By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Razorbacks are better with freshman Nick Smith, Jr., in the lineup, and though the positive effects and maximum value of his impact on the team have yet to fully bloom it’s obvious he’s got X-factor qualities that continue to stand out in small sample sizes.
Smith (6-5 guard, Jacksonville native) has played in three games since returning from a two-month, 13-game absence due to right knee management, but in reality he’s played meaningful minutes only twice — 13 minutes as a reserve in the second half of a 70-64 home loss against Mississippi State on Feb. 11 and 32 minutes as a starter spanning both halves on Saturday in an 84-65 home win over Florida. His 4 first-half minutes in a 62-56 road loss against Texas A&M on Feb. 15 was a throw-away with no evaluation value, similar to his 6-minute regular-season debut against Troy in the team’s seventh game in late November.
Against MSU, his impact in the second half helped Arkansas whittle a 16-point deficit down to 3 points with just over a minute to play as he finished the game with a boxscore plus-3, and on Saturday against the Gators his boxscore plus-23 was second-best on the team.
All relative to what Arkansas had put on the floor in his absence, Smith’s pace on offense is quicker, faster, and sometimes electric end-to-end in transition; his pace and movement in the halfcourt are also brisk whether he’s on or off the ball; his threat as a true three-level scorer improves spacing and provides cleaner driving lanes for himself and others; his array of mid-range runners, floaters, and pull-up jumpers are nuanced; his quick and decisive counter moves are problematic for defenders as he compromises their assignment integrity; his skill and willingness as a facilitator is in a similar vein to that of fellow star freshman guard Anthony Black; and his quickness and effort on defense have been noticeably effective.
The all-around flow on offense has been significantly better with Smith on the court, and his elite energy levels at both ends of the floor have added a much needed spark. With Black, who’s having an all-league campaign, getting most of the primary ball-handling duties, Smith has been exceptional off the ball with his hard cuts and weaves through the lane, around screens, moving from corner to corner and wing to wing as he keeps defenders honest and on the chase. And he’s been good initiating offense playing on the ball as a change-of-pace with the pick-and-choose arsenal described above.
Since his return, and in his four games played in December non-conference action, Smith has consistently shown an ability to generate good, open looks for himself and others — a combination that no other Hog has consistently done. And though he has yet to put together an overall efficient shooting game so far in league play, his numbers against Florida (10 points on 4-of-12 field goal shooting, including 0-of-4 from 3, and 2-of-2 free throws to go with 2 steals, 1 rebound, and 1 assist) revealed the only inefficiency coming from beyond the arc as he shot 50% on two-pointers and 100% at the foul line. His quick hands on defense resulted in deflections as well as the 2 steals, and his determined bursts as he pushed the ball in transition were otherworldly relative to what the Hogs have mostly done on the break without him. His final three baskets all came in transition, two of which were in secondary fastbreak, change-of-pace scenarios as he drove into his defenders to draw fouls for two and-one opportunities that he converted.
Smith is a 30-points-on-any-given-night keg of dynamite, but his limited floor time and slow-acclimation processes have cloaked that potential.
For teams determined to continue to throw zone defenses, pack everything in, and sit down on predictable drives with no true three-point threat to kick the ball out to, Smith will give those opposing coaches much more to think about and scheme against.
Although a work in progress on defense, he’s been better than competent while adding more quickness to a big guard lineup that has struggled mightily to prevent blow-by’s and savvy penetration by smaller and quicker opposing guards.
There are still on-court chemistry rough patches (i.e. Smith’s bursts and quick-strike passes to teammates who have struggled to recognize and gather good passes for easy finishes, as well as some communication busts on defense) that must be worked through on a short calendar heading into the postseason. Of course, there are also minute distributions and roles for others that are impacted, but that has been the case at Arkansas the past three seasons after the start of league play, albeit never this late.
Arkansas has home games against Georgia on Tuesday and Kentucky in the regular-season finale on Saturday, March 4, sandwiched around a brutal two-game road swing against league leader and second-ranked Alabama on Saturday and 11th-ranked Tennessee on Tuesday, Feb. 28.
The Razorbacks are currently off the NCAA Tournament Bubble but reasonably close enough to it that Smith finding his best self sooner rather than later appears to be more of a need than a luxury.
We’ve said in various platforms all along during his most-recent absence that a Smith return would necessitate his speedy insertion to the starting lineup and top playing rotation if the Hogs were to maximize their potential, and despite taking a pass on doing that in Smith’s second game back in the road loss against A&M, to his credit Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman flipped that switch for the Florida tilt.
“I think that this game was important to him to get 30-plus minutes,” Musselman said following the win over the Gators. “We have a big game coming up on Tuesday and two big games on the road then a big one at home. Every game right now for the Razorbacks is important. Him getting a little bit of rhythm and flow, it’s a lot different than 3-on-3.”
The standard for a return for Smith was always that he get to 100% healthy.
He returned to Razorbacks practices as a participant in the days leading up to their 88-73 road win over Kentucky on Feb. 7 (he did not travel with the team to Lexington, Ky.) that preceded his SEC debut and the aforementioned losses against Mississippi State and Texas A&M.
Smith missed Arkansas’ first six regular-season games of 2022-23 as a “precautionary measure” related to his right knee that was originally tweaked in the team’s August four-game exhibition tour in Europe. He returned to play in the team’s next five games but was pulled early in the second half of Arkansas’ tilt against Bradley in North Little Rock on Dec. 17 due to an issue described as a re-wrapping of the knee, and he did not return to play the remainder of that game.
Smith then missed 13 consecutive games (North Carolina-Asheville in late December, Baylor in the Big 12/SEC Challenge in late January, plus the Hogs’ first 11 SEC matchups spanning late December and early February) before returning against Mississippi State.
Smith made his regular-season debut against Troy in late November, playing only six minutes in the first half. In the four games following the aforementioned Troy contest when Smith played significant minutes in the rotation, he averaged 16.0 points, 2.3 assists, and 2.0 rebounds in 28.0 minutes per game while shooting 40.4% from the field, including 31.2% from 3, and 84.2% from the free throw line. Counting the Troy game, Smith averaged 12.8 points, 1.8 rebounds, and 1.8 assists in 23.4 minutes per outing while shooting 38.9% from the field, including 30.0% from 3, and 84.2% from the free throw line.
He averaged 21.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.0 steal in wins over North Carolina-Greensboro and Oklahoma in early December to earn USBWA National Freshman of the Week and SEC Freshman of the Week honors.
Counting all eight games that he’s appeared in, Smith has started five times and is averaging 9.9 points, 1.4 rebounds, and 1.4 assists in 21.3 minutes per game while shooting 36.5% from the field, including 25.0% from 3, and 81.8% from the free throw line.
Smith is projected to be a top 5-10 lottery pick as a one-and-done in the 2023 NBA Draft in June.