Getting a Couple Things Straight about Nick Smith Jr.’s Not-So-Storybook Return

Nick Smith Jr, Arkansas basketball
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

The story of Nick Smith Jr’s college career so far has been one of misfortune.  

Clearly, Smith is not your run-of-the-mill freshman.  He was the No. 1 recruit in the nation coming out of high school, which all but guarantees that the last game of the 2022-2023 season will be his last as a Razorback.  In fact, if the NBA still allowed its players to be drafted directly out of high school he would already be in the highest professional ranks.  

He could have played college basketball anywhere in the country, but he chose his home state.

Last week, after playing in only five of the Razorbacks’ 24 games (at the time), he was still projected as the 6th pick in an NBA mock draft, which had him landing in Oklahoma City with the Thunder and former Razorbacks Isaiah Joe and Jaylin Williams.

This kind of attention is more than impressive, considering the fact that a knee injury, forced him to  miss the first six games of the season and he had only seen action in five games before Saturday’s loss to Mississippi State.  

As so many Arkansas basketball fans are well aware, after playing against Bradley in his high school town of North Little Rock, Smith underwent what was dubbed “right knee management” by Eric Musselman and was sidelined indefinitely.  

Primer on the Plight of Nick Smith Jr.

Having already lost Trevon Brazile to a season-ending knee injury, Hog fans of all stripes fell into despair when it became clear that Smith would need an extended period of time away from live action to get healthy. However, it seemed pretty obvious  to just about everyone paying attention that his absence was probably harder on Smith than anyone throwing barbs from the cheap seats of social media.   

As each game passed without Smith, Hog fans grew more and more pessimistic over the prospect of his return.  Word on the street was that Smith had too much NBA money on the line to further injure his knee by re-joining a team that did not appear to have a shot at winning a national championship and it wasn’t worth the risk.  

This all made too much sense in a college sport world increasingly bereft of idealism, so many in Razorback Nation made peace with the thought that they’d already seen all the time he would ever spend in a Razorback uniform.

The season wore on and the Hogs started playing better, reeling off a five-game SEC winning streak punctuated by a 15-point rout over the Kentucky Wildcats in Rupp Arena.

After that, word came that Nick Smith Jr. would re-join the team.  Sure, while he sometimes wasn’t with the squad physically he never left the team emotionally, nor is there any reason to believe that the prospect of his re-joining had anything to do with the Hogs beating Kentucky.     

Most Razorback fans rejoiced at what felt like Christmas in February, courtesy of Saint Nick.  Finding Hog fans who welcomed him back was about as easy as shooting down a gigantic slow-moving spy balloon as if it were a sitting duck on a pond, but when would that ever happen?

The only question (widely discarded by many) was: “Would his return upset the chemistry of the team?”

To be fair, it’s not an unreasonable question. It’s a fact that any time a team adds or subtracts an uber-talented player to its roster, someone’s minutes will be reduced and that can cause problems for any Arkansas basketball player who may think “We got this far by giving me more minutes, so why should he take them away?”  

However, the onus to manage this dilemma is not on the returning potential superstar.  The onus is on the player, or players, who stand to lose minutes to either man-up and give the coach a reason to keep giving that player minutes or pout and create a problem in the locker room.  

The Hogs lost to a Mississippi State team that played characteristically tough defense, but surprisingly good offense.  They had no business beating the Hogs in Fayetteville. This loss is nobody’s fault but the team’s.

Other than Anthony Black who scored 23 points and had five assists and three steals, the only other Razorback to score in double digits was the SEC’s second leading scorer, Ricky Council, who got 11 of his 13 points from the foul line.  

Smith did not have a great game. Before he was re-injured, he averaged 12.8 points per game in  five games, one of which was a zero-point performance. Most reasonable Razorback fans didn’t expect him to come back and immediately dominate the floor and by that standard he didn’t disappoint. He scored just five points and added only a rebound and an assist after a nearly two-month layoff.

The rest of the team doesn’t have that excuse.

Surely, this will provide some fodder to the folks like the below who subscribe to the notion that team chemistry has been disrupted.

However, what might be a more accurate assessment is that the team was still hung over from a great win at Kentucky.  This is a completely separate, and no less troubling concern, but is not what we’re discussing today.  

What Arkansas Basketball Fans Should Remember

Whatever Hog fans may think about Smith’s return and its impact on team morale, they should remember a few things worth mentioning. First, when team chemistry goes bad it usually starts with a bad apple that spoils the whole bunch.

Nick Smith Jr. is NOT a bad apple.  

He didn’t have to come back. He could have gone the rest of his life without shooting another ball in a Razorback uniform and still been a lottery pick. I wouldn’t be surprised if some were advising ever making a return.

He didn’t ask to get hurt. He didn’t want to have an extended break from the team. His break was not the result of a disciplinary action. Players get injured and, unfortunately, he got injured.  

In fact, Smith’s return after such a lengthy absence at this point in the season is a testament to his loyalty. A lot of players in his position would’ve chosen a different path, blown off their commitment to the team and the university, and simply started working on improving their already stratospheric draft stock.

He didn’t. He came back.

If chemistry problems exist on this team, they are not of Nick Smith’s making.

There are six games remaining in the regular season. Just like the preceding handful of games this homestretch is critical to the chances of the Hogs playing deep into March. Despite the nearly team-wide goose egg laid against Mississippi State, mark these words: the Razorbacks will win more with Nick Smith than without him. 

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