Barber: Warriors' Alen Smailagic a Summer League curiosity
I was watching the Warriors play the Lakers in the California Classic on Tuesday night, meaning I was watching the Summer League Warriors play the Summer League Lakers. It’s a weird mix of young NBA players, undrafted free agents and anointed draft picks - like Alen Smailagic, the 18-year-old Serb.
At one point in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s game, Smailagic (say it like SMILE-a-geech) attempted a 3-point shot and missed.
“There’s something there with Smailagic. I don’t know what it is,” said Doug Christie, who was calling the game for ESPN2. “I see a lot of different skills. His shot looks good. Gotta iron it out, though.”
Moments later, the rookie set up from the same spot on the court and launched another 3-pointer. This one found its mark. “Take that, Christie,” the commentator said aloud. “How’s that? Looks ironed out for me.”
Christie’s first comment was as accurate as Smailagic’s second shot, though. The 6-10 forward does need to straighten out some elements of his game. But there really is something about him.
A few hours prior to Tuesday’s game, I sat with Smailagic in the lobby of the Kimpton Sawyer Hotel in downtown Sacramento, where many of the Summer League players were staying. I can report that he does indeed look 18 years old, a boy preparing to do a man’s job in the NBA.
Smailagic knew almost no English when he arrived to play for the Santa Cruz Warriors, Golden State’s G League affiliate, one year ago. He has made great strides in that regard, but his English remains a work in progress. He can’t speak his new tongue with a lot of nuance. But he can be honest. That’s one thing that struck me about Smailagic.
Here’s what he said when I asked him whether any of the Serbian players who preceded him to the NBA are his heroes: “No, I don’t think so. I wanted to play like I do. I didn’t want to look (like) someone. I wanted to learn something from them, but I didn’t want to be like them.”
Here’s what he said when I asked him whether anyone in the Warriors organization has talked to him about adding weight: “No one told me nothing about that, because they’re confident I can push it (against) stronger guys. I’m enough strong. And I’m too young to get too much weight.”
And here’s what he said when I asked if the Warriors are a good fit for his style of play: “I think yeah, but we will see. I don’t want to be that sure.”
The Warriors have known about this guy for a while, obviously. They previously made him the youngest person ever to suit up in the G League. His coach in Santa Cruz was Aaron Miles, who is now coaching Smailagic in Summer League. Talking to reporters Monday, Miles recalled Kent Lacob, Joe Lacob’s son and general manager of the Santa Cruz Warriors, informing him of the 18-year-old’s imminent arrival. Miles figured there was no plan to play Smailagic right away.
“But to be honest with you,” the coach said, “that first practice when he practiced with us, I was like, ‘Oh, (bleep). You got something special here.’?”
There’s a perception that the NBA Warriors hid Smailagic from the outside world in Santa Cruz to protect him for the 2019 draft. But as the player pointed out, it’s hard to hide someone when he’s playing 17 minutes a game.
“I ain’t never held Smiley back,” Miles said.
Imagine what it was like for Smailagic to leave his family in Belgrade last year. He had spent the 2017-18 season playing in Serbia’s third division. Now he was going up against 2-way players who were spending some nights in NBA arenas.
“I was nervous in the beginning, when I stepped on the court,” Smailagic said. “I told my Coach Miles that I’m nervous because of the physicality. And then when I got my first hit, and I realized it didn’t hurt, I started going at people.”
He sure did. Smailagic has a decent outside shot (though he’s still getting used to the non-Euro 3-point line) and some elevation at the rim. And he’s a willing defender who likes to challenge shots.
“That’s one thing I know, he ain’t gonna back down against nobody,” Miles said. “That’s one thing is for certain. So whether he make shots, miss shots, turn the ball over, make great passes, I don’t know. But I know he’s gonna compete.”
It was this combination of versatility and toughness that drew the Warriors to Smailagic on draft night.
He was home in Serbia at the time, watching the NBA draft on TV with his mom and dad, uncle and aunt. It was about 5 a.m., he said, when he heard his name called.
“They couldn’t believe it,” Smailagic said. “No one in Serbia couldn’t believe it, that some child” - and here he caught himself and smiled at his word choice - “that an 18-year-old is drafted in NBA.”
The Warriors were on the phone immediately. “I was watching, and when I got drafted they said, ‘We brought you a car, come here.’ Immediate,” Smailagic recalled. “I had like three hours to pack and go.”
And there he was in Sacramento this week, going up against the likes of Marcus Derrickson, who played 11 games with the Warriors last year, and Kyle Guy, an All-American with NCAA-champion Virginia. Smailagic said he didn’t get to practice with the Summer League team before the first game Monday, because of a paperwork issue.
“(Monday) they called me and they said everything is done, you can play,” Smailagic said. “They didn’t want to let me play that much because I was so excited. I wanted to shoot, I wanted to protect. That wasn’t good for me, because I can get hurt or something like that.”
When Smailagic got into action, the results were mixed.
Tuesday, his first-and-second-quarter stint was messy. He missed shots from both inside and out, and was a step late trying to cover guys at the arc on a couple of occasions. His second-half appearance went much better. He showed good footwork on one possession, pivoting to bank a shot with his left hand. He zipped a nice pass to the cutting Dedric Lawson. Midway through the fourth quarter, he picked a Laker’s pocket in the backcourt and wound up with foul shots.
The final tally Tuesday: 17 minutes, 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block, 2 turnovers - and a painful plus/minus of -26.
A lot to iron out. But yeah, there’s something about him.
You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.