FAYETTEVILLE — There was very little doubt about his future, but Nick Smith Jr. made things official by declaring for the NBA Draft on Thursday.
That ends what was a tumultuous single season with Arkansas basketball, as he joined the Razorbacks as their highest-ranked signee since Corliss Williamson and is now leaving as one of the biggest “What Ifs” in school history.
“This year has been an incredible journey, and I am grateful for all the love and support I have received from my hometown and all the hog fans,” Smith wrote on Twitter. “I want to express my gratitude to my coach, Muss, and the entire coaching staff, who believed in my abilities and allowed me the chance to play for Arkansas.”
A knee injury caused Smith to miss more than half of the season and when he got healthy, he struggled to reacclimate to the team. In 17 games, he averaged 12.5 points in 25.9 minutes and shot just 37.6% from the floor and 33.8% from beyond the arc.
Smith will now shift his focus to preparing for the NBA Draft, in which he’s still generally projected to go in the lottery, but was once a potential top-three overall pick.
Assuming teammate and fellow projected lottery pick Anthony Black also declares, the Razorbacks could have two first-round picks for the first time since 1992. That year, Todd Day, Oliver Miller and Lee Mayberry were each among the first 23 players taken.
They would also join Moses Moody as the only one-and-done players in UA history, with fellow freshman Jordan Walsh being another player who could declare for the NBA Draft, although Walsh would more likely be a second-round pick.
Nick Smith Jr. and the NBA Draft
A little more than a year ago, ESPN tabbed Nick Smith Jr. as the best incoming college freshman and Jonathan Givony slotted him third in his first 2023 NBA Draft projection.
Along with his consensus five-star rating, that further sped up what was already a nearly a hype train fast picking up steam. There was legitimate hope that he’d become Arkansas’ highest draft pick since George Kok went second overall in 1948, a year before the BAA was rebranded as the NBA, and its highest ever in the modern era — an honor that currently belongs to Arkansas legend Sidney Moncrief, who was the No. 5 pick in 1978.
It didn’t help that 247Sports put him at No. 1 overall in its final Class of 2022 rankings, making him the highest-ranked Arkansas signee since Corliss Williamson, who helped the Razorbacks win their only national championship in 1994.
Fast forward 14 months and things look much different. Arkansas was knocked out of the 2023 NCAA Tournament in the Sweet 16 — which was actually overachieving based on the 8 seed it earned — and Smith has slipped in mock drafts.
Givony still has Smith going No. 7 overall to the Jazz in his latest projection published before the big dance, but he is 14th on his ranking of the top prospects available in the 2023 NBA Draft. Jonathan Wasserman’s latest mock draft for Bleacher Report also came before the NCAA Tournament and still had him at No. 6 to the Pacers. NBADraft.net has updated more recently and also has Smith going 6th, but to the Wizards.
However, it’s no longer unanimous that Smith is taken in the lottery. In Sam Vecenie’s mock draft on The Athletic, he is projected to go to the Hawks with the 16th overall pick — two spots outside of the lottery.
“It’s hard to have a much worse ending than Nick Smith did after returning from injuries that held him out for a majority of the season before mid-February,” Vecenie wrote. “He scored just 17 points in 68 minutes during Arkansas’ three NCAA Tournament games, and the team was often better with him off the court.”
NBADraftRoom.com has Smith sliding even further, to the Rockets at No. 19.
It’s worth noting that even if he falls that far in the NBA Draft, Nick Smith Jr. is still looking at a large payday. Last year’s 19th pick, Jake LaRavia from Wake Forest, received a four-year, $14.76 million rookie deal. The first two years — which are worth about $6.2 million — are fully guaranteed.
Had he stayed healthy and played up to his potential, though, those numbers would be much bigger. Auburn’s Jabari Smith, who went third overall last year, got a four-year, $40.33 million contract with $18.2 million guaranteed.
Which Arkansas Basketball Player is Next?
There are still a lot of uncertainties surrounding the Arkansas basketball roster, but one thing is for sure: More players will be leaving — and Nick Smith Jr. likely isn’t the only one entering the NBA Draft.
As mentioned above, Anthony Black is widely projected as a lottery pick. In fact, all five of the mock drafts referenced with Smith have Black not only being a lottery pick, but a top-10 overall selection. The Athletic and NBADraft.net have the highest projections for Black at No. 7.
The only other Arkansas basketball player included in all five mock drafts is Ricky Council IV. Most of them project him as a second-round pick in the 39-46 range, but Bleacher Report has Council sneaking into the first round at No. 27 overall.
Jordan Walsh appeared in the second round of the mock drafts by Bleacher Report (No. 46) and NBADraftRoom.com (No. 37), but was completely left out of the two-round mocks by ESPN, The Athletic and NBADraft.net. Throw in his comments immediately following the loss to UConn and there is speculation that he may return for his sophomore year.
The other big name to watch is Trevon Brazile, who had just started creeping into the first round of some mock drafts when he went down with a torn ACL in December. His timeline to return from the injury seems to point to a return to Arkansas, but no decisions have been made on that front.
UPDATE: Trevon Brazile has announced his return for the 2023-24 season
Davonte Davis, Makhi and Makhel Mitchell, and Jalen Graham are veterans who could potentially move on to the professional ranks, but none are seen as NBA Draft prospects. They would likely be forced to play in the G League or overseas.
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