It took longer than anyone expected, but Nick Smith Jr. finally heard his name called near the end of the first round of the 2023 NBA Draft on Thursday.
The Charlotte Hornets used the 27th overall pick to select the Arkansas basketball star, whose lone season with the Razorbacks was marred by injuries and inconsistent play.
Even with his draft stock falling from where it was when he was considered a potential top-3 pick and the No. 1 recruit in the 2022 class, Smith was still projected to go in the middle of the first round – in the late-teens or early-20s.
“I’m coming in with a big chip, for sure,” Smith said after his selection. “I also understand this game is a business and Charlotte was willing to take a chance on me. My trust is in Charlotte right now.”
Smith was one of three Razorbacks drafted Thursday night in Brooklyn, with Anthony Black going to the Orlando Magic with pick No. 6 and Jordan Walsh coming off the board in the second round, as the Boston Celtics took him 38th overall.
Those three players highlighted Arkansas’ heralded 2022 signing class, which ranked second nationally. All three were five-star prospects and McDonald’s All-Americans.
What separated Smith, aside from his lofty recruiting rankings, was the fact that he was a homegrown talent. He is from Jacksonville and played his high school ball first at Sylvan Hills and then North Little Rock.
Arkansas as a Basketball State
The selection of Nick Smith Jr. in the 2023 NBA Draft continued what has become a growing trend of Arkansas natives making an impact at basketball’s highest level.
It’s the fifth straight year — and seventh time in nine years — that a player born in the Natural State has been drafted. The current streak consists entirely of Razorbacks:
- 2019: Daniel Gafford (El Dorado)
- 2020: Isaiah Joe (Fort Smith)
- 2021: Moses Moody (Little Rock)
- 2022: Jaylin Williams (Fort Smith)
- 2023: Nick Smith Jr. (Jacksonville)
Only California, Texas and Georgia have a longer such streak, but those are top 10 states as far as population goes.
Gafford, Joe and Williams sticking in the NBA, despite being second-round picks, has helped Arkansas become one of the biggest producers of players in the league — per capita — in the country.
In fact, based on research by Best of Arkansas Sports’ Jace Dunegan – who used populations from the 2020 census and birthplaces listed on Basketball-Reference – the Natural State ranks second among the 50 states.
On their own, its nine players including Nick Smith Jr. would be nowhere near the top of the list. When factoring in its population of just over 3 million, though, Arkansas has 2.99 players in the NBA per million people* in the state — trailing only Delaware’s 3.03 and just ahead of Maryland (2.30) and South Carolina (2.54).
|State||Population (2020)||NBA Players||Players per Million|
Of course, the data presented above should be taken with a grain of salt. Most notably, it’s based entirely on where players were born, which doesn’t always paint the best picture of where players are from.
For example, eight of the aforementioned Arkansans — the first five listed above, plus Bobby Portis (Little Rock), Austin Reaves (Newark) and Malik Monk (Jonesboro) — are unquestionably from the state. The ninth, though, is Mike Conley Jr.
The son of former Arkansas track star and Olympic gold medalist Mike Conley Sr., he spent most of his childhood in Fayetteville, but moved to Indianapolis and played his high school ball in the Hoosier State.
It’s probably not too much of a stretch to still consider Conley an Arkansan in this exercise, but there are numerous other instances that could potentially skew the numbers above.
One of Delaware’s three players is Jalen Duren, who was born there, but grew up in Pennsylvania. Take him out and Arkansas shoots up to the No. 1 spot — even if Conley is excluded from the Natural State’s list.
Of course, that’d also require an extensive look at the other states around Arkansas in the list above. For example, North Carolina would lose Zion Williamson (born in North Carolina, but raised in South Carolina), but gain Stephen Curry (born in Ohio, raised in North Carolina).
Whether a “true list” has Arkansas at No. 1 or No. 5 doesn’t change the fact that the state is in the midst of a golden era of hoops — and not just because of Eric Musselman’s success in March with the Razorbacks.
Next NBA Player(s) from Arkansas?
There’s a very good chance that the Natural State’s streak continues in 2024. In fact, there are multiple Arkansas natives who could potentially hear their name called next summer.
The Razorbacks have two such hopefuls in Davonte Davis and Layden Blocker.
Davis, a native of Jacksonville, is a senior who tested the NBA Draft waters the offseason before opting to return to school. Had he remained in the draft, he almost certainly wouldn’t have been selected.
He might still not get picked next year, but another season under Eric Musselman could possibly get him into the second-round conversation — especially if he can stay efficient from beyond the arc and continue to tighten up his assist-to-turnover radio.
While he finished his high school career at Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, Kan., Blocker is from Little Rock. Ranked as high as No. 24 overall by Rivals, he could potentially be another one-and-done player for the Razorbacks — although their depth in the backcourt may make it more difficult to stand out than it was for Moses Moody, who was similarly ranked coming out of high school three years earlier.
The most likely draftee from Arkansas is big man Kel’el Ware from North Little Rock. Widely considered a one-and-done prospect, he had a disappointing freshman year at Oregon and has since transferred to Indiana. Perhaps the change in scenery helps Ware tap into his full potential and become the first-round pick many expected him to be.
Another possibility is Bryson Warren, the Little Rock native who left high school early to play with Overtime Elite, a professional league based in Atlanta. He becomes draft eligible in 2024.
Beyond next year, it gets even trickier projecting when players might get drafted because it’s impossible to know when they’ll officially declare for the NBA Draft.
Arkansas Basketball Recruiting in Golden Era
However, there’s plenty of talent coming through the pipeline.
Little Rock Central’s Annor Boateng and Little Rock Parkview’s Dallas Thomas are each four-star recruits in the 2024 class, with Boateng checking in at No. 9 overall and earning five-star status from On3.
It’s still really early in the process, but Little Rock Christian’s JJ Andrews — the son of Arkansas football legend Shawn Andrews — is already ranked eighth nationally in the 2026 class by ESPN.
Depending on how those players develop, the Natural State could become the unquestioned leader in producing NBA players, per capita, within the next decade. At this point it looks like it will overtake Delaware in the coming years since the First State doesn’t have the same level of recruits and current collegians in the pipeline that Arkansas does.
Whether Arkansas can stave off more traditionally renowned hoop hotbeds like North Carolina and Maryland for No. 1 remains to be seen, but the current crop of talent gives it more than a fighting chance.
So, what about football and baseball? We have also crunched NFL and MLB numbers to see where Arkansas ranks nationwide on a per-capita basis in those sports, too.
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*These numbers include 2023 NBA draftees but don’t include undrafted free agents like Ricky Council IV who will play in the NBA summer league. Council, as a Durham, NC native, would increase slightly increase North Carolina’s per capita output if he was included.
**Trace Jackson-Davis is technically a native Californian since he was born in Long Beach but probably should be considered an Indianian given how long he’s lived there. If he was included as an Indianian, and not a Californian, he would bump this number up a bit.
*** Washington DC, if it was considered a state, would No. 1 on the list. Heading into the 2023 NBA Draft, the birthplace of the likes of Kevin Durant and Makhi Mitchell was producing 4.35 NBA players per million.
More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…