Nevada Smith watches his Rio Grande Valley Vipers team from the sideline.
By Mike White / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Nevada Smith has been coaching professional basketball for one year. It is only appropriate he is with the Rockets.
You can see fire coming out of Smith's coaching career as he has rocketed skyward. A year ago, he was a Division III college coach. Now he has ascended in the Houston Rockets organization, coaching the Rockets' D-League team and drawing rave reviews after only one season with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (Texas).
The D-League is short for the Development League, the minor league for the NBA. Smith's offensive style of 3-point madness had a major impact last season, and he is being called a bright, young, up-and-coming coach. He has opened eyes and last season was featured in national stories in USA Today and ESPN.com.
Not bad for a 34-year-old who played in the WPIAL at Kiski Area High School and who only a year ago, before the Rockets came calling, was getting ready for a Division III college schedule at Keystone College in eastern Pennsylvania that included the University of Scranton, University of La Verne and Gwynedd Mercy. Have mercy, who would have thought Smith would now be fresh off sitting on the bench with the Houston Rockets staff at the NBA Summer League. It seems a permanent spot on an NBA bench is only a step away.
Someone please pinch Nevada Smith.
"I never really thought I would be where I am," said Smith in a recent telephone interview. "I had always mentioned to my friends that I'd like to get to the NBA at some point. But I didn't know how to tackle it or get there."
Smith's story is fascinating because he didn't go after the NBA or the Rockets. The Rockets went after him, and he didn't believe it at first.
Smith, who played at Bethany College, was all about small-college basketball until last fall, when the Rockets went searching for a D-League coach who had new ideas and liked a different brand of basketball. They researched college teams that played an up-tempo style and developed 3-point shooters. They found Smith at Keystone, where his offensive style had helped him win 39 games in two seasons. His teams averaged 27 and 30 3-point attempts in the two seasons.
But Smith always has had a penchant for 3-pointers. At Bethany in the 2000-01 season, he led all of NCAA Division III in 3-pointers made (101). He will be inducted into the Bethany sports hall of fame in October. Before coaching Keystone, Smith spent five years as an assistant at Ithaca (N.Y.) where he also was allowed to implement his 3-point happy offense. In October, Smith already had a few practices with his Keystone team when he went to his office at the school and listened to a message from Jimmy Paulis, a scout for the Rockets who wanted to speak with Smith about coaching the team's D-League affiliate.
Smith didn't return the phone call. He thought it might have been his friends from Pittsburgh needling him. Or maybe it was his coaching buddies, such as Al Seretti from Dickinson, playing a trick on him.
A few days later, Smith got an e-mail from the Rockets. Then there was the call from Rockets coach Kevin McHale. Next thing you know, Smith flew to Houston, interviewed for the job and was offered it three days later.
"I didn't even apply for the job," said Smith. "They were looking for people who had the same values as them, as far as shooting a lot of 3-pointers. They saw our stats, gave me a call and it went from there."
When Smith got his Rio Grande Valley Viper players together, he convinced them to shoot maybe 50 3-pointers a game. The Vipers, who play in Hidalgo, Texas, led the D-League this year in scoring at 123 points a game and averaged 45 3-point attempts a game. They made 16 a game.
The team started 9-0 and finished the regular season 30-20 before losing in the playoffs. The Vipers might have easily won the D-League title, but Smith's team was hurt when the Rockets eventually called up three of Smith's players -- Troy Daniels, Robert Covington and Isaiah Canaan. But that's a good sign for D-League teams and coaches. Daniels had a big impact on the Rockets late in the season and in the NBA playoffs.
"We had a lot of people write stories [on the Vipers] this season or do video projects on us," said Smith. "I think they were thinking it was going to be like a circus. It's really just basketball with an emphasis on some different things. It's nothing that is completely new or crazy. In the flow of the game, it looks normal."
Smith is preparing for his second season with the Vipers, but a number of former D-League coaches have moved on to the NBA over the years. The two Viper coaches who preceded Smith got NBA assistant jobs. While NBA coaches might make a few million dollars, D-League head coaches might make around $75,000.
"The goal has changed some since last year," Smith said with a laugh. "Moving up to the NBA someday would be great. But at this point, I don't think I can be worried about that. You have to treat the job you have as if it were the best job in the world. I have to treat this like it's the Lakers job."
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