SAN FRANCISCO -- Get in your Chase Center cheers while you can, Warriors fans, because the latest fan favorite will not be making frequent appearances.
The Warriors have decided, judiciously, that rookie forward/center Alen Smailagic, as intriguing a teenager as they’ve ever had, will be no more than a part-time player -- at least this season.
“We’re just trying to feel the game and find him minutes within the game, whatever that means,” coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday night, after Smailagic provided a few bright moments in a 107-98 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. “It’s just a feel thing. We don’t go in with him as part of the rotation. We kind of have a rough draft of a rotation, but [assistant coach Mike Brown] and I sort of decide as we go when we can get him a few minutes. And tonight, he gave us a big lift. He did a nice job.”
Playing in his sixth NBA game, “Smiley” scored a season/career-high 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting from the field, including 1-of-2 from beyond the arc. Playing 11:29 off the bench, the 6-foot-9 Serbian also grabbed four rebounds.
Smaliagic’s every bucket was greeted with high-decibel responses from the sellout crowd. In this season of low goals and little consequence for the Warriors, he has given fans a reason to be encouraged.
He plays with obvious joy and plenty of spirit. Why not? He’s 19, he’s sharing the court with men he studied while growing up in Belgrade, Serbia. Smailagic is as delighted to pick the brain of teammate Draymond Green as he is to go face with a marvelous opponent, such as Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP.
“It’s really nice because the team is helping me a lot, especially some of the older vets,” Smailagic said. “They’re talking me through everything, making me feel good. And I’m building my confidence like that.”
Green has made the rookie something of a personal project. There is one area that needs no attention.
“He’s fearless out there on the floor,” Green said.
Fellow forward/center Omari Spellman takes it to another level.
“Smiley is unbelievable,” he said. “Just his natural talent, his natural feel for the game. No conscience Just, he’s gone. It’s so inspiring to see someone unaffected by their age, unaffected by expectations.
“He really just loves to play basketball. And someone like myself, I can definitely appreciate that. Just seeing him have fun out there, no matter if he messes up, you’re going to get the same Smiley.”
Though Smailagic’s talent occasionally peaks through, his relative inexperience at this level is obvious.
He spent most of last season with the Santa Cruz Warriors, Golden State's G League affiliate. And he’ll get considerable time there this season, too.
“For sure,” Kerr said. “This has been a good opportunity for Smiley to feel the NBA and to play in some games. To play against a team like Milwaukee on national TV is great experience.
“But he plays 11-and-a-half minutes. He needs to go and play 30 minutes. He’ll do that soon; we’re not sure exactly when. But he’ll be back in Santa Cruz and getting more time, more of a chance to develop.”
Smailagic committed two turnovers on Wednesday that he probably wouldn’t if he were 25 years old and playing his sixth season. They were turnovers of commission, good intentions with poor outcomes.
But he does not flinch. The only member of the team not to play a minute in the first quarter, he entered in the second and 17 seconds later jacked up a 3-ball from the corner that swished through, followed by rich cheers and maybe a few squeals from the crowd.
One minute later he was crashing the boards for a rebound. More cheers, though not as loud as they were 56 seconds later when he drove in for a layup.
Though he was the last off the bench, Smailagic was, in a desultory first half, the most exciting and productive player on the Warriors. He shot the best (3-of-4), scored the most (eight points) and kept the crowd engaged.
“I just go out and play,” Smailagic said in his improving English. “I don’t know what I’m doing on the court.”
It’s that last statement that the Warriors are heeding. There will be more appearances at Chase Center, but the future of the franchise is best served by Smailagic getting consistent action in Santa Cruz.
For those wanting more Smiley, that’s the best option. The drive isn’t that far, the tickets are much cheaper and there’s always a chance he’ll do something memorable.