By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — There were so many shiny new toys on display inside the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball performance center during practice on Wednesday in Fayetteville, but the one player whose multiple skill sets on offense were consistently good was the one guy you likely it expected it from: freshman combo guard Nick Smith, Jr.

In only a 40-minute window of practice allotted for media to attend, Smith did a lot more than just show flashes, he looked like the guy coming in billed as the top freshmen in the nation as well as the guy projected by many to be the first class of 2022 player selected in the 2023 NBA Draft next June.

All of the Hoop Hogs’ six freshmen — Smith, Anthony Black, Jordan Walsh, Derrian Ford, Barry Dunning, Jr., and Joseph Pinion — that made up the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation not only put positive imprints on the practice but each played with confidence and brought their own brand of swagger to the floor.

But it starts with Smith, who by all prior indications and then in person seeing his command as an on-the-ball quintuple threat is ready to captain the offense in varying combinations with Black and junior guard Devo Davis.

Quintuple threat because Smith can: 1) run a team as a true floor-leader who understands the nuances of spacing, timing, and personnel to foster a high-functioning offense; 2) rack up assists as a gifted playmaker for others that goes beyond the aforementioned overall floor management; 3, 4, and 5) Smith can score in high volumes at all three levels — that’s rare — either taking what the defense gives him or creating when plays devolve.

He looked like the most likely candidate to lead Arkansas in scoring in ’22-23, and he looked like the guy who can do a whole lot more to contribute to a lot of winning in Eric Musselman’s fourth season as Head Hog.

Smith did not seem to miss from distance in the Hogs’ transition shooting drills, then he carried it over to 5-on-5 full-contact scrimmaging. Efficiency shooting the ball combined with heady decision-making — always a test for a gifted primary-handling alpha scorer moving up to the high-major level — is what stood out with Smith. No hero ball, just a steady diet of the long and wiry 6-5 combo guard picking and choosing how he went about his business to beat the defense.

Here’s one example from video I took on Wednesday … … In this play that might otherwise seem routine, Smith reads the defender’s position after going underneath a screen that forced / invited Smith to probe going to the left side of the floor where there were multiple options for him. He could either pull up and shoot, force a tough drive through two defenders to the basket and get off a shot or a kickout pass, or he could do what he did which looked like the best decision available — take a step back and make the next pass to the corner for an open triple by Pinion.

So what’s the big deal? Notice that Pinion’s defender was playing far away from Pinion ready to help if Smith chose to drive. Even when Smith backed out a bit before passing the help defender was reluctant to close hard to cover up Pinion. Why was that? Because Smith is a master at manipulating defenders to create space for his own driving angles not to mention his change-of-pace craft to get defenders out of position to make a play, so just when you think he’s backing out to pass or methodically reset he might actually be setting up defenders for a quick drive. That uncertainty caused the defender to not close out in time on Pinion. Smith also gets credit for understanding who was on the receiving end of that next pass to the corner on his side of the floor — Pinion, whose strength is three-point shooting with a quick-release to burn a defender giving him the slightest amount of daylight. The less-is-more decision by Smith was correct and made easier for him because of how the defenders played it.

The moral of the story is Smith creates dilemmas for individual defenders making decisions in the moment, which includes challenging the man guarding him as well as help defenders trying to hedge before deciding how and where to close out. Good luck to coaches trying to gameplan for his arsenal of offensive goodies. Smith’s a quintuple-threat.

Here are three plays in transition that would make anyone drool over Smith’s high-functioning decision-making when the pace is frenzied …

1) After his team gathered a defensive rebound, Smith dribbled up the left side of the floor with both of his bigs staying out high in halfcourt offense to set up double screens for Smith to traverse toward his right and attack, but instead he only casually crossed over to sell that he wanted to use those screens going right before immediately crossing over again and hitting the gas to stay left and blow by his defender for a quick-burst drive where no help came to close on him, so he took the opportunity to finish with a runner that has become one of his go-to finishing shots. Had help come, it likely would have opened up the option for Smith to pass to a teammate for a layup. Either way, Smith smartly set up defenders to believe he was going to do one thing in a different direction and by the time it was clear what he was doing it was too late to defend it …–EdG2OFPwHA

2) Perfect example of a secondary transition read came here when Smith was being pressured three-quarters court by Black, whose decision near midcourt to reach across Smith’s body in an attempt to poke at the ball was all Smith needed to shift into another gear for a hard downhill drive to create a numbers advantage for the offense. Unlike the first example where help did not come, this time sophomore big man Trevon Brazile moved away from the basket to meet the driving Smith and prevent him from finishing the drive, so Smith eased up just a smidge to make a perfect lob pass to big man teammate Makhel Mitchell for an uncontested dunk …

3) After grabbing a defensive rebound, Smith started his way up the floor as teammates and a couple of defenders ran back to the other end of the court, and though Smith does not initially look to be pushing hard to seek transition opportunities he sees that three defenders seem more interested in lingering behind to stay close to him instead of fully getting back — creating a 4-on-2 numbers advantage — so he passes ahead to his teammate and fellow freshman guard Derrian Ford who was running up the left side of the floor unattended, and Ford did the rest with an uncontested drive all the way to the cup for an easy transition layup (begins around the 10-second mark of the linked video) …

And finally, the three-ball. Smith will prove to be effective as a shot-creator for himself behind the three-line, but he’s also a more-than-capable catch-and-shoot threat playing off the ball as evidenced here … … and because he’s dangerous in more ways than one as a three-point shooter, it opens things up even more for his driving pick-and-choose game.

“I got recruited to be a combo guard here, and coach Muss believes that I can do pretty much everything on the floor,” Smith said during a post-practice press conference on Wednesday at Bud Walton Arena. “I can get my teammates involved, I can score the basketball. I have the ability to do both. But on that side of trying to facilitate and trying to get my teammates the ball, I know I’ve got a lot of guys that can also put the ball in the basket, so it’s not all about me.

“Sometimes, I might have an open shot, but I might have to swing one more to get an even better shot. So just knowing that coming in is a good thing to have. In high school, sometimes having to take more of the load, but in college, going to the next level, you don’t really have to do that. So it just takes a toll off of me and makes the game easier.”

That Smith makes plays for himself and others is nothing new, but it’s the ways in which his game is evolving in terms of his understanding and feel in situational basketball that reveals his maturation as a decision-maker. He’s always rather quickly made adjustments as he’s coachable and soaks up basketball knowledge, but no matter the level of talent and IQ a player has there are no guarantees when making the leap from high school to what has become a top 5-10 national high-major program at Arkansas where Musselman demands a high level of execution.

Smith’s a gamer, always has been, and for 40 minutes of practice on a hot July day in Northwest Arkansas he looked ready to take on the mantle of Alpha Hog in ’22-23.