By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr. returned to Razorbacks practices as a participant in recent days and could return to the court for game action as soon as the team’s home game against Mississippi State on Saturday, according to multiple sources with Head Hog Eric Musselman confirming during a zoom press conference on Wednesday that Smith had returned to practice and that he (Musselman) was “optimistic and hopeful that Nick will be able to play sometime in the near future.”

Smith did not travel with the team to Lexington, Ky., for Arkansas’ 88-73 win over the Kentucky Wildcats on Tuesday as he remained in Fayetteville to “work on conditioning,” according to Musselman, who did not point to any specific game as a potential return for Smith.

The standard for a return for Smith, who’s been out indefinitely for ongoing right knee management, has been and remains that Smith get to 100% healthy.

Smith (6-5 guard, Jacksonville native) missed Arkansas’ first six regular-season games of 2022-23 as a “precautionary measure” related to his right knee before returning to play in the team’s next five games. He 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 in that game.

Smith had been out indefinitely since, missing the last 13 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, including the Kentucky matchup on Tuesday, Feb. 7).

Roughly a month ago while speaking to reporters, Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman gave a few details on Smith’s status, saying Smith had traveled to Los Angeles to see a specialist, remained there, and would continue to be out indefinitely with an expectation that he would not be available to play through the end of January.

Smith rejoined his Arkansas teammates on campus at the practice facility in mid-January while sticking to his recovery process, and he rejoined the team on the bench for home games at Bud Walton Arena beginning with the Hogs’ win over Ole Miss.

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 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.

Smith is projected to be a top 5-10 lottery pick as a one-and-done in the 2023 NBA Draft in June.