NBC Sports

Warriors learn hard lesson with failure of Smiley experiment

NBC Sports
Alen Smailagic

Lessons never stop in the NBA, no matter the standing of a franchise, and the Warriors learned another hard one this week.

After swallowing the last morsels of illusion, they stared directly into NBA reality and on Wednesday ended the celebrated experiment that was Alen Smailagić.

The Warriors celebrated because they thought they’d outwitted the rest of the league in trading two future second-round draft picks to the New Orleans Pelicans for the right to move up to select Smailagić in the second round of the 2019 NBA draft.

The 6-foot-10 forward/center with the inviting personality was taken 39th overall, two spots ahead of Warriors teammate Eric Paschall, seven spots ahead of Talen Horton-Tucker and nine spots ahead of Terance Mann.

Paschall played 1,654 minutes over 60 games and was voted to the All-Rookie first team. Smailagić appeared in 14 games, looking overmatched for all of his 139 NBA minutes.

“Smiley” was a project all along, and the Warriors knew it. He was 18 when drafted, and only 17 when he posted decent numbers for the semi-professional Serbian Regional League. The Los Angeles Lakers selected him in the 2018 G League draft, sending the 17-year-old to the Santa Cruz Warriors.

The Warriors were intrigued enough with what they saw from Smailagić in Santa Cruz that they thought they’d discovered someone with a bright future. Teams in such instances often try to “hide” the untapped talent with the hope no other team would come calling. They were nervous enough to make a trade that ensured they could take him in the NBA draft.

 

No other team did, so Smiley was there for the taking.

“I really would like to stay in the NBA and not just be on the bench,” Smailagić said one day after he was drafted. “I really want to play.”

Though it quickly became apparent that all odds were against Smiley making a positive contribution at the NBA level, he occupied a roster spot for two full years, the second of which forced Juan Toscano-Anderson to blast into the rotation -- and to a standard NBA contract -- from two-way status.

Because Smiley was a decent guy, and can’t be blamed for being in a highly sought position, there wasn’t much fuss. Neither coaches nor players believed in him, but both were cordial and constructive. Supportive.

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It was through this process that the relative neophytes in the Golden State front office realized that “secrets” are exceedingly rare in the NBA. Real talent is hard to conceal, and few active personnel men beyond Jerry West and perhaps Masai Ujiri can claim expertise in finding it. And even they are not infallible.

Golden State, to its credit, took a more traditional route in seeking its next “secret.” Justinian Jessup played four years of college ball at Boise State and, moreover, has an identifiable skill. He can shoot. What remains unknown is whether that translates to the NBA level.

The Warriors, having reached a consensus on Smiley, did what all ambitious teams do when it becomes evident that someone has nothing to offer. They shook Smiley’s hand, thanked him for his efforts and allowed him to go elsewhere in pursuit of his hoop dreams.

I hope he finds them. It would be a marvelous story.

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