Written by Ben Pfeifer
There hasn’t been a better time to be a small, non-primary initiating guard in the NBA than now. Most elite offenses run through bigs or large wings, allowing these smaller guards to add value on offense and without the pressure of removing tons of defensive value. The New Orleans Pelicans have two giant offensive hubs, making an off-ball extraordinaire like Arkansas freshman Nick Smith Jr. a potentially easy fit.
Smith’s special stuff comes when he attacks off of his teammates’ gravity. When a slasher like Zion Williamson or Brandon Ingram pulls in a defense, Smith’s excellent initial burst and touch make him a lethal scorer in the close to intermediate mid-range area. That preternatural touch allows Smith to float in shots from all angles and at all speeds, offering him significant shot making upside. His decisiveness attacking off of the catch will allow Smith to slither into those second-side creases in the style of a player like Tyrese Maxey.
A relentless off-ball mover, Smith projects to add surplus value without taking up possessions or hogging the ball. He constantly sprints around the court looking for his shot and getting to his spots, looking to score and pass as well. Smith’s on-ball passing isn’t perfect as he lacks polish in his accuracy and handle, but the vision and decision making on the move are excellent. The shooting profile is solid; Nick took over nine threes per 100 possessions on a very difficult shot diet, adding optimism for his shooting in a lower usage role.
Strength is a major limiting factor for Smith, largely limiting his finishing ability. Nick’s drives rarely end all the way to the end and the efficiency is paltry when he gets there. Despite a good first step and a solid if sometimes stiff handle, Smith’s thin frame means defenders bump him off of his spots routinely.
Those same strength concerns limit Smith defensively, as larger offensive players can dislodge him all over the floor and limit his rebounding ability. But aside from the general awareness concerns most 18 year olds display, Nick’s motor and agility offer a sturdy defensive profile. You won’t catch Nick taking plays off and that motor plus his foot speed and agility allow Smith to trail shooters around screens and hound at the point of attack.
Many young prospects lack strength and for Smith more than anyone in this class, added strength would do wonders. Adding functional core and lower body strength could allow Smith to unlock his burst and touch on offense as a slasher and his motor and agility on defense, leaving room for substantial two way upside.
Smith likely won’t ever be the top scorer or defender on his team but that doesn’t need to be his role to find an impactful NBA role. New Orleans’ collection of creation threats and wing defenders could allow Smith to slot into a complementary role easily, adding a unique scoring and creating threat to a backcourt with lots of defensive firepower.
Battling injuries throughout his freshman year certainly didn’t help Smith’s stock and likely zapped a bit of explosion as lower body injuries tend to do. As a primary creator in AAU and high school, speed and explosion was a more prevalent tool for Smith. Added recovery time and NBA-level strength and conditioning will be key and the Pelicans can afford to be patient with an elite talent like Smith.
Of the many off/combo guards in New Orleans’ range, Smith’s combination of special touch, passing and defensive ceiling with real shot creation upside would add a unique dimension to their offensive toolkit. Despite the real flaws on both ends, Nick Smith’s ceiling could be too enticing to pass on if he falls to 14.
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