Injuries might be the only thing holding Nick Smith Jr. back from emerging as the best NBA Draft prospect in college basketball.
Nick Smith Jr. has played five games (119 total minutes) for the Arkansas Razorbacks. For reasons termed “right knee management,” Smith has been out indefinitely with no clear return date. Whether he returns to full-time action or not, his NBA Draft fate could ultimately be determined just as much by NBA medical staffs as by NBA scouting departments.
The talent is undeniable. Smith has all the trademarks NBA teams look for in high-level guard prospects: size, touch, daring. But the injury shadow looms large, and the more time he misses, the less time he’ll have to establish a rhythm and build up a résumé at the collegiate level.
Plenty of players have transitioned successfully to the NBA with minimal or no playing time accrued in college, of course. Smith’s impressive track record extends back to his high school days. We’re talking about a five-star recruit and the most highly touted guard prospect to join the NCAA ranks. There will be buzz even if he misses the rest of the season. If he does return, he might just get the chance to save Arkansas from a disappointing season.
Nick Smith Jr. NBA Draft bio
Weight: 185 pounds
Birthdate: April 18, 2004
Position: Point Guard/Shooting Guard
Offensive Role: Lead or secondary ball-handler
Defensive Role: Point of attack perimeter defender
Projected Draft Range: 5-20
NBA Draft highlights
Let’s start with the basics: at 6-foot-5, Smith has tremendous size for his position. We’ve already seen comparisons to Tyler Herro, for example, but Smith’s height and lanky 6-foot-8 wingspan give him a much higher defensive ceiling than most score-first guards in that vein.
Offensively, Smith should receive ample on-ball reps from day one. He’s a wizard scoring the ball, slicing the defense apart with a breakneck first step and twitchy handles. Perhaps the most exciting skill in Smith’s arsenal is his touch. He’s great at shaking free from his defender and then striking with gorgeous high-arcing floaters or feather-soft pull-up J’s. Very few prospects can drop the ball more pristinely through the net than Smith.
He can feast on mid-range jumpers or finishes in the paint. He also displays impressive court vision, operating comfortably out of the pick-and-roll and locating teammates before threading the needle. He’s not the most advanced passer on the board, but Smith keeps his head on a swivel and has flashed some fairly impressive dime-dropping.
Smith also backs up his scoring on the defensive end. He competes hard and is by no means a one-way player. He has the chance to impact winning on both sides of the ball.
Smith’s shot selection can get away from him. That gorgeous floater of his can become a little bit too familiar at times. Rather than fall back on floaters and jumpers, Smith needs to learn to attack the rim more forcefully and draw contact inside.
That is complicated somewhat by his skinny frame. Smith isn’t very strong and his efficiency in the paint will be naturally inhibited until he bulks up and learns to absorb bumps en route to the basket. His special touch can offset a lot of these concerns, but Smith probably won’t get by on such a floater-heavy diet in the NBA.
He’s also not the most natural “point guard.” His size will allow him to share the floor with other playmakers, as will his quality defense, but Smith will need to learn to balance out his shot-pass diet more evenly in order to impact winning in the NBA consistently.
It’s also prudent to mention Smith’s at times lackluster efficiency. Shot selection is part of it, but Smith’s 3-point jumper especially has never been as reliable as NBA teams might want it to be. There’s plenty of reason for optimism — just look at his touch inside the arc, or his 84.2 percent free throw rate — but Smith will have to prove to NBA teams that his scoring isn’t hamstrung outside of 15 feet.
Smith’s draft range is particularly hard to nail down right now because of the injury. Even in his very limited exposure for the Razorbacks, Smith’s talent leaped off the screen. And that’s a loaded roster. But if he doesn’t play as much as his lottery-bound counterparts, it’s only natural for doubt to creep into the equation.
A lot of people will keep Smith nailed to the front end of the lottery. Some will question the knee and drop him back. Others will sidestep the upside conversation to paint a more pessimistic picture of him as a prospect: a score-first, pass-later guard with efficiency problems. There’s a real chance Smith becomes one of the more hotly debated prospects in the class.