By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — One Google-searched dictionary definiton of the word alpha when used as an adjective is: “Socially dominant especially in a group.”
On a basketball court, there’s no mistaking an alpha-mentality scorer when you see one, and two on the same court matching up at the same time will often generate a buzz in the gym that is hard to quantify and tough to recreate.
Two such Little Rock-area hoopers who recently got together and went head-to-head in local pickup games — former Arkansas Razorbacks guard Daryl Macon and current 2022 Hog target Nick Smith, Jr. — offer about as much collective machismo and offensive firepower as you’ll find.
“That was a cool experience,” Smith said of playing this summer against Macon, who finished his Arkansas career with first-team All SEC honors in 2017-18 followed by spending two seasons in the NBA / NBA G-League as a two-way contract player before recently joining a professional league in Turkey. “I feel like me playing against pros will help me a lot because I’m still young. Daryl is competitive like me so I’m not going to back down and he’s not going to back down. That’s just what it is.
“We had great battles but of course he is going to have the upper hand because I mean he’s Daryl Macon, he’s so hard to guard. He’s a cool dude, though. He loves my game, loves my competitiveness. Always gives me advice on how to handle certain situations, so yeah D4 (Macon) is my guy.”
The similarities between the two are striking, particulary that both are supremely confident as primary-handler combo guards with score-first instincts. Macon was among the SEC’s Top 10 leaders in scoring and assists as a senior, and Smith wields the same kind of pick-and-choose playmaking ability as both scorer and facilitator.
But make no mistake, both prefer to launch shots with a skill-and-swagger combo that makes a lasting imprint as they take over a game.
Smith, a 6-foot-4 combo guard pushing 6-5 with plus arm length, can dissect a defense either proactively or with read-and-react savvy as he attacks with confidence. He sharpened his craft while excelling at a couple of recent prestigous summer events as he continued to raise his national recruiting profile before entering his junior season at Sylvan Hills in ’20-21. Smith was a star at the talent-loaded Brad Beal Elite camp in St. Louis in early August as he led all scorers at the event, and he followed that up with an impressive weekend at the end of August at the Crossroads Elite Invitational that featured 250 prospects in Wichita, Kan.
In late July, Smith was named the best high school basketball player in Arkansas — regardless of classification — by StadiumTalk.com. And among four Top 100 nationally ranked class of 2022 in-state prospects who hold Arkansas offers as well as numerous other high-major offers, Smith has the highest composite national ranking (effectively an aggregate of ESPN, Rivals.com, and 247Sports..com) as he checks in at No. 42, a 4-star prospect.
Despite the summer accolades, Smith is not satisfied.
“I feel like I showed that I’m a Top 20 guy in the country, hands down,” Smith said. “Met up with some Top 20 guys and proved to all of them I belong.”
Smith said he has seen improvement and development in his game as he matched up against some of the best players in the region and the nation.
“I feel like my ball-handling has stepped up a lot,” he said. “Just looking at the film, reading the defense, changing speed, all that. Coming off ball screens also. Just reading the defense and reacting.”
Smith — he averaged 23.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 3.4 assists as a sophomore at Class 5A Sylvan Hills in ’19-20 — is one of the most coveted prospects in the country with an offer list that includes the Hogs, Texas, Florida, Baylor, Texas Tech, Alabama, Auburn, Kansas State, Ole Miss, Oklahoma State, St. John’s, DePaul, Georgetown, Murray State, St. Louis, Tulsa, and Oral Roberts. He’s also drawing interest from North Carolina, Kansas, Purdue, and others.
Smith picked up his Razorbacks offer last year, he took an unofficial visit to Arkansas in August 2019, and he’s been an ongoing recruiting priority of Eric Musselman and his staff with texts, phone calls, and virtual meetings being the norm as the covid-19 pandemic dictates an indefinite NCAA recruiting dead period that prohibits on- and off-campus visits.
“I talk to all of them (schools recruiting him) on an everyday basis,” said Smith, adding that the school he talks to the most is “probably Arkansas.”
Smith described his interaction with Hogs coaches in favorable terms.
“They’re great conversations,” Smith said. “They just ask about what I’ve got going throughout the day and stuff like that. They said they love how hard I play and the motor. They also said they like how I can play both sides of the ball, and I can play the 1 or the 2.”
Smith also gets feeback from current Razorbacks as 7 of the 12 on scholarship are from his home state of Arkansas.
“It’s a good vibe,” Smith said of what current Hogs tell him about Musselman’s program. “They always tell you what’s going on and they’ll actually give you a closer look … I feel like the whole coaching staff is nothing but great people.”
Smith said he does not have a timeframe for releasing a list of his top schools: “I haven’t made that decision yet, but I’ll let everyone know what I’ll do.”
For now, Smith is comfortable letting his play do all the talking. Loudly.
Linked are recent Nick Smith, Jr., highlights …