Heralded freshman Nick Smith Jr. made his second consecutive start in Tuesday’s win over Georgia after returning from injury and he did not disappoint.
The McDonald’s All-American finished with 26 points on 9-of-14 shooting, including 5-of-8 from behind the arc. It’s safe to say that Smith has shaken the rust off and incorporated himself back into the lineup.
I’ve said many times over, any time a team has the chance to add a potential NBA Lottery Draft pick, even if that team has been playing well, the risk is worth it. The Razorbacks lost the first two games in Smith’s return — a 70-64 home loss to Mississippi State and a 62-56 loss at Texas A&M. Those two games saw Smith play limited minutes and provide minimal scoring compared to expectations.
Against the Bulldogs, the five-star scored five points in 17 minutes of action, while he did not score in just four minutes of playing time in College Station. Obviously, there was going to be a re-acclimation period for Smith, who missed 13 games due to a right knee injury, but fans and journalists alike were puzzled by the lack of opportunity out of the gate.
Smith had opportunities in his time against Mississippi State, scoring five points on 2-of-7 from the field, but it was clear that he was not back into the swing of things just yet. The 6-foot-5-inch guard had just recently started practicing before that game and needed to shake some rust off, but a close conference game was not the time to do it.
The game against the Aggies almost seemed to be a step backwards. All of Smith’s four minutes came in the first half and he only attempted one field goal, which he missed. His performance was not great, but offensively, neither was the team’s. The Razorbacks managed just 56 points for the game and shot 50% from the free throw line. Each of the members of the Arkansas backcourt – Davonte Davis, Ricky Council IV and Anthony Black – played in excess of 35 minutes. The potential lottery pick sat.
“We’re just trying to win a game and keep our season alive,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said after the loss when asked about Smith’s lack of playing time.
That remark was fodder for fans to question Musselman’s tactics. After all, the best way to shake off rust and get back in the flow of game situations is by playing the game. Also, Smith is an offensive weapon and the Razorbacks missed two of their final 10 field goal attempts and made just one of their final four free throws.
Musselman added that they would continue to work “everybody” into the rotation after the first comment, probably applying specifically to Smith, and that’s exactly what Musselman and the staff did.
The Florida Gators came into Bud Walton Arena on Saturday without their star center Colin Castleton. Smith earned his first start since returning from injury and he played 32 minutes and scored 10 points.
It wasn’t just Smith’s scoring ability which impressed in the performance, but all other facets of the game. While he showed the ability to hit contested shots with two and-ones, the Arkansas native also pushed tempo, moved without the ball and played solid on-ball defense. For all intents and purposes, he played a complete game.
“We knew when Nick came back, there’s not a high school player, there’s not a college player, there’s not an NBA player,” Musselman said. “There’s a reason why Major League Baseball, when guys are out extended periods of time, sends them down to the minor leagues to get their rhythm and their timing.
“We certainly felt with a basketball team and a program that does not go live and hasn’t gone live because we want to be fresh in March. So, it’s hard for Nick to play three-on-three post-practice and get rhythm. So, really happy that he got the minutes that he got tonight. Happy how his teammates responded with him, and he gives us a little bit of an edge. He’s competitive. He’s verbal. I think that helps us tremendously.”
Tuesday against Georgia, though, Smith put everything together and showed why he’s so high on so many draft boards.
In just 29 minutes, Smith scored a career high of 26 points and also added a pair of assists. His impact again wasn’t just in the scoring column, but in how much of a threat he is for defenses to account for, how he can facilitate for other players, the way that he can push pace and change pace and the overall positive energy and leadership he brings to the team.
“Nick was phenomenal,” Musselman said. “Not just offensively. Obviously the 9-of-14 and the 5-of-8 from three and his 26 points, but I thought he did a really good job defensively as well.”
The Head Hog took note of Smith’s performance, as well as journalists, pro websites and even Smith himself.
“It was really no surprise to me,” Smith said. “I worked hard ever since I was gone. I came back, and the team has put confidence in me just to go out there and play my game, especially Coach Muss.”
Smith’s return to playing at a high level comes at a crucial time for the Razorbacks, who are looking to finish the regular season strong against a grueling stretch to improve their NCAA Tournament seeding. The Razorbacks are virtual locks to make the NCAA Tournament now, but now look to improve their placement and make another run in March.
Arkansas is undefeated in six games where Smith was in the starting lineup. In each of those games he’s played 20-plus minutes, and averaged 16.7 points, 2.0 assists and 1.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.6% from the field, 35.5% from three and 84.0% from the free throw line.
Those stats bode well for the Hogs, who have struggled at times offensively this season. In those same six games, Arkansas has averaged 84.8 points per game while shooting 54.7% from the field, 38.1% from three and 73.4% from the free throw line as a team.
All of these numbers are way above the season averages. Even including those six games, the Razorbacks are shooting 48.6% from the field, 31.5% from three and 69.6% from the free throw line on the year. It would be an understatement to say that those numbers see a drastic improvement when Smith is starting and playing a ton of minutes.
For even more context, Arkansas’ average adjusted offensive efficiency is 121.07 in the six games Smith started, according to Barttorvik. In the other 22 games on the season, Arkansas’ averaged adjusted offensive efficiency is just 107.0.
The 121.07 would rank third nationally on the Barttorvik site, while the 107.0 number would be tied with Abilene Christian for 130th in the country. As it stands, the Razorbacks have the 48th-ranked adjusted offensive efficiency on Barttorvik at 112.0.
It’s not just offense, either. Arkansas ranks 11th on Barttorvik in adjusted defensive efficiency rating at 92.9, but the past two games with Smith, the Razorbacks have posted a 93.9 average, just slightly worse than the season average.
The data is all clear: Smith helps this team tremendously offensively, even away from his own personal stat line. The defense isn’t even seriously negatively impacted. Part of this is because of the immense talent Smith possesses being added to an already talented roster, but it also has something to do with the adjusted roles and rotations.
It’s an admittedly small sample size against inferior opponents, but in the past two starts for Smith, only Anthony Black played more than 35 minutes. Before Smith’s return, the backcourt trio mentioned earlier was regularly playing 35+ minutes each. Their legs are fresher, they have more help and the floor is being spaced more.
On top of that, guys are asked to do different things. Davis doesn’t have to carry a massive load offensively anymore. He score four and zero points in the past two games, which were two of Arkansas’ most efficient offensive performances on the year, but still fulfilled his role of being a defender, passer and leader.
Council, on the other hand, has reverted back to his sixth man role, taking the scoring burden off of him from the outset of the game and allowing him to bring a scoring punch in off the bench.
Black can focus on facilitating duties, and with Smith helping stretch the floor, driving lanes are more open for him to penetrate.
The whole dynamic of the season changed with Smith’s return. It isn’t just the fact that the team performed well against inferior competition, but roles changed, rotations changed and performances have gotten better. This piece was focused on the backcourt because of Smith’s return and what that means for the team, but another major factor that could prove beneficial has been the emergence of Jalen Graham as he’s been given more opportunities to perform.
Arkansas might not be a national championship or Final Four team as they were expected to be in the pre-season, but they are a team that can make a run in March. Again.
Regarding how far they can make it, there’s no need to have any minimum expectations. Just enjoy the ride and watch as this team continues to gel and prove itself.