Since transferring to Arkansas for his graduate senior year, Justin Smith has become a fan favorite for many reasons, including incredible athleticism behind the high-flying dunks he put on full display early in the season. In the non-conference schedule, the 6’7” power forward also became a vital piece in Eric Musselman’s rotation on both ends of the court thanks to his size, quickness and versatility. Unfortunately, Musselman and the Hogs will have to look elsewhere for production as Smith will be sidelined for another 2-5 weeks following surgery on his injured ankle.
Through nine games, Smith was Arkansas’ most important inside force. He led the Razorbacks in offensive rebounds per game, ranked second in defensive and total rebounds (7.5) per game, and ranked fourth in minutes, points (12.5 ppg), steals (1.3 spg), blocks (0.8 bpg) and free throws made.
With a jaw-dropping 48” inch vertical, the 230-pound Smith is the closest approximation to Blake Griffin the Hogs have ever had. His elite athleticism and quickness helps in subtle ways on defense, while allowing him to play up to three positions. He’s excelled playing either power forward or small-ball center this season.
It’s just @justinsmith3_ dunks for your Top 3️⃣ tonight. pic.twitter.com/YldArlLamM— Arkansas Razorbacks Basketball ? (@RazorbackMBB) December 10, 2020
Smith started for the Hogs at power forward in every game this season prior to injuring his ankle in the SEC opener at Auburn. In the following game against Missouri, Musselman plugged 6’4 true freshman Davonte “Devo” Davis into the lineup, creating a small-ball lineup with the exception of starting center Connor Vanover. In this lineup, 6’6 freshman phenom Moses Moody essentially became the power forward, a position he will likely never have to play at the next level.
Heading into the season, most fans would assume Smith’s most likely replacement in the starting five would be fellow graduate transfer, Vance Jackson.. The 6’9 forward has shown a knack for knocking down long-range shots through his collegiate career at UConn and New Mexico, but that marksmanship hasn’t yet been on full display at Arkansas. Before the Tennessee game, Jackson shot a disappointing 29% from behind the arc and only 34.9% from the floor overall.
But on Wednesday night, at No. 9 Tennessee, Jackson finally had his breakout moment. He shot 5 of 10 from the floor, including 3 of 6 from long range, while grabbing 9 rebounds and dishing out an assist. The grad transfer hadn’t looked comfortable in his new role until that game in Knoxville, but make no mistake, the talent is there. Indeed, one silver lining of Smith’s injury is that it gives Jackson an opportunity to shine in ways he might not have if Smith were still on the court. Jackson producing similar games to what he did against Tennessee could make the difference between the Hogs playing on the March Madness bubble or entering the tournament as an 8/9 seed.
Smith’s next most logical replacement is true freshman Jaylin Williams. Standing at roughly 6’10, Williams is more suited to being a stretch center during his collegiate career than a true power forward. However, his above average passing, shooting, and general IQ make him an option to plug into the power forward position alongside Vanover, as was the case in the starting lineup against Tennessee.
Williams averages 3.4 PPG, 3.6 RPG, and 0.8 BPG on 33.3% 3PT shooting across 11.9 minutes per contest. In the four games leading up to Smith’s injury, Williams played only 2, 0, 4, and 4 minutes respectively. When Smith was first unavailable in the loss to Mizzou, Williams played 17 minutes and provided 8 points, 3 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 1 steal. Against Tennessee, Williams started and got 17 minutes of action. He only contributed 6 points, 2 rebounds and a block before Musselman went with others down the stretch, but he played with great intensity and energy inside early in the game.
Razorbacks Look Lost Without Smith
Devo Davis, the first impromptu starter inserted to replace Smith, brings a disciplined yet havoc-wreaking energy to the court that isn’t easily coached. The freshman guard plays with a high motor and brings a hustle-type skill set that produces off-ball opportunities at the rim, deflections, effort plays, and timely rebounds on both ends of the court.
Devo Davis lead the team in deflections last night with 4. His “energy stat” line read 4 deflections, 2 steals, 2 floor dives, 1 offensive rebound. Him and JD Notae led us in energy points vs Auburn with 19 energy points a piece.— Michael Musselman (@michaelmuss_13) December 31, 2020
Per: @j_bonsu https://t.co/cuRAH7dMvJ
However, he’s not in the same mold as Justin Smith. He can’t provide the steadying, defensive presence inside Smith can. Vanover may lead the team in blocks, but no one on the team has shown the ability to stay in front of a post scorer, contest shots, and battle for rebounds all in the same play like Smith.With Smith, the Hogs averaged 42.0 RPG, but in their first two games without their starting forward, the Hogs only grabbed 32.5 rebounds per game. Both were losses. While the rebound battle may not be the primary stat determining the winner, the drop off is noticeable and hard to replace.
Smith’s absence reverberates in other areas, too. Offensively, the Razorbacks looked all-around bad against Mizzou. They shot 27.9% from the field as a team, including 25.0% from 3-point range. While some of this can be chalked up to poor shooting performances from key players, the offense as a whole didn’t flow as smoothly without Smith.
Arkansas totaled seven assists against Mizzou despite averaging over 16 APG in their first nine contests. Smith doesn’t lead the team in assists, but his presence on the offensive end makes life easier for his teammates. He sets solid screens and rolls hard to the rim, sometimes drawing help defenders off of open shooters. Perhaps his biggest contribution offensively is his ability to outrun other bigs in transition. Many times this season, Smith has been the recipient of a long outlet pass leading to a highlight-reel finish or a hard-earned trip to the free throw line. Without Smith on the court, the Hogs couldn’t recreate many of the opportunities the versatile forward generates.
Smith is still at least two weeks away from a return. How will the Hogs fare without him until then? The Hogs next four games include a home bout with Georgia, away games against LSU and Alabama, and a home rematch with Auburn.
Up first, Hogs versus Dogs in Bud Walton Arena.
Arkansas vs Georgia
Georgia has had a well-balanced scoring attack through their 7-2 start to the season. The Bulldogs have six different players averaging at least 10 PPG. However, this SEC East opponent is lacking the one thing most likely to hurt the depleted Hogs: size.
Georgia’s most common starting center to this point has been 6’8 sophomore, Toumani Camara. Camara is leading the team in both PPG and RPG with 14.3 and 8.9 respectively. His mobility could give Vanover problems, but he’s also potentially the only inside threat.
The next tallest player in the starting lineup is 6’6 senior, PJ Horne, who averages roughly 4.2 RPG. For reference, Vanover leads the Hogs with 7.3 RPG, followed closely by Smith (7.1) and Moody (5.7). Even without Smith, the rebounding prowess shown by Arkansas’s guards this season has been impressive.
Jalen Tate (4.2), Desi Sills (3.9), J.D. Notae (3.5), and Devo Davis (2.3) have all been key contributors on the glass despite playing at varying guard positions. This all goes without mentioning Jaylin Williams’ 3.6 RPG in only 11.9 MPG. In fact, Williams’ rebounds Per 40 Minutes leads the team at 12.3 per game, higher than Smith’s 10.7. That isn’t to say Williams is already a better rebounder than Smith, but that an increase in his role will likely see an increase in his numbers, helping to soak up some of the production left behind in Smith’s absence.
LSU on the other hand, could prove to be a bigger problem for the Hogs’ makeshift frontcourt rotation. The Tigers boast two forwards, Darius Days (6’7) and Trendon Watford (6’9), who both average at least 13 PPG and 6.5 RPG. Keeping these athletes off the glass on both sides of the ball could prove to be tough without the Hog’s best athlete. After LSU, there’s Alabama, which could also give the Razorback big men fits with their size. The Tide have three players averaging at least 5.2 RPG, including 6’10 senior, Jordan Bruner, and 6’8 senior, Herb Jones.
Arkansas vs Auburn
In their first SEC game of the season, the Hogs kept their early season streak alive by beating Auburn by double-digits. Arkansas played well on both ends of the court and survived a 3-point onslaught as the Tigers shot 15 of 29 from behind the arc. Two Hogs scored 20+ points and everyone that touched the court contributed in some fashion.
However, the Hogs lost the overall rebound battle in this game by a count of 34-32. This came with Justin Smith playing 12 minutes and grabbing four rebounds before injuring his ankle. Sills and Moody led the rebounding charge with six apiece, but neither are excellent interior defenders. The team rebounding the Hogs have displayed so far should soak up a majority of the rebounds Smith would typically grab, but his presence in the paint will be extremely difficult to replace.
Evidence that Smith ranks with Michael Qualls and Daniel Gafford among Arkansas’ most powerful dunkers:
Author: Brandon Baker
Contributor and Senior Writer for overtimeheroics.net
Twitter: @Panamaniac03 and @OTHArkansas
Facebook Page: Overtime Heroics Arkansas