TNT analyst Kenny Smith has been in the news a lot lately, including the Friday announcement at NBA All-Star weekend that Inside The NBA would receive the first ever Curt Gowdy Transformative Media Award from the Basketball Hall Of Fame.
The week before that, Smith was brought up as a possible New York Knicks general manager candidate by the New York Post, saying that he was “antsy for a challenge outside TNT.” How Smith became more interested in a front office position was through one of the most shrewd and respected executives in the modern NBA, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri.
“He called me one day,” Smith said Thursday in Chicago at the House Of Blues, “and I didn’t know him,”
It was last season during Toronto’s championship run, Smith said, that Ujiri hit him up with a fascinating proposal.
“He was like ‘hey man, do you mind if I mentor you’” Smith said, “because I think you’d be good at this.’”
As Smith and the Inside The NBA crew got ready for TNT’s Thursday night pregame show from Chicago, he discussed his eye for basketball talent and the ways in which successful NBA teams can be built in the modern era.
One way, of course, is building through free agency. That’s complicated, Smith said, by the fact that players have to be willing to come when their contracts are up, and the team has the necessary cap space and the ability to attract stars to your team and market. Then there’s the model currently employed by teams like Milwaukee and Denver, Smith said, where you have to have an eye for talent and the ability to develop those players.
“If you look at the Denver roster, the Milwaukee roster, the Utah roster,” he said, “those guys aren’t built on free agency and they’re the best teams in the league.”
One of those teams built through finding talent, developing players and making important trades is Toronto, led by Ujiri. And even though Smith and Ujiri don’t share the same basketball background, he thought he could be taught how to be a successful front office exec.
“If you don’t have an eye for talent, or how to develop talent, it doesn’t matter if you’re a former player, a former agent,” Smith said. “You better know how to do it. Otherwise, you’re gonna fail.”
Whether or not the 54-year-old Smith ever ends up leaving Inside The NBA for a managerial role, he clearly has the desire for it. And though he didn’t take up the offer to be mentored, at least this time, that’s what made last season’s unprompted phone call from Ujiri so shocking to him.
“I always had the aspiration,” Smith said, “but to have a guy like that call you out of the blue, not even knowing what my aspirations were? That was intriguing.”