Modern college basketball, and college sports in general, is different. Different than it was 25 years ago. Different than it was even five years ago.
Those times would have yielded an update about the status of Nick Smith Jr., Arkansas’ star freshman guard. Instead, it’s 2022, and no one outside of the program and the closest possible people to it are aware of the extent of Smith’s right knee injury.
Arkansas announced about 10 minutes before tip Wednesday night against UNC Asheville in the final game before SEC play begins after Christmas that Smith would be out indefinitely for “right knee management.” The labeling of the injury as such recalled memories for this 20-year sportswriter of NBA “DNP” statuses and NHL “lower-body injury” reasons.
Such is the sport nowadays, especially with a player of Smith’s caliber.
High Praise of Arkansas Basketball from Sports Illustrated
Arkansas didn’t need the Jacksonville, Ark., native for much of its non-conference slate. The Razorbacks’ only loss to date was in the semifinals of the Maui Invitational against Creighton. Arkansas sits ranked No. 9 in the country as it enters conference play and is so good that Sports Illustrated is calling the team true “contenders,” as opposed to other Top 10 “pretenders” like Purdue, Tennessee and Texas.
That’s some high valuation for a team that lost one of its most talented players in forward Trevon Brazile more than two weeks back because of a torn ACL. Smith’s wonky knee, too, must have been considered. But coach Eric Musselman has the Hogs in awfully good shape. That said, the SEC is another beast altogether and the Razorbacks are, theoretically, a better team with Smith, a projected lottery (projected top-five, actually) pick than without him.
Sure, he shoots in volume and was canning less than 40% of his field goals in his five games played this season. But play-making combo guards with his talent haven’t beaten down Arkansas’ door in, well, ever. It’s likely that’s the reason for the caution, though the reason for the caution is unclear.
The Unclear Status of Nick Smith Jr.
From Arkansas’ standpoint, the lack of clarity is likely the point. Teams can’t prepare one way or the other for Smith and he’s so good opposing game plans would likely alter with him in the lineup. By labeling him as out indefinitely, teams have a tougher time preparing. Musselman, however, seems uncomfortable discussing Smith’s status in a way he isn’t about other players.
Before Wednesday’s announcement, the last thing Musselman said besides an ostensible “no update” was that Smith left the Bradley game in North Little Rock early in the second half because of a tape issue. Musselman discussed his guard’s return with his coaching staff and they came to the conclusion it wasn’t worth potentially aggravating the injury in a game they had all but locked up at that point, even. Even in press conferences when Smith was out for the first six games of the year, Musselman always demurred.
The veteran coach did reveal Monday morning that Smith wouldn’t play in Wednesday’s SEC opener at LSU, but his actual status is anyone’s guess. Could Arkansas be downplaying the injury just for gamesmanship? Could Smith be actually shut down for the season? Who is making the call on such things? Medical personnel? Smith? Musselman? Handlers? Or maybe even Smith’s sports agency, Klutch Sports Group (which owns perhaps the most standoff-ish website in the entertainment world)?
Arkansas basketball reporter Dudley Dawson believes that Klutch’s involvement indicates that Smith won’t sit out for the rest of the season.
“Why would Klutch allow him to sit on the bench and why would he continue to go to class if he wasn’t going to play?” Dawson wrote on Hogville.net. “Rich Paul – the head guy and also Adele’s boyfriend – and his guys would have Nick in LA getting the best rehab available if he was done for the season.”
One has to think it isn’t just one person as the end-all, be-all of the decision, but the lack of information is bewildering. Understandable, granted, but strange.
From Smith’s perspective, it makes all the sense in the world to not play if not fully healthy. Basketball isn’t football, where Sam Pittman made it a point this past season to acknowledge linebacker Bumper Pool’s playing through injuries that would have stopped others from performing.
Pool wasn’t a top-10 NFL draft pick, though, with a guaranteed professional future. Smith is. And, like it or not, college basketball is a stepping stone for players like him. Even Arkansas guard Anthony Black, when asked at a press conference last week whether this would be his only year with the Razorbacks, joked: “Hopefully.”
From the Arkansas basketball perspective, it’s trickier. The Hogs have a clear-cut and clear-eyed objective in a national championship. Having a player of Smith’s caliber on the floor is what helped bring the Razorbacks into that contender status this season. And current stars and success is often a harbinger for future stars and success. Meaning, it’s easier to stay near the top once you’ve gotten to the top. It’s the nature of the game in this era.
Don’t hold any grudges against Smith or Black or any player who chooses. Don’t hold any toward Musselman or the program, either. It’s an almost impossible situation to navigate. Musselman has every right to become perturbed when asked multiple questions about Smith’s status, but he also understands those questions have to be asked. Kudos to Best of Arkansas Sports’ own Andrew Hutchinson for pressing the coach on Wednesday night after the game, too.
The good news is that Arkansas is a dynamite team with or without Smith. They could still make a Final Four, even a national title game. If the likes of Jordan Walsh, Anthony Black and Devo Davis realize their vast potential, they could win the whole thing, even. But the drama that’s been created by the Smith situation is very real and very new for a program that has never quite been in such a position before. How the Hogs handle it during SEC play will go almost as far as how they handle the on-court absence of their best player.
Welcome to college basketball in 2023.
More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…