Last week at the Maui Invitational, Arkansas looked like a potential Final Four team. The Razorbacks lost by just three points to Creighton, then beat San Diego State in overtime to secure third place at the event. It was a positive sign for the ceiling of a newcomer-heavy team still figuring things out.
And now, coach Eric Musselman is adding arguably the nation's best NBA prospect to the fold.
Nick Smith Jr., the No. 3-ranked recruit in the 2022 class, missed the first six games of the season out of precaution over his right knee, but he played five minutes in Arkansas' win over Troy on Monday. He's set to increase his minutes this weekend against San José State, and there's optimism he's not far from being 100% healthy.
The 6-foot-5 guard from Arkansas is No. 4 in ESPN's 2023 NBA draft rankings -- the highest-ranked prospect currently playing college basketball. Is he the player to push the Razorbacks into the Final Four after back-to-back Elite Eight appearances?
He's an elite offensive player
When he is fully healthy, Smith immediately becomes one of the best scorers in college basketball. Down the line in the NBA, he likely projects as more of a primary playmaker, but at the college level, he'll be tasked with scoring at a high clip. He boosted his recruiting stock the summer before his senior year of high school, separating himself because of his size, length and ability to make shots.
"It's his shot creation," a college coach who scouted Smith said. "The best players in the NBA are guards that can create their own. He can get buckets in a multitude of ways."
Smith averaged 17.6 points and 3.0 assists on the Nike EYBL circuit with Brad Beal Elite, shooting 37.5% from 3-point range. He then went out and had a stellar senior season, followed by standout performances on the high school all-star game circuit. His showing at the Jordan Brand Classic -- 24 points, three assists, 4-for-6 from 3 -- caught a lot of attention.
"He can create his own shot, he can hit shots off the bounce," one NBA scout in attendance said. "This translates, this is what people are looking for. He did it when the lights were turned on; he did it behind closed doors.