It’s no secret that if the Hogs were to have a chance of fulfilling the stratospheric expectations foisted upon the program this season, they would need at least two consistent threats from three-point range.
For a while, sophomore Trevon Brazile outshone expectations and fulfilled a role as one of those two. The big man shot 38% through nine games until a season-ending injury took him out of the equation.
Then, for another while, Joseph Pinion looked like a promising possibility to step into the void. On January 4, he nailed three of six from beyond the arc vs Missouri and two and a half weeks later did the same vs Ole Miss.
Then, until Tuesday night, crickets from deep. The freshman from Morrilton didn’t make a field goal for a full month, between January 21 and Tuesday night when he got in late in the rout against Georgia and knocked down two of two three-pointers. Arkansas basketball coach Eric Mussselman has mostly benched him as others have absorbed the lion’s share of minutes.
Davonte Davis Needed Help
Until the last two games, junior Davonte “Devo” Davis had emerged as one of the needed perimeter marksmen, shooting 39% on 66 three-point attempts. In that same time span, nobody stepped up as that second floor-spreader. Candidates Ricky Council IV and Anthony Black both shot over 30% in the first month of the season, but through last week their percentages significantly dropped off.
Those declines, combined with an off half of shooting for Davis, were proving catastrophic for this Arkansas basketball team, as the second half of last week’s road loss at Texas A&M showed.
The Razorbacks needed to rectify the nearly team-wide clanksmanship in the worst way, and just in time Nick Smith Jr., the player best suited to do that, has stepped into the void.
For a while, getting on track was a painful process to watch. The oft-injured freshman didn’t do himself any favors by looking so rusty in the four underwhelming minutes in last Wednesday’s loss to Texas A&M. Stepping out of bounds and getting a shot blocked didn’t do much to make up for the goodwill lost among some fans during an extended absence through much of the SEC season.
But that rockiness didn’t negate one simple fact: the man still has a proven ability to shoot from deep. His skill in filling it out from distance is a big reason he won MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic and is still considered one of college basketball’s top NBA prospects despite the knee injury that has cast such a shadow across his freshman season.
Even in a Florida win in which he looked much more comfortable and scored 10 points, Smith missed all four of his three-pointers. It was easy for naysayers to fixate on the those first three games back and to forget Smith shot 35% on 5.3 three-point attempts per game through the Razorbacks’ six exhibition games and the Red-White scrimmage, trailing only Joseph Pinion (50% on 2.3 attempts) among players who attempted at least two 3-pointers through the offseason.
When he’s feeling relatively good and in the flow, he’s proven he can be very effective in college. He showed that earlier in the season when hitting three of five from deep vs San Jose State. And, boy, did it come through loud and clear in Tuesday night’s statement win vs Florida, when the Jacksonville native poured in a career-high 26 points while hitting five of eight three-pointers.
New Expectations for Nick Smith Jr.
It’s easy to expect Nick Smith Jr. to take over as the team’s leader from here on out, but that’s premature based on a single great outing. Arkansas is entering its toughest three-game stretch of the season with road games vs Alabama and Tennessee on tap, followed by a home bout vs Kentucky.
Despite the good vibes of Tuesday night, Arkansas basketball fans would be wise to reset expectations for the nation’s former No. 1 recruit. Smith can and will emerge as the team’s leading scorer in some games going forward, but he shouldn’t be expected to pour in 20+ points per game from here on out. He’s still going to need a few more games to truly get up to the speed, and that will become obvious on the road against the nation’s No. 1 team in Tuscaloosa.
Going forward, one of his most important roles will be continued accurate three-point shooting to take pressure off Davis, or Council or Black if either get going as Davis tapers down his shot attempts. Certainly, he will be needed as a lock-down defender. Nick Smith Jr. doesn’t need to be an alpha dog every single night to help take this team to the next level.
Davis, for his part, has believed in Smith all along.
“We all know he can play,” Devo Davis told Justin Acri and Wess Moore on The Buzz 103.7 FM last week. “He’s one of the best players in the country, that we’ve all seen before. Him coming up to Arkansas and putting his pride to the side and being able to step back on the court, even though he doesn’t have to, I think that shows a lot. Me, knowing Nick, I know he’s going to be ready to play, if he plays 40 minutes or if he plays five.”
As readily as momentum has shifted in one direction, it can go the other.
One day, fans may see a different version of Nick Smith Jr. than what will likely be seen in college. Looking ahead a few years, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a fully-healed Smith emerge as an NBA star who has developed the frame and strength to drive to the basket and rack up points at the free throw line against grown men as readily as he did against high schoolers.
Because of the recent knee issue, though, that version of Nick Smith Jr. may be a pipe dream for Arkansas this season. But that’s not the version sorely needed in the short term when Davis, Council and Black have all proven so capable of leading this team if they can stay fresh.
Smith should know there’s no shame in continuing his comeback by eagerly and expertly stepping into the role of Robin to other Batmans – even if he’s bound to sometimes wear the cape too.
More from Devo Davis on Nick Smith Jr here: