excellent perimeter shooter and passer -- will likely see more playing time and might even share the court with his successor. "We view Greg as a starter [too]," says Duke assistant Chris Collins. "If he and Nolan can be a two-headed monster, than we have a leg up on everyone."