Nick Smith Jr.’s basketball career kicked off far from how he’d surely imagined it.
A talented Arkansas high schooler, he was a 5 star recruit this past summer where he chose to remain in his home town state and suit up for the Razorbacks. He ranked #3 on ESPN’s recruitment board.
ESPN mocked him at #3 early last summer and prior to the college basketball season he was consistently mocked in the top half of the lottery. Arkansas had amassed a good amount of talent as well in Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh. All was looking up.
However, a right knee injury prevented Smith from suiting up for the first 6 games of the Arkansas season. By late December, “right knee management” meant he missed another 11 games of the year.
Now, industry boards have him at an average rank of 16. Some like Yahoo and Global Scouting have kept him as high as 11 in their early April boards while others like Box and One and No Ceilings have moved him as low as 25.
That’s quite the “about face” in the industry on a consensus “darling” prospect. Let’s dig into Nick Smith Jr. and make our own conclusion.
Stats and Measurables
Nick Smith Jr. is a 19 year old freshman. He stands 6’5” tall and boasts a 6’8” wingspan. His length of +3” is touch below average from those prospects with publicized measurements. He weighs 185 lbs, putting his BMI at 21.9, a good deal below average, even amongst guards.
Nick is best suited playing guard at next level on offense. While traditionally thought of as a point guard, his adapted role at Arkansas saw him in an off-ball roll more than anticipated so there’s some combo guard potential. Defensively, he’ll also guard the less potent opposing guard.
In just 17 games of action, Smith posted a per game stat line of 12.5 pts, 1.6 rbs, 1.7 ast, 0.8 stl, 0.1 blk, and 1.6 tov on 47% true shooting in 25.8 minutes.
Frankly, that stat line doesn’t mean much. A) they aren’t volume adjusted, B) they show no comparison to others, and C) they are all results focused. We’ll get into better numbers later.
As previously mentioned, Nick was highly recruited and estimated to be one of the best prospects for this draft prior to the season. His high school tape shows why (below).
He showed a ton of wiggle and a good handle, making it so he got anywhere he wanted. He kept his head up and was quick to exploit holes in the defense with his passing. He showed a lot of speed changes which paired nicely with his touch at the rim and in the midrange. The outside shot was hit or miss with some funky form.
As Arkansas began the season, it was clear early the team was lacking 3P shooting. They ranked in the mid 300’s in 3PAs per game and 3P%. Already down a man in NSJ, the Razorbacks leaned on fellow freshman Anthony Black to command the team on both ends.
As Smith tried to reintegrate with the team, the floor spacing was abysmal for showcasing his skills. Furthermore, he was a ball-in-hand guy out of high school so playing off Black was a big adjustment.
Nick is a coordinated, quick player with a strong enough handle that allows him to navigate around the court fluidly. In college he didn’t show that change of speed we saw in the high school tape.
When his floater game is one he is quite difficult to guard since it takes place in a shooting zone where defenses often have a natural hole.
Nick made 76 shots on the year, 41 of which were unassisted. Those 41 makes put him in the in the 75%tile amongst guards but just the 50%tile when you look at the rate (41/76=54%). Ultimately, an ability to create your own shot is one of the better signs your game can scale to the NBA level and Smith did so pretty well in his limited time.
We mentioned the outside shot was funky and infrequent pre-college. Well, in 17 games he averaged 4.2 threes a game. Likely a function of team need and what his injury allowed him to do. That rate was still only in the 35%tile of guards but he hit 34%, or right at the average for his position.
I doubt Nick ever becomes a sharp shooter on volume from deep but these results are more encouraging than I had expected.
Nick looks like a strong passer in high school. He put up good assist numbers in college and when accounting for turnovers he was right at average for a guard.
Nick Smith Jr. was an abysmal finisher with the Razorbacks. Of his 34 dunk & layup attempts he scored just 34 points. That rate put him in the 27%tile amongst guards. His high school tape looked more promising and you have to wonder how much the knee affected things.
Nick hit 74% of his free throws, a fair number, but only got to the line 3.4 times per 30 minutes. That’s still a fair amount below average for a guy who should be living at the rim, short mid-range, and transition. Again, is that a function of the situation?
The defense observed from Nick Smith Jr. this year was just poor. What we’re looking for is good positioning. In an on-ball setting, that is staying square, getting around screens quickly, and avoiding fouls. In an off-ball setting, that means good rotations and being aware of the whole.
I didn’t see any real encouraging flashes on those fronts. If we look at his activity numbers, he was at 1.5 per 30 minutes played. He committed 1.75 fouls per 30. So steals + blocks - fouls translated to -0.6 or the 37%tile among guards. The defense is a problem.
It’s clear why most have soured on Nick Smith Jr. Much of what he displayed in high school never translated to his collegiate play. Surely the knee injury and situation at Arkansas facilitated some of this, but in contrast to players like Cam Whitmore, it’s surprising the flashes weren’t more frequent.
Nick never really got the feel for the college game. I never really felt a ton of impact from him on the court and his presence never bent the defense or had them scrambling to figure him out. You want to see that stuff from a highly touted prospect.
The Jazz could certainly benefit from Smith’s passing, in-between game, and change of speed. His defense and lacking perimeter shot are worrisome. NSJ demonstrated a lot of vulnerability playing with injury and hurting his stock to help his team. You love to see that.
Ultimately with every player, it’s not “if” you would or should draft them, but “when”. The idea is to intersect risk and reward to generate the highest value proposition. Given the Jazz have 3 picks and multiple avenues for changing draft position, we can analyze a lot of scenarios.
Utah should not consider Smith with their #9 pick. The players mocked in that range present a far better value proposition than Smith. At #16 you start to consider it. If you buy the high school tape, see better defensive instincts in workouts, and you bet on yourself with the shot, it’s more than plausible.
At #28, Smith would be a great option, though his recruitment hype and injury excuse should prevent him from falling that far. I personally have him mocked at #23 and would be comfortable drafting him anywhere in the 20’s.
Where would you take Nick Smith Jr. in the upcoming 2023 NBA Draft?