It took about a week, but the waiting game regarding Nick Smith Jr.’s future is over.
The Arkansas basketball standout who has for more than a year been projected to be to lottery pick in the 2023 NBA Draft did what was has long been expected of him and declared after one season on the Hill. “To my teammates, who have been with me through the highs and lows of the season, thank you for your support and camaraderie,” he Tweeted. “I wish you all the best in your future endeavors, and I love you, brothers 4L (for life). To my family and loved ones, especially my mother, father, brother, and sister, I’m so grateful for your unwavering support and sacrifice.”
The only slight surprise in light of preseason expectations is that it’s Anthony Black, not Smith, who in most mock NBA drafts is going off the board first.
While Black was able to stay mostly healthy all season and notch one of the best freshman seasons in Arkansas basketball history, Nick Smith Jr.’s injured-plagued year left a lot to be desired. While the highest ranked recruit to come out of Arkansas since Corliss Williamson tallied plenty of highlights, including a game-winner vs Auburn in the SEC Tournament, it felt he could never quite overcome the knee injury that benched him for a large part of the season.
Smith’s lack of rebounds and assists is popping up as a red flag in some scouting reports, and his No. 1 skill – scoring – didn’t pan out like so many imagined. Smith ended up scoring 12.7 points a game on 37.6% shooting, a clip dragged down by his 2-14 shooting performance in the first two games of the NCAA Tournament.
In light of the struggles of the last few weeks, some of the most respected NBA draft analysts are projecting Smith to fall out of the lottery range. Notably, The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie has him going at No. 16 now. “Given his injuries, there are real, built-in excuses for why he struggled,” Vecenie wrote. “But he has some work to do during the pre-draft process to rehabilitate his stock.”
After going scoreless in the dramatic win vs No. 1 seed Kansas, Smith let loose with one of the most emotional locker room outpourings you’ll ever see. It was clear he felt that the Hogs had won that monumental game more in spite of the way he played than because of it, and that ate him up inside.
Nick Smith Jr. Has His Mustain Moments
Predictably, from certain foul corners of the Internet, trolls belched forth, criticizing Smith not only for shooting poorly but also having what they felt was thin skin in the aftermath. In short, a few cave-dwelling “fans” felt he should have never returned from injury to the Arkansas basketball team and that the Hogs would have been better without him.
These fans’ tendency to circulate rumors throughout the season about Smith sitting out far more to protect his draft stock than his health especially sickened Arkansas sportscaster Mike Irwin. “You act like you’re in his family, like you were standing next to him the whole time he was gone [and] know exactly everything he did,” Irwin said a couple weeks ago on Pig Trail Nation’s “Ask Mike” show. And you don’t… you’re repeating rumors.”
The vitriol troubled Irwin even moreso because had already seen how it played out with two prep superstars in northwest Arkansas, both of whom ended up leaving the state. The first was Mitch Mustain, the Springdale High five-star recruit who experienced a tumultuous freshman season as a Razorback in part because of the publication of a controversial behind-the-scenes book about his team in high school and numerous unfounded rumors involving his family and motives circulating on message boards.
“He’s having to sit there and look at that and go, ‘I didn’t do that. That never happened. What’s going on here?’ What’s it like to be a hog fan and want to help your team win and then ‘Pow, right in the gut?”
Mustain, of course, transferred to USC after that first and only season in Fayetteville playing alongside other football field marker standouts for Arkansas like Darren McFadden, Jamaal Anderson, Felix Jones and Marcus Monk.
Monk’s younger brother, meanwhile, never made it to the U of A for even a single season.
The Malik Monk Recruiting Saga
Most Arkansas basketball fans don’t need a thorough reminder of the drama around the announcement of Malik Monk’s decision more than seven years ago to play for John Calipari at Kentucky instead of for former Arkansas basketball coach Mike Anderson.
Marcus Monk played a role in influencing his younger brother’s decision to leave his native state and avoid the kind of fate that Mitch Mustain endured had Monk faltered at all during that lone season on the Hill before going pro.
It would have been one thing if the Monks had stayed in the small-town of Lepanto in east Arkansas, but the fact that they moved to Bentonville, just up the road from Fayetteville, and that Marcus Monk had served as a GA for Mike Anderson during the Malik’s high school days, made opting for Kentucky feel all the more akin to twisting of a knife inside the hearts of some Razorback fans.
Irwin was especially harsh in his judgement of the affair.
He accused Marcus Monk of “playing” the situation on a radio sports show. “Don’t tell me he didn’t play it; he got all kinds of favors done, wheels were greased. I don’t think anybody broke NCAA rules but favors were done,” Irwin said in November of 2015.
“People helped because they wanted this kid to be a Razorback. You’re going to tell these people now, ‘Hey it’s okay, it’s all right, he just made a business decision. Oh, he couldn’t come because there would be too much pressure.’ He hasn’t seen pressure like he’s going to see now. He’s nobody; he will become nobody to most Razorbacks.”
And that was just the start of Irwin’s unloading. As you can imagine, this didn’t exactly pave the path to amicable relations between the veteran sportscaster and Marcus Monk.
Mike Irwin Apologizes
Nowadays, after seeing the Nick Smith Jr. drama play out this season, Irwin is singing a different tune.
He’s seen the light, as it were, after seeing the intense pressure Nick Smith received from a fanbase that so badly desired him to be a superstar right out of the gate. That pressure turned to hostility in some circles when Smith got injured and couldn’t meet those expectations, even after he returned for the last 12 games.
“I owe Marcus Monk an apology,” Irwin said last week. In an exchange from late 2015, Irwin recalls telling Monk “You did what was best for you because he’s going to make more money, you think,” going to Kentucky. “He got really mad at me. We got into it over it and I owe him an apology because I think he knew what he was doing.”
“I think he knew that if his brother who grew up in this state and was a Razorback fan, came here as a one and done and didn’t deliver, he would be crucified.” At Kentucky, meanwhile, Malik Monk was only be one of the many blue-chip recruits arrived on campus each year.
The same dynamic was at play in his situation as someone like Barry Dunning, who won Mr. Basketball twice in Alabama, but chose to play for the Razorbacks instead of the Crimson Tide. Or former Razorback football star Alex Collins, who left south Florida much to his mother’s chagrin.
“They know if they go to their in-state school, they’re going to be under so much pressure and so much scrutiny,” Irwin said of recruits who leave their native states. “It’s a lot easier to go where people don’t have these expectations for you.”
New Understanding for Arkansas Basketball Stars
Over the course of the last decade, it appears there has been a major shift in fans’ expectations for players to remain in school. Given the money that can now be made in the NBA but the G-League below it, it would be borderline unimaginable in today’s world for former Razorback stars like Corliss Williamson and Ronnie Brewer Jr. to stay three whole years before declaring for the NBA Draft.
Now, when the likes of Isaiah Joe and Jaylin Williams decide to call it a college career after only two seasons, there is far more understanding among fans of the the motives behind such a decision (especially starting the clock on being able to sign a first big contract). It helps, of course, that Joe and Williams are both on the way to being NBA success stories despite leaving a year earlier than some fans thought they should have.
The last couple years have also seen an uptick in goodwill shown by Arkansas fans to those who choose to transfer from the Razorbacks to other schools. It took a few years, but it’s finally sunk in that the transfer portal isn’t going anywhere and as long as Eric Musselman is coach, the Hogs are on the whole going to gain far better talent on average this way than they are going to lose.
Don’t expect the same level of understanding to extend to any future home-grown talents in the same stratosphere as Malik Monk or Nick Smith Jr. who choose to play college basketball outside of the state. But Irwin’s apology shows that times are changing. Some of the onlookers so harsh to judge in the past are now more willing to see things from the player’s viewpoint.
The kind of social media “crucification” that Smith had to endure was thankfully curtailed by Arkansas making the Sweet 16 this season, but there’s little question future blue-chip recruits and their families are curious about his experiences wearing the Razorback red and what they may learn from them.
Instead of continuing to criticize the Monks, Irwin meanwhile has wisely redirected his attention. To the idiots who still think Smith somehow let Arkansas down this past season, he says: “You’re a walking, talking billboard for [the message]: ‘If you’re a five star in this state, leave the state. Go somewhere else. Play somewhere else. Because if you stay here and you don’t do what we want, what we think you should do, we’re coming after you.'”
*Malik Monk averages more than 13 points a game for one of the NBA’s best young teams in Sacramento and recently put up a career-high 45 points. Marcus Monk, now a sports agent, doesn’t represent his younger brother but does a promising client in James Wiseman. Their mother, Jackie Monk, still lives in Bentonville.
More from Irwin on Smith and the Monks at 19:00 below:
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