Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman is looking to drive his team to the next level after consecutive Elite Eight exits, and he’s handing the keys over to the youngest group of leaders he’s ever had at the collegiate level, highlighted by five-star freshman and projected early lottery pick Nick Smith Jr.
After shooting up the national recruiting rankings during his senior year of high school, ultimately reaching No. 1 in his class on 247Sports, Smith joined fellow five-star recruits Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh in committing to Musselman and the Hogs to form – at least on paper – one of the highest-rated and most-anticipated trios in school history.
(READ NEXT: Jordan Walsh Breakdown, Season Preview)
Nick Smith Jr. Player Breakdown
Before even playing his first official collegiate game, the Little Rock native is already considered one of the best players at his position in the nation, as evidenced by him recently being named one of 20 players on the watch list for the Jerry West Award – which goes to the best shooting guard in college basketball.
Standing at 6-foot-5, Smith’s offensive arsenal has held NBA scouts’ attention since before he arrived on campus.
“I think Nick has had such a spotlight on him that there’s probably not a lot that hasn’t been said because he’s had such bright lights on him, not just since he’s gotten to Arkansas, but well before he got here,” Musselman said of his newest star.
Some sites, such as The Sporting News, even have Smith already listed as their No. 3 overall Draft Prospect behind the generational talent of 7-foot-4 Victor Wembanyama and G League Ignite standout Scoot Henderson.
“Smith is a long and athletic guard with a 6-9 wingspan and a lightning-quick first step,” Kyle Irving wrote for The Sporting News. “He’s shifty with a tight handle and a smooth jumper from both the perimeter and midrange, making him a pure three-level scorer. He’s already confident with his floaters when attacking the basket, and his wiry energy should translate to the defensive end of the floor.”
Smith is a pure three-level scorer with a quick first step and smooth shooting stroke. He projects to be one of the Razorbacks’ best 3-point shooters – as he’s been throughout the preseason. He’s shot 35% on 5.3 attempts per game through the six exhibition games and the Red-White scrimmage, trailing only Joseph Pinion (50% on 2.3 attempts) among players who have attempted at least two 3-pointers through the offseason.
He’s also shown a willingness to create space for pull-up jump shots in the midrange area, as well as attacking the rim when the opportunity presents itself. Though he’s a score-first player, Smith also reads the defense well and knows when to find his teammates, especially the big men lurking in anticipation of the alley-oop passes for which Musselman has been training his guards to watch:
Anthony Black is the most likely candidate to lead the team in assists thanks to his unique combination of size allowing him to see over the defense, high basketball IQ and pass-first mentality. However, Smith will spend a fair amount of the time with the ball in his hands orchestrating the offense, especially when Black goes to the bench.
This means he will have to continue to improve his ball security. While his arsenal of dribble moves is diverse, Smith has averaged 2.7 turnovers compared to only 2.6 assists in the preseason. That negative assist-to-turnover ratio is fairly common, especially early on, for true freshman guards as they adjust to the speed of the collegiate game, but he will need to improve in this area as he leads the championship-hopeful Hogs.
Smith noted this weakness following a 3-turnover performance in his first game overseas, saying, “I’ve got to do a better job at handling the ball, not throwing it away and being poised. I’ve got to slow down.”
In the small sample size we have so far, it appears Smith has focused on improving this part of his game. His first three games in Europe consisted of 10 total turnovers (3.3 per game), while his next two outings consisted of only three turnovers (1.5 per game). Against Texas, though, he had four, showing the inconsistency that can come with even the best freshmen.
The Razorbacks have already showcased their abilities on the court seven times so far this preseason – four games coming on their European tour, two exhibition games against Rogers State and Texas, and their annual Red-White scrimmage.
In these outings, Smith has left little doubt that he will be a focal point of Arkansas’ offense. He started the European tour by dropping 17 points in each of his first two games before pouring in a 20-point performance in Game 3, when he shot 57% from the floor. A tweaked knee caused him to miss the entire second half of the fourth game, though he still managed to score five points before taking a seat.
In his first stateside game wearing the Cardinal and White, Smith faced a daunting matchup in his own teammate, Anthony Black. The 6-foot-7 point guard’s length and defensive instincts affected Smith’s efficiency, as seen in the multiple perimeter shots blocked by his backcourt mate. Regardless, Smith led his White Team on a second-half comeback bid – scoring 22 points overall – before falling just short to the Red Team.
In his first action inside Bud Walton Arena, Smith played 20 minutes against Rogers State in a game that was essentially over before it started, as the Hogs won 83-49 and all 15 players saw the court. In limited minutes, Smith tallied 9 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists. That included scoring the first seven points of the game.
Then, as Arkansas switched to the receiving end of a 30-point beatdown against Texas, Smith again showed his confidence in scoring the ball off the dribble. He finished with 12 points on 63% shooting, including going 1 of 2 from behind the 3-point line and making his lone free-throw attempt. Unfortunately, Smith also committed four turnovers in the exhibition game for the second time this offseason – this time only contributing one assist as well.
When looking at the preseason as a whole, Smith averaged 14.6 points, 2.6 assists, 1.4 rebounds and 1.4 steals while shooting 43% from the field and 34% from behind the 3-point line.
In the five full games Smith played against outside competition (excluding Game 4 in Europe and the Red-White scrimmage), his averages improve marginally to 15.0 points, 2.6 assists, 1.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals to go along with 51% FG, 39% 3P, and 70% FT shooting splits.
Nick Smith Jr. Statistical Outlook
Smith is in no imminent danger of losing his spot in the rotation, but it is yet to be seen how Musselman will set up the offense with so much talent at every position. Most players on the roster, including Black and Walsh, will likely score a majority of their points by running in transition, making smart cuts or putting back offensive rebounds rather than being the focal point of offensive sets.
This opens the door for Smith to receive most of the action when the Hogs pull out their set plays. Smith has demonstrated his ability to score both off the dribble and while moving off the ball, a skill that makes him especially difficult for defenses to game plan against and defend.
Smith is the clear-cut frontrunner to lead the Hogs in scoring, but it likely won’t be by the same 7-point margin that JD Notae did last season when he aveaged 18.3 compared to Stanley Umude’s 11.9.
The 2020-21 season might offer a closer comparison to this year’s scoring breakdown. Freshman Moses Moody led the team with 16.8 points per game, followed closely by Justin Smith (13.6), Notae (12.8) and Jalen Tate (11.0).
If our projection holds true, Smith could challenge Scotty Thurman’s freshman scoring record (540 points) at the UA – which Moody fell one point shy of matching – but the UA freshman record for scoring average might be tough to catch. George Kok set that way back in 1944-45, when he averaged 18.7 points across 24 games.
Nick Smith Jr. Stat Projection
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