What Eric Musselman’s Breaking of Silence about Nick Smith Jr Means in the Bigger Picture

FAYETTEVILLE — For the first time in more than a month, Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman provided an update on Nick Smith Jr. on Wednesday.

The freshman phenom has missed all but five games with what the UA has described as “right knee management” and hasn’t played since Dec. 17, when he apparently tweaked the injury against Bradley.

However, despite some fans fearing — and one national media member speculating — that he may never suit up for the Razorbacks again, it sounds like Smith could return to the court soon.

“Nick has practiced the last few days with us,” Musselman said. “Obviously he did not go on the road trip so he could continue to stay back here and work on his conditioning. We’re optimistic and hopeful that Nick will be able to play some time here in the near future.”

That comment took up just 21 seconds of Musselman’s 24.5-minute press conference previewing Arkansas’ upcoming game against Mississippi State, but it will undoubtedly be the most discussed 49 words of the entire interview.

While it’s still unclear when Smith’s indefinite absence will officially end, as Musselman didn’t provide an exact timeline — and he probably won’t, for strategic reasons — for his return, it’s the first time he’s said more than “no update” regarding Smith’s status since Jan. 5.

On that day, he told reporters that he expected Smith to be out through at least the end of January, at which point they would “reevaluate” the situation, and revealed that he’d spent some time in Los Angeles with a knee specialist over Christmas break. Since then, even when he was asked about it as the calendar flipped to February, Musselman had remained quiet. Rumors filled the void, fueled by comments from others.

At one point in mid-January, Smith’s father texted into The Buzz radio station in Little Rock and assured the hosts that his son would return. Recent tweets by Smith — who was back in Fayetteville in time for the spring semester — seemed to indicate a looming comeback, as well.

The optimism reached a fever pitch during the Texas A&M game last week when Jimmy Dykes, on the call for ESPN2, told a national television audience that he had talked directly to Smith and that the talented Jacksonville, Ark. native told him he was coming back. Dykes, along with play-by-play man Karl Ravech, reiterated that point during the Kentucky broadcast, too.

Barring any setbacks, it seems as though all of those breadcrumbs will ultimately lead to a return to the court — it’s just a matter of when. The Razorbacks host Mississippi State at 5 p.m. CT Saturday before traveling to Texas A&M next Wednesday and then hosting Florida that Saturday.

(UPDATE: Nick Smith Jr. has reportedly revealed that he will be available to play Saturday against the Bulldogs, announcing his return in an Instagram Live on Wednesday.)

Nick Smith Jr with Arkansas Basketball

Arguably the most hyped recruit Arkansas basketball has signed since Corliss Williamson in 1992, Nick Smith Jr was considered a top-3 prospect by virtually every recruiting outlet. He was even ranked No. 1 overall by 247Sports and ESPN tabbed him the top college prospect in one of its early mock drafts for 2023.

Unlike previous heralded in-state recruits of the recent years, like Archie Goodwin and Malik Monk, Eric Musselman managed to convince Smith to stay home and play for the Razorbacks, joining a six-man class that featured a trio of five-stars and trio of four-stars. The group ranked No. 2 in the Class of 2022.

He gave a glimpse of his potential during Arkansas’ foreign tour in Europe, but got hurt in the fourth and final game. Smith still played in the Red-White Game and two exhibitions, though, including a 12-point effort against Texas.

However, word leaked out shortly before the regular-season opener against North Dakota State that he was hurt and the UA released a statement that he’d be out indefinitely for “right knee management.”

Details beyond that were hard to come by, but he missed the first six games of the season before coming off the bench and playing six minutes against Troy on Nov. 28. Smith didn’t do much that game, missing both of his shots and registering just one rebound, but he was back in the starting lineup the next game.

In starts against San Jose State, UNC Greensboro and Oklahoma, he scored 16, 22 and 21 points — an average of 19.7 — and shot 45.5% from the field while also averaging 3.0 assists and 2.3 rebounds in 30.7 minutes.

There was a scare at the end of the Oklahoma game, as he spent the final 5:32 going back and forth between the locker room and the end of the bench with the trainer. There wasn’t much concern about it, though, and he was still in the lineup a week later against Bradley.

In that game, Smith struggled, perhaps pressing in front of a hometown crowd at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock. He went just 1 of 8 from the floor and missed much of the second half, which Musselman blamed on an uncomfortable tape job and the margin of victory.

When the Razorbacks returned to Fayetteville for a matchup with UNC Asheville a few days later on Dec. 21, though, Smith was not dressed out and the UA released another statement that he had been shut down yet again for “right knee management” and would be out indefinitely.

He’s been out ever since, as the Razorbacks struggled to a 1-5 start to SEC play before finally getting above .500 with a five-game SEC winning streak. Mixed in was a tough three-point loss at No. 17 Baylor in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.

Check out some highlights of Nick Smith Jr from when he was healthy:


More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…

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