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In Season One, Nets' New Armor Shines (Page 2)

May 11, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—In their first season as a one-to-one "hybrid" affiliate of the Nets, the Springfield Armor set a franchise record for wins, made its first playoff appearance and had three players called up to the NBA -- two to the Nets.

(Cont'd from Page 1)

While the high-flying Green and subsequent trade acquisition Gerald Wallace flip small forward from a team weakness into a strength, the injury bug continues to bite, nipping the point guards in the calf (Deron Willams) and groin (Jordan Farmar). In Springfield, Smith builds on an impressive All-Star performance (14 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists in 23 minutes). After returning to D-League Player of the Month honors (February averages: 22.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.0 assists), Smith reels off 20-plus scoring performances in four March games, including a game-winner:

As the fifth approaches on March 16, Smith sits next to MacKinnon on the team plane. Leaving from Hartford, Conn. and headed to Tulsa, Okla., the plane touches down for a layover in Detroit. MacKinnon's cell phone chirps. Lee had texted to ensure Smith doesn't make it on the plane to Tulsa -- the point guard had been individually re-routed to Orlando for a game against the Magic.

"It just happened like that," Smith says. "Probably hadn't set next to Mac in 20-30 flights that we've had this year. I did that and when we landed in Detroit, he told me as soon as we landed.

"You shed a few tears, man. Because you work so hard your whole life for something like this, this opportunity to play in the NBA. And to get that call was just amazing."

News spreads to the rest of the team, and smiles began to follow. Each comes up and congratulates Smith with a hug and kind words. If this moment sounds sweet, that's because it is. If it seems fake, a cover for envy and a side-eye, consider MacKinnon's take:

"It's very uplifting for a team in the D-League, because the D-League is a league of hope and it gives hope to everybody. They've seen how hard Jerry's worked at it and the improvements he's made. Guys like JamesOn Curry and Lance Hurdle, who go up against Jerry every day in practice, I think they feel part of it, part of his improvement, and that gives them hope that good things will come their way."

The compressed NBA schedule includes a back-to-back for the Nets, and after 20 minutes in his NBA debut (5 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals) Smith and the team return to New Jersey. The next day, with the Nets hosting the Hornets, he prepares for a reunion with Foote, who had been called up by New Orleans earlier in the week.

MacKinnon says Foote's improvements have come mostly on offense, that he's developing into a solid low-post scorer who can rebound and defend his position. Combined with a 7-foot frame, this draws the Hornets' attention. Coach Monty Williams admits size was the main reason for Foote's Call-Up, joking that an Ivy League education at Cornell made Foote a good bet to quickly learn plays.

While cautioning that the lockout-shortened schedule makes assessing the NBA's relationship to the D-League difficult, Williams thinks it's a good system, especially when teams have a one-to-one affiliation: "I think most young guys should go down there and play, just so they know what it's like; so it can not humble them to make them feel bad, but allow them to know that it's a privilege to be in the NBA -- I don't think everybody understands that."

Meeting with Smith and Foote pregame, Armor GM Lee cracks wise that Foote's Call-Up indicates the Hornets are a smart organization; he expects other teams will follow suit. Smith says it's special to see Foote, even as an opponent, because both are sporting NBA jerseys. Smith plays 12 minutes. Foote does not get off the bench. Three days later, Foote returns to Springfield.

Back at the end of Nets training camp, Johnson wrote "a prescription" for Smith to work on developing into a lead guard. In four years at Louisville, Smith played off the ball, notably alongside former Nets swingman Terrence Williams, who served as Rick Pitino's point forward. With the Armor, Smith found himself alongside another combo guard in Curry.

Johnson -- known as the "Little General" in his playing days -- told Smith to be more vocal on the court, more directorial, more of a leader. MacKinnon, whom Johnson helped to hire, created opportunities for Smith to follow through and stayed on him whenever the point guard went quiet. Smith says his teammates understood the developmental goal, that working to develop Smith into an NBA-caliber lead guard would ultimately benefit their games and their prospects.

But at the end of 10 days, the Nets' guards get healthy. Smith is reassigned.

"It's been great, man," Smith says. "(I) played hard. I'm excited they gave me my first opportunity in the NBA. It shows that somebody here believes I can play in this league. And I'm excited to keep working hard and continue to push to get better. Hopefully I find a guaranteed contract somewhere."

(Cont'd on Page 3)


For more on the Nets, be sure to follow Ben Couch (@viewfromcouch) or @BrooklynNets on Twitter or visit our Fan Page on Facebook.

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