FAYETTEVILLE — It turns out that what kept Nick Smith Jr. off the court for much of the second half Saturday in North Little Rock was a more severe than Eric Musselman let on.
Despite telling reporters after the win over Bradley that the freshman phenom should be available to play, Smith was held out of No. 10 Arkansas’ 85-51 blowout win over UNC Asheville on Wednesday.
The UA sent out a press release about 10 minutes before tipoff that said he would be out indefinitely for “right knee management” — the same thing that kept him out of the first six games of the regular season.
“Nick is a competitor and he looked forward to playing for the Razorbacks. He’s kind of been in and out of the lineup, or whatever, and we just want him to get healthy as quickly as possible and for him to be 100 percent.”
Smith posted the following on Twitter a couple hours after the game:
After making his collegiate debut with six minutes off the bench against Troy, the Jacksonville native — whom 247Sports ranked as the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2022 class — started the last four games. However, he had to leave each of the last two games early.
In the Oklahoma game in Tulsa, Smith appeared to tweak his leg and didn’t play the final 5:32. He jogged back and forth to the locker room a couple of times before watching the end of the game behind the bench and standing next to the trainer.
College basketball insider Jon Rothstein later reported it as an ankle injury, but it didn’t keep him out of the lineup the following week against Bradley. He played most of the first half before exiting the game with 17:05 remaining on not returning.
Afterward, Musselman downplayed it and said it was an issue with the tape on his knee. He said Smith could have returned to the game if the situation warranted it and that he would be available for the Razorbacks’ final tune-up before SEC play.
When asked if the injuries were related, Musselman declined to go into further detail.
“I’m not going to — I mean, he’s out indefinitely and that’s what it is,” Musselman said. “So there’s nothing else. He’s out indefinitely and he’s going to continue to rehab as best as he can.”
Not including the Troy or Bradley games, Smith averaged 19.7 points in 30.7 minutes across the three games in which he wasn’t severely limited.
UNCA Gets Taste of ‘Spin Cycle’
Before the Razorbacks traveled to Austin for a preseason exhibition, Kamani Johnson told reporters that Jalen Graham’s spin move was so good that he had earned the nickname “Spin Cycle.”
Whether or not it’s true that anyone actually calls him that is a little unclear, but he showed Wednesday that Johnson was not exaggerating.
The spin move was on full display as he went 8 of 10 from the floor and finished with a game-high 16 points in just 19 minutes of play. He also added 3 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 assist, 1 block and 1 turnover.
“Jalen has got a great flip shot,” head coach Musselman said. “He’s got a great spin move. He can feel the defender, go the other way. I thought offensively, I’d give him a 10 out of 10.”
Musselman was so complimentary of Graham’s soft touch that he compared to that of two-time All-Star Antawn Jamison, whom he coached at Golden State.
Graham frequently goes to that move — both in practice and in games — with great success.
“This guy thinks he’s Hakeem Olajuwon or something with the way he spins,” teammate Joseph Pinion said. “We’ll be playing one-on-one sometimes and he’ll just hit me with a mean spin move and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
The chances in games have been few and far between, though. There have been three games he never got off the bench and three of his nine appearances were for 3 minutes or fewer.
In fact, the 19 minutes he got against UNC Asheville were a season high, and by quite a bit. His previous high was 12 minutes against San Jose State. It’s probably not the role Graham expected to have when he transferred in as a former all-conference performer at Arizona State, but he’s kept a positive attitude about it all.
“The opportunities and stuff like that, that’s coach’s decision,” Graham said. “If he feels that I’m not doing enough, then I’m not going to be mad. … I’m here for the team, I’m here to just win games. That’s why I came here — to win — so I’m not really tripping. If coach feels like I need to get in the game and if he sees something he likes, then I’m ready to play.”
In addition to some occasional defensive lapses and a need for more “physical, in-traffic rebounds,” one thing keeping Graham away from steady playing time his consistency.
It’s worth noting that most of his production has come in blowouts. So far this season, 49 of his 54 total points have come when the Razorbacks were already up by more than 10. In limited action when the margin is 10 points or less, Graham has posted a minus-7 in just under 16 minutes.
“I think that’s his challenge, is to give consistency,” Musselman said. “Not just in a game, but consistency in practice and consistency in getting in the gym on his own. All those things become really important because he’s really skilled.”
Joseph Pinion Stays Ready
Another bright spot in the blowout was the play of freshman Joseph Pinion.
Playing time has been even harder to come by for the Morrilton native than Graham. Known as a sharp-shooter, he got a career-high 19 minutes and made the post of it.
Coming off the bench, Pinion knocked down a pair of corner 3s and also threw down back-to-back fast break dunks late in the second half to give him 10 points.
“You always just have to stay ready,” Pinion said. “The coaches have basically told me to always be ready, whenever you get your chance, you just got to do what you got to do.”
It was the first glance of what he could evolve in to for Arkansas basketball fans, as he had been just 1 of 4 from beyond the arc before going 2 of 4 on Wednesday.
“When you’re a great shooter, the hardest thing is do you still have confidence?” Musselman said. “When he comes in the game you can see teammates, coaching staff, we feel like when he shoots it is going to go in. When you’re a great shooter, that’s kind of the air that everybody has.”
His scoring may have stolen the show, but Pinion was also excellent with the ball in his hands. He dished three assists — including an incredible alley oop to Jalen Graham.
“I kinda just threw it up,” Pinion said. “I’m very thankful that Jalen was there to just go grab it, because that was a terrible pass.”
The most exciting part of his game, though, came late in the second half when Pinion capped a pair of fast break opportunities with dunks. He even added a little extra “rock the baby” cradle flavor on the second one.
“That’s my favorite dunk,” Pinion said. “I like to cup the ball and then go dunk it. That just felt the best for me.”
Shutting Down Pember
The primary focus of Arkansas’ game plan was Drew Pember, a 6-foot-10 transfer from Tennessee who came into the game averaging 19.7 points and 9.5 rebounds while shooting 42.2% from beyond the arc.
He is easily UNC Asheville’s best player and was coming off a pair of double-doubles — the last of which was capped by a game-winning buzzer beater — that earned him Big South Player of the Week honors.
On Wednesday, though, the Razorbacks effectively shut him down. He managed just 5 points on 1 of 7 shooting, including 1 of 4 from the free throw line, and 4 rebounds while turning it over 3 times. It was the result of the scouting reports Musselman is famous for.
“Watching film on him, we just saw how all his moves were mainly to the right, and looking at his stats, he averaged 20 and 10, but Coach was hitting on…his turnovers,” Jalen Graham said. “He averages like four a game, I think. So we just knew since we were coming off Bradley game, how we were just digging at the ball that if he was ever gonna spin, if the bigs were able to just hold their ground, that he wasn’t really going to have anywhere to go.”
Perhaps most impressively, Pember attempted only two free throws. He came into the game ranked fourth nationally with 94 attempts — or 7.8 per game.
The task of keeping him off his game was split between a trio of Razorbacks.
“There was really three guys,” Musselman said. “It started off Jordan Walsh, then it led to Makhi and then, for the bulk of that last 12 minutes of the first half, Kamani did a great job on him. Great job being physical.”
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- For the sixth straight game, and seventh time in the past eight games, Makhi Mitchell scored Arkansas’ first points of the game. Over that six-game stretch, he’s also scored the Razorbacks’ first points in the second half four times — including the last two after doing it again Wednesday.
- With Smith out and Anthony Black picking up his second foul, freshman Derrian Ford was thrust into his earliest action of the season, checking in at the 9:59 mark of the first half. According to HogStats, the earliest he had checked in before was at the 1:31 mark of the first half against UNC Greensboro.
- Layden Blocker, one of Arkansas’ two five-star signees in the 2023 class, was in the building for the game. He was shown on the video board during the under-8 media timeout in the first half and received a standing ovation.
- A pair of touted recruits were also in attendance: power forward Nigel Walls from Houston and point guard Jasper Johnson from Lexington, Ky. Both are among the top 40 prospects in the Class of 2025, according to Rivals.
Arkansas vs UNC Asheville Highlights
Arkansas vs UNC Asheville Postgame Interviews
Arkansas vs UNC Asheville Box Score
More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…