When Nolan Smith finally touched down in Croatia this past Sunday to begin his journey of playing for Credevita Zagreb, he mentioned how he was excited about the opportunity to get back to playing basketball.
With the Portland Trail Blazers, the former Duke Blue Devils guard went from a first round pick (21st overall in 2011), to not sniffing the court, to logging minutes in the D-League with the Idaho Stampede and returning to Rip City only to have to jockey for position in Portland's dense backcourt. Somewhere along the way, Smith had to question what his future would be with the Blazers, or in the NBA in general if he couldn't get any run to prove he belonged in the league.
Averaging 9.9 minutes per game in his two-year career (84 games, 4 starts) to go along with 3.3 points per game wasn't going to cut it. And playing for the Boston Celtics in the Orlando Summer League this year did little to increase his stock and present Smith's ability to garnish a concrete deal, leaving the door wide open to make the move overseas.
Smith did the right thing in taking his game to Europe.
And now Luke Babbitt is right behind him.
On Wednesday, Chris B. Haynes of CSNNW.com reported that Babbitt has signed a one-year contract (no NBA-out clause) in Russia with BC Nizhny Novgorod, after spending the last three seasons with the Blazers.
"My take is Luke needs to play 30 minutes a game and play a more expanded role. We've had recent success with both Danny Green (of the San Antonio Spurs) and Patrick Beverley (of the Houston Rockets) getting an opportunity to develop their games in Europe and returning to the NBA," said Babbitt's agent, Bill Duffy.
"The NBA is a league of opportunity. We feel strongly this is the best move for Luke at this time."
Much like Nolan Smith, the opportunity simply was not there. In both these cases -- with Smith and Babbitt -- the debate will include a variety of angles about how the Blazers drafted poorly with these two selections or how the organization either failed to develop or move them to gain something back in return on Portland's investment. And while both sides can be argued, Smith and Babbitt (should we go ahead and throw Armon Johnson into this discussion as well?) are two perfect examples of rolling the dice on draft day and trusting that the coaching staff and team as a whole will put the players in the right situation to succeed.
Notice there is no disclaimer on where that success will take place.
Yet, there is another way to look at Smith and Babbitt's overseas adventure together: the D-League can actually use this as a development tool. Okay, so neither Smith or Babbitt's time with the Idaho Stampede translated into a long NBA career (not to this point), but both players used the D-League opportunity to help showcase what they are able to do when the playing time is there.
Smith was an honorable mention at the 2013 D-League Showcase and when Babbitt called Boise home, he averaged 20.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game in two separate stints with the team and even put up a 34-point performance.
It goes back to Duffy's quote about a players, "opportunity to develop their games in Europe". While there is also a need to factor in the different style in which the game is played and coached and adjusting to a whole new world, at the end of the day "development" is what this is really all about for Smith and Babbitt, regardless if that instruction and experience comes in Croatia or Russia.
Nolan Smith and Luke Babbitt may not be wearing the red, white and black this season, but they are trail blazing.