SAN ANTONIO — Almost 21 years ago, Keith Smart, a rookie guard out of Indiana, was in training camp shooting free throws. It was then that Warriors coach Don Nelson, who drafted Smart in the second round of the 1988 NBA draft, gave him a lesson on communication that sticks with Smart to this day.
"He walked over to me," Smart recalled, "and said, 'You're not going to make my team.' Then he walked away."
Smart said he appreciated Nelson's honesty. Now, as Nelson's understudy, communication has become his calling card as an assistant coach.
While the Warriors' focus has shifted to development of their young players, Nelson's focus has shifted to developing his young coach, too. Nelson has handed Smart head coaching duties the past two games, continuing a season-long trend of adding to Smart's plate.
Though Smart has head coaching experience and nine years under his belt as an assistant, the opportunity he's getting now is hardly lost on him. He's been given a voice by Nelson and said he plans to use it.
"I came in from Indiana, which was a team concept," Smart said. "But on a pro team, it is all about individual play. I didn't understand that and didn't know what I was supposed to do. I told myself when I became a coach that I was going to make sure I communicated."
Smart, in his sixth season on the Warriors bench, is the envy of assistant coaches around the league. He runs practices regularly. He was put in charge of
the defense earlier this season. He's getting live game experience as the head coach — without his boss getting ejected.
Smart said because he has experience as a head coach — 40 games on an interim basis with Cleveland in 2002-03 and stints in the CBA and with the Dominican national team — he hardly feels overwhelmed by the added responsibilities. The transition is seamless because of the relationships he's established.
"I've been the guy where one moment I'm passing you the ball (in warmups)," Smart said, "and now I'm the guy taking you out of the game. So I tell them the truth. ... Why am I not playing, coach? You're not playing because you're not doing this. Let me show you how you can get better in this area. Why can't I get shots like (swingman Stephen Jackson)? Because Jackson's a veteran who has proven himself."
After Jackson took an ill-advised shot late in Sunday's loss at New Orleans, he glanced toward the bench and saw Smart wincing and gesturing how he should've taken the ball to the basket.
"He has patience and he knows how to communicate stuff to his players," guard Jamal Crawford said. "And with that, he has everybody's respect in the locker room."
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