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The Future of Nick Smith Jr. | The Morning Dunk
With Nick Smith Jr. reportedly out indefinitely due to a knee injury, his season may very well be over at Arkansas making it a perfect time for our own Nathan Grubel to evaluate his spot in the draft.
College basketball always jumps up a few notches after the turn of the New Year.
This coming week will prove that out, as there is a monstrous slate of games to evaluate a number of high-level prospects.
But if you’re reading this column, you know The Morning Dunk sets the scene for what’s to come by talking about what’s happened in weeks prior.
I took a week off to further my coverage of the NBA’s rookie talent, meaning I wasn’t first to cover one of the most important draft storylines to date: Nick Smith Jr. and his indefinite absence from Arkansas.
His playing future this season could lead to a number of interesting movements for guys up and down draft boards, which means now is as good a time as ever to dive into his game and what we’ve been able to learn from just a few contests.
So without further ado, let’s get into Nick Smith’s breakdown, stock watch updates, and games to look forward to over the next week!
*All stats referenced are as of 12/30/22*
The Future of Nick Smith Jr.
Prospects who end up playing in a limited number of college games, or none in the case of Shaedon Sharpe for example, have proven to be difficult for evaluators to peg.
Draft stocks for these players fluctuate all over the place. Have enough questions been answered? Are the cons too significant to be outweighed by any pros that show up despite a more limited sample size?
These issues will certainly remain present in Nick Smith’s scouting report all the way up through June. Smith has played three meaningful college games to this point for Arkansas due to an injury suffered prior to the start of the season.
And as it stands, Smith is indefinitely out of game action due to management of right knee soreness per the school.
Coming into the season, Smith was a highly touted recruit (#3 in the 2022 RSCI Top 100) that had significant draft buzz as the type of guard NBA teams want in their respective backcourts.
Standing at 6’5”, Smith’s game is a blend of explosiveness with lethal perimeter shot-making. His bounce, verticality, and burst defined his game in high school, along with his shot-making of course. As a senior at North Little Rock High School, Smith averaged 26.5 PPG, 8.0 RPG, and 7.3 APG en route to Naismith National POY honors as well as selections in the McDonald’s All-American Game and the Jordan Brand Classic.
Accolades abound, and the hype continued to build around Smith as the crown jewel of one of the best recruiting classes in the country for Arkansas. Head Coach Eric Musselman was coming into this season with the talent to go win a national championship, and Smith was destined to be a significant reason why.
Now, however, it would appear as though Smith is unlikely to suit up again for the Razorbacks, leaving scouts and executives with those three games of 24 or more minutes played to judge and justify taking Smith with a lottery selection, let alone one of the top picks in the 2023 draft.
Currently, many draft outlets have yet to move Smith down their boards much, if at all. Many are still saying the skill package and talent level warrant a flier within the Top 10 picks at the very least.
Coming into the year, Smith fell in the same range on my board as a difference-maker at the guard position.
Therefore, I wanted to study the film we have on Smith and “complete” my evaluation on him in a sense sooner rather than later, given that we likely have the tape we’re going to have. There is medical information that will be vital to the decision an NBA team makes (more on that later), as well as any information gained from interviews, etc.
But performance-wise, the information I have now is as good as it’s going to be, giving me enough reason to dive into what could make him a potentially special professional player.
Starting with his offensive game, Smith is a smooth operator with or without the ball in his hands. He’s crafty coming off screens and finding holes in the defense, and uses the threat of his shot to his advantage when coming off those screens.
Smith keeps pace, doesn’t act out of impulse, and takes what the defense gives him. Play too far up on Smith or blitz the screen-and-roll action, and he’ll find the diver or kick the ball out to the wing or corner for an uncontested shot. Give Smith too much space to operate, and he can rise up in the midrange, or come to a stop with two feet in the paint for a floater.
And with Smith, a big selling point on both his jumper and runner are touch. I’ve talked about this word previously in relation to makes, but Smith is a great example. Soft makes are just what scouts like myself are looking for. Does the ball go right through the net, or is it rattling around the cylinder on its way down? Even on contested floaters, Smith’s shot falls right through the basket. And his approach doesn’t change whether there’s a defender in his way or not.
Smith is incredibly comfortable pulling up for a shot or coming to a halt to get the runner off. His footwork, balance, elevation, and confidence are all present on every one of his attempts. It’s one thing to have the ability to decelerate, change speeds, or create separation for a look off the bounce. It’s another to actually have the comfort level to do so. Smith is a born scorer, and he believes in his ability at all three levels.
Outside the arc, Smith has great shot prep for catch-and-shoot looks. Smith keeps his knees bent, hands up, and body square to the basket ready to rise and fire immediately off the pass. He gets his shot up in a split second, something that players aren’t always bringing to the table early on in their careers because they’re more comfortable trying to create off the dribble than being ready to fire from a standstill or off movement.
And even when Smith is coming off a screen and catching for a shot, you see a lot of the same mechanical pluses on those looks as well: balance, quick elevation, strong release point, and consistent follow-through. By all accounts, Smith has the form of a 38% or greater three-point shooter at the next level, regardless of the smaller percentage from the limited sample size (30% from deep in five games).
Where I wanted to judge more of his offensive game was in his passing. Is Smith a willing passer who recognizes timing, and has the velocity to deliver the ball through tighter windows?
I did come across answers to both of those questions, to which I would answer yes.
Defining Smith as a combo guard rather than a true point is a more comfortable definition to me. Having him start sets off the ball, and coming back to it as a secondary creator or primary shot maker to me is a much better role than having him constantly bringing the ball up the floor and orchestrating the offense.
Comparisons to Bradley Beal strike me as incredibly apt. As his career has gone on, Beal has embraced more on-ball responsibility but is still at his best with more of a floor general/lead next to him. Even this season, Beal (when he’s been on the floor) has benefited from having a guard like Monte Morris next to him in the backcourt.
That’s why Smith has looked better in his minutes when Anthony Black is alongside him. Black is the playmaker in charge of bringing the ball up the floor and getting the offense organized. Smith can run off screens or come to the ball on the wing, catch, and then shoot, drive, or work out of another action to generate a look for himself or someone else. Defenses have to respect his threat to pull up at any given moment or get all the way to the basket if they play him at the wrong angle. That leaves opportunities for some fun two-man action between him and Black, some of which has resulted in alley-oop dunks or open threes from the corners for both.
But to come back to Smith’s passing specifically, he’s absolutely a willing passer who keeps his head up and can recognize when his teammates have a step on the defense. He will find rollers and cutters, and as mentioned can pass out of blitzes/traps at the top of the court. Smith’s continued growth out of pick-and-roll sets has scouts encouraged that he could develop into a primary playmaker, which is why I won’t rule out further experimentation with him as a team’s point guard.
Even when Smith is driving, he can get defenders off balance by changing speeds or coming to a stop, and then finding the right man based on how the defense reacts. His pace with the ball in his hands impressed me when I reviewed his tape. Usually, guards with his type of burst off the first step tend to play fast almost exclusively once they get up to speed. Smith takes a more measured approach after his initial move, making him very dangerous with the ball in his hands whether he’s looking to score it or not.
My main point of contention with Smith’s offense is that he seems allergic to driving left or using his left to finish around the basket. For scorers who tend to dominate as many possessions as Smith’s talent suggest he could be capable of, ambidexterity is crucial because it doesn’t give defenses a chance to dictate the outcomes of certain shots just based on scheming and positioning.
A good example of this is in the clip above. Smith catches the ball on the left wing and has the opportunity to catch his defender off-balance by spinning left. Instead, he plays into how the defender is playing him by going right, and settling for a heavily contested push shot that he misses poorly. Defenses can load up at certain angles and either force bad shots or get the ball out of Smith’s hands altogether. That part of his game is something I would monitor moving forward, but otherwise (outside of a point I’ll mention later), he checks a ton of boxes I want in a combo guard at the NBA level because of his size, shooting/scoring versatility, and passing upside.
Defensively, I came away pleasantly surprised with Smith’s efforts on the ball. He plays lower in his stance, has great feet to slide and keep pace with opposing ball handlers, and uses his hips to play and change angles in an attempt to shut off drives.
More often than not, Smith can keep pace with his man and at least make life a little difficult for his matchup. He doesn’t have the quickest of hands to create deflections and poke the ball away for steals, but I’m not ruling out Smith averaging close to or just over a steal per game in his NBA career.
Where I had the questions on the ball came with him defending against screens and in pick-and-roll. Smith isn’t a strong guard, which has contributed to a worse overall field goal percentage through a handful of games on the offensive end, but it also showed up on the defensive film. He lacks the strength to scale up and guard some wings, locking him at least for now into defending backcourt opponents. Even in some screening actions, he can get caught and get knocked off track making it difficult for him to recover and contest.
Smith definitely recognizes any screens coming, and tries his best to fight through them, so I do think in time as he fills out and adds to his frame that he can get to a point where he’s getting through those screens and not having to put a big man in position to constantly switch if he’s not playing in that type of scheme.
He’s not afraid to mix it up on the defensive glass either if given the chance. I would bet on his rebounding numbers to resemble more of what they were in high school in comparison to the limited college sample.
So given everything outlined, where does that put Smith on my personal big board? There’s one caveat that could drop him some spots, which would be the knee. The medicals do have to check out to maintain the type of spot I would have him in given a clean bill of health. But after studying enough of his game, I come away encouraged at the type of player he can be even if he never fully regains the same athletic “pop” that he had in high school.
I still trust Smith’s ability to play away from the ball, position himself for shooting opportunities, and make quick decisions with the ball in his hands. Smith has the potential to be a good guard defender in the NBA, so even a lower-end outcome for Smith projects him as a potential “3-and-D” combo guard who can make timely plays for others.
But his true upside is as one of the more dangerous shot creators in this entire class with burgeoning three-level upside while also defending his own position at a high level. Should the speed/burst be there for him when he gets into the league, I would absolutely put him in the class of prospect as a Beal for example. And that type of offensive “hub” if you will is worth taking inside the first six picks of the draft.
I would have him just behind Cam Whitmore right now as far as college prospects are concerned, but again if the health is there for Smith, I could as easily talk myself into taking a bet on Smith over Whitmore depending on the construction of my team.
If I’m drafting for the Orlando Magic with the fifth pick, and all of Victor Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson, Amen Thompson, and Ausar Thompson are all off the board, I’m strongly considering Smith with that pick. He would be able to play off two bigger initiators in Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner while providing tertiary playmaking, lethal outside shooting, and competitive point-of-attack defense.
Smith still has upside even with the injuries that have led to a limited showing in college. And sometimes, making the bet on that player IF the tape checks out is worth it. Just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers if they’re happy with the Darius Garland pick a few drafts ago!
GG Jackson, South Carolina: A matchup against Emoni Bates and Eastern Michigan was just what the doctor ordered to get the public buzzing around GG Jackson again. He finished the game with 24 points on 9-of-19 shooting to go with nine rebounds. Jackson did finish the game with no assists and four turnovers committed, but given how much he has the ball, as well as what he has to do for his team to remain competitive, that balance doesn’t shock me. Jackson doesn’t always appear too selfish because he does in fact move the ball. Those passes just don’t always lead to assists, leading to clamoring that Jackson isn’t a good passer. Nevertheless, I came away impressed yet again with Jackson’s athleticism, ball-handling, and shot-making for a power forward—not to mention the defense he played on the perimeter, as he was constantly matched up with Bates or any of their perimeter players guarding on the ball as well as in ball screens. Jackson navigated those actions well and didn’t get beat in too many foot races. To my eye, Jackson is one of the eight most talented players in this draft class and has done enough to earn a lottery selection on draft night from me.
Emoni Bates, Eastern Michigan: Bates also had an explosive shooting performance in his own right against the Gamecocks, scoring a game-high 36 points while nailing 8-of-15 triples in an impressive display of shot-making. Bates is a score-first wing of a unique archetype. While I’m not sure the defense and playmaking are going to hold up for him to be a shoo-in starter on every NBA team, it’s looking more likely that he will find his footing as a bench scorer in the mold of a Jordan Clarkson or Jamal Crawford, just as a wing instead of a combo guard. Either way, he has held his own and then some in college this year bouncing back from the Memphis experience. Bates is very much in the draft conversation, and it wouldn’t surprise me to hear his name called in the first round.
Noah Clowney, Alabama: Noah Clowney has rapidly climbed my board after an impressive few weeks in college hoops. Starting from the South Dakota State game where he canned five triples, up through games against Houston, Memphis, Gonzaga, and Mississippi State, Clowney has looked the part of a stretch big who can protect the rim, cover ground and defend in space, and also finish shots at a high rate inside the arc. I would have Clowney right now as one of my Top 20 prospects in the 2023 class.
Taylor Hendricks, UCF: Taylor Hendricks is a name that’s been building for a while, and for good reason, due to his 6’9” strong frame with the ability to switch out a little defensively on the perimeter while still providing weak side rim protection. The main selling point though is the jump shooting. When Hendricks is on, he can be a heat-check spot-up shooter. As a legitimate floor spacer and potential defensive weapon, there’s enough there to look at Hendricks in the first round. I would love to see better box-out effort on the glass, as well as continuing to further his shot creation capabilities, but the upside picture is that of a high-end role player at the forward spot while offering some small-ball 5 capabilities.
Nikola Đurišić, Mega Mozzart: Even though the international scene has been a little quiet outside of Victor Wembanyama, Nikola Đurišić is still in plenty of game action and looking good on the tape. His shooting splits are a concern and talking point, but popping on the film he stands out as a secondary creator and shot maker for Mega. At 6’8”, Đurišić has real feel, live dribble passing, and pull-up shot-making. His defense jumps off the screen, as he matches pace, slides his feet, and uses his hips well to contain drivers. Even though I’m sure some want to see better efficiency from the young wing, I’m buying what my eyes are telling me that Đurišic is very much a first round talent in the draft. And if you don’t believe me, our own Tyler Rucker put together his first Around the World video for the 2023 draft below on Durisic!
Oso Ighodaro, Marquette: One of the more interesting names that’s percolating in draft circles is Oso Ighodaro, another potential Marquette prospect who has a different role than Olivier-Maxence Prosper or Kam Jones. Think of Ighodaro like a poor man’s Brandon Clarke: high energy forward who can masquerade as a center, easy play finisher, lob threat, rebounder, and multi-positional defender. Ighodaro has shown some interesting passing chops in a few games this year as well, particularly NC Central when he had seven assists (with eight games with three or more assists on the year). The non-shooting forward is unique given the state of the NBA, but a second-round flyer isn’t out of the question for the junior.
Isaiah Wong, Miami: Isaiah Wong is putting together the best season of his career as a senior, leading the Hurricanes’ backcourt with some explosive scoring outputs. He’s always been known as a perimeter shot creator, but he has upped his efficiency overall while maintaining a mark above 80% from the charity stripe. Wong’s assist percentage is also the highest it’s ever been, as he’s leveraging his threat to score much better this year to find the open man when defenses send help his way. While NBA teams may not have a draftable grade on him, he’ll get a chance to stick in the league as a microwave option off the bench.
Kobe Brown, Missouri: One of two standouts from Missouri in its big win over Kentucky on Wednesday night, Kobe Brown has had multiple signature scoring performances already on the year. Against the Wildcats, he hung 30 points including 4-of-8 from deep. A mismatch forward scorer at 6’7” and listed at 240 pounds, Brown can hang with the likes of an Oscar Tshiebwe while hunting for his against smaller guards. Brown can post, face, and spot up from distance with enough in his bag to score from all three levels. Not a high-level passer or defender, it would take an NBA team to buy into him being a utility scorer off the bench. But for what pro squads are looking for out of players sized 6’7”-6’9”, he fits the bill offensively provided he can continue to work himself into better shape.
D’Moi Hodge, Missouri: An orchestrator of chaos in the backcourt for Missouri, D’Moi Hodge found himself having great outings similar to Kobe Brown against Kentucky as well as Illinois. Leading the country in fast break points scored per game, the Cleveland State transfer is a beast in transition as a 6’4” guard. He’s speedy, shifty, and crafty as a scorer (52% from the field on the season). While I’d like to see more passing ability from Hodge, he’s a low-mistake player, currently on an 11-game streak with one or fewer turnovers. Hodge should absolutely have some draft buzz, and he is breaking into my Top 100 this week with plenty of mobility to keep moving up if Missouri continues to pile up wins in the SEC thanks to his offensive firepower and ball control.
Games To Watch This Week
Tuesday 1/3, 9pm EST: Texas Tech vs. Kansas: This test for Kansas shouldn’t be underrated, as the Red Raiders are an experienced, veteran-laden group that believes in defense from beginning to end. Gradey Dick and Jalen Wilson are the best prospects for the Jayhawks, but they’ve already run into defensive buzzsaws this year that have significantly affected their personal contributions offensively. I’ll be watching to see if one or both can rise to the occasion and get Kansas a big win on the road.
Wednesday 1/4, 7pm EST: NC State vs. Duke: Terquavion Smith has had the help of a few important contributors this year, and they have made the Wolfpack an even better team than it was last year with Dereon Seabron in the mix. His scoring/playmaking combo will have to be up to par though, as Duke has some players who can give NC State fits. Kyle Filipowski has been the leader on offense, while defensively the combination of Mark Mitchell, Tyrese Proctor, and Dereck Lively has seen results when all have been on the floor together. Dariq Whitehead will remain the team’s biggest wild card as he continues to find his footing in college basketball.
Wednesday 1/4, 7pm EST: Michigan vs. Penn State: If you haven’t gotten a chance to see Penn State’s Jalen Pickett, this is a great opportunity to do so. The names on Michigan haven’t changed, with Jett Howard’s draft stock only growing by the day. But overall, it’s a collection of talent that will challenge a guard like Pickett to continue rising above the challenge on all fronts. Pickett is a nightly triple-double threat and someone NBA teams should continue to monitor as a name to call after the conclusion of the draft. He’s worthy of an opportunity to prove himself, and a game against the Wolverines could be another feather in his cap.
Wednesday 1/4, 9pm EST: Baylor vs. TCU: Mike Miles hasn’t slowed down this year for the Horned Frogs, continuing to be one of the most dangerous backcourt scorers in the country while also making plays for others out of the pick-and-roll. His dynamic offense will have to be at its best, as the Bears have a number of perimeter shot-makers, most notably Keyonte George. The freshman combo guard has been a force in the second half of games, and has proven he can do more than just shoot. His quick passing and defense have also stood out on tape, but he has the heroic gene to carry Baylor to a win over an experienced group like TCU.
Thursday 1/5, 7pm EST: Ohio State vs. Purdue: The Zach Edey train still has room for plenty to hop aboard, as his dominance this year has made scouts question just how high his stock could climb in the 2023 draft. there’s a reason why Edey deserves high usage in the post, with his touch around the basket, and a will to get to the line if he can’t get the shot to go. He doesn’t trot down the court to defend without getting points for his team. For Ohio State, it’s about Brice Sensabaugh and Bruce Thornton, although senior forward Justice Sueing has also helped in the scoring department. Keep an eye on freshman center Felix Okpara as well, as his defensive utility has helped the Buckeyes in recent weeks.
Thursday 1/5, 9pm EST: Iowa vs. Indiana: Kris Murray has had himself one heck of a year coming into this game, asserting himself as a top shooting option looking to make the jump to the NBA because of his feel, rebounding, and potential two-way impact in the right situation. But getting a win against Indiana is a decent amount of pressure, as the talent gap between both teams is sizeable. Even though it’s a road test for the Hoosiers, they have one of the best big men in the country in Trayce Jackson-Davis (a prospect in his own right), and an emerging frosh floor general in Jalen Hood-Schifino who is getting his offensive attack together at the right time.
Thursday 1/5, 10pm EST: Pepperdine vs. Santa Clara: One of two important tests for Santa Clara and pro prospect Brandin Podziemski, this is a great chance for the versatile 6’5” guard to prove he can guard opposing backcourt threats while also scoring efficiently to give his team a great chance to win. Max Lewis has one of the fastest-rising draft stocks in the country, and Houston Mallette can fill it up from anywhere on the floor.
Saturday 1/7, 12pm EST: UConn vs. Creighton: The Connecticut Huskies have been a defensive juggernaut all year long, meaning this is a classic battle of defense vs. offense. Creighton has a number of guys who can get it going from outside in Baylor Scheierman, Trey Alexander, and Ryan Nembhard. To me, the battle will be won down low, as Adama Sanogo and Ryan Kalkbrenner are two skilled bigs who can provide the necessary force on both ends to secure a win for their respective teams. X-factors in this one include Jordan Hawkins and Andre Jackson, but keep an eye on 6’8” freshman forward Alex Karaban as we approach peak draft season.
Saturday 1/7, 1pm EST: Alabama vs. Kentucky: Saturday’s full-day slate kicks off with a game between two of the SEC’s best. Brandon Miller has looked the part of a top pick in the 2023 draft based around his shot-making, defensive upside, and timely playmaking. He’ll have his hands full if Kentucky throws a number of different defenders at him including Cason Wallace and Jacob Toppin, and Oscar Tshiebwe always has his way in the paint. That’s why to me, the story is how Noah Clowney is able to help protect the rim and provide stability in the paint against a physical force like Tshiebwe. Also watch out for Jaden Bradley for the Crimson Tide as a name who could start to pop up in draft conversations.
Saturday 1/7, 3:30pm EST: South Carolina vs. Tennessee: GG Jackson gets another good test going against Tennessee, as earlier in the year Julian Phillips put the clamps on Kansas’s Gradey Dick, having scouts wondering just how high Dick should be on their draft boards. Phillips could have another similar defensive performance here, and if he gives Jackson fits then evaluators will have another reason to take Phillips’s draft case very seriously despite the come-and-go scoring and offensive production.
Saturday 1/7, 4:30pm EST: Villanova vs. Xavier: Cam Whitmore and Colby Jones have my attention for different reasons, but should get chances to guard one another in this Big East showdown. Jones serves as one of the best connectors on the wing in the country, while Whitmore continues to evolve into a physical forward who can take over games around the basket, and eventually away from it as his jumper continues to round into form. Both teams have some other prospects to monitor including Mark Armstrong and Brandon Slater for Villanova, and Zach Freemantle and Souley Boum for Xavier. Also, keep an eye on Musketeers freshmen Desmond Claude and Kam Craft.
Saturday 1/7, 8:30pm EST: Auburn vs. Arkansas: Last but not least, the nightcap takes place in the SEC with a showdown between the Tigers and the Razorbacks. Anthony Black, Ricky Council IV, and Jordan Walsh are all candidates to be drafted in the first round of the upcoming draft, while Johni Broome has remained out of conversational circles despite the consistent production down low on both ends. Auburn has won this year through defense and timely scoring, while the Hogs are all about transition offense and pouring in points while the iron is hot. Which style will win out in this one?