Smith brings chip to Charlotte, NBA

Former Arkansas guard Nick Smith, the No. 27 pick by the Charlotte Hornets in Thursday’s NBA Draft, said knee issues that caused him to miss about half of the Razorbacks’ games this season are behind him. “I’m extremely healthy right now. I feel good,” he said. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Before a knee injury impacted Nick Smith's freshman season at the University of Arkansas, the 6-5 guard from Jacksonville was projected by many analysts as a top-five pick in the NBA Draft.

But after Smith was limited to playing in 17 of the Razorbacks' 36 games because of what was called right knee "management," he dropped to the No. 27 pick by the Charlotte Hornets on Thursday night.

Smith, 19, was asked in a video conference with Charlotte media members how much of a chip he is carrying on his shoulder entering his rookie season with the Hornets to show he deserved to be chosen higher.

"I'm coming in with a big chip, for sure," Smith said. "But I also understand this game is a business. I understand all that.

"Charlotte was willing to take a chance on me. And my trust is in Charlotte right now. I'm thankful they believed in me, and I'm just ready to get to work."

Mitch Kupchak, the Hornets' general manager, said Charlotte's draft team had Smith ranked among the top 16 picks.

"Nick Smith we had much higher [than 27th] in the draft," Kupchak said when he met with Charlotte media after the draft. "He's young, right? He's got great size.

"He's a shooter. In our league, that's a premium. He's athletic."

Smith was USA Today's national high school player of the year after he averaged 26.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game as a senior in leading North Little Rock to the Class 6A state championship in 2022.

During the last of Arkansas' four exhibition games in Europe last August, Smith did something to his right knee, but the exact injury never was revealed by Smith or Arkansas.

Smith played in the Red-White game and the Razorbacks' two exhibition games, but then missed the first five regular-season games.

After returning and playing in six games, Smith's knee again became an issue and he missed 12 games before coming back a second time to play the final 11 as Arkansas advanced to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 for the third consecutive season.

"It's not going to affect me anymore," Smith said Thursday night when asked about the knee injury. "That's out of the picture. That's out of the way.

"I'm extremely healthy right now. I feel good."

Kupchak said Smith's knee management didn't impact the decision to draft him in the first round.

"He missed some time this year with an injury, and we looked into it, and we feel comfortable," Kupchak said. "He came back and played."

Kupchak said he spoke about Smith with Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman, who was coach of the Los Angeles Lakers' NBA Developmental League team -- the D-Fenders -- when Kupchak was the Lakers' general manager.

Musselman previously was an NBA head coach with the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings and an assistant with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Orlando Magic, Atlanta Hawks and Memphis Grizzlies.

"We're friends," Kupchak said. "[Musselman] spoke about all his players at Arkansas, and Nick was one of them, and he spoke very highly of him."

Musselman said he had "great discussions" about Smith with Kupchak and Buzz Peterson, Charlotte's assistant general manager whose college coaching stops included Tulsa and Tennessee.

"I had an opportunity to catch up with Buzz Peterson [after the Hornets picked Smith]," Musselman said. "Buzz kept saying how excited they are as an organization about getting Nick."

Musselman, who spoke with Kupchak last week, said he spoke Friday morning with Hornets Coach Steve Clifford, who also expressed his excitement about adding Smith to the team's roster.

"Nick has so much upside and will have a great pro career," Musselman said. "With the flow of the NBA game, he can be a dynamic scorer."

Smith averaged 12.5 points in 25.9 minutes for the Razorbacks this season, but he had some of his highest-scoring games against Power 5 conference competition. He scored 26 points against Georgia, 25 against Kentucky and 24 against Alabama in his second comeback of the season and 21 against Oklahoma in his first comeback.

"To us, of course you've always got to wait three or four years to look back and then you really find out how good your draft was, right?" Kupchak said. "But we feel very fortunate to get Nick where we did."

Adam Finkelstein, director of scouting for 247Sports and a college basketball insider for CBS Sports, gave the Hornets an A-minus for the Smith pick.

"I don't know if it's going to hit, but philosophically you get to this point in the draft and you've basically got two choices," Finkelstein said in a video posted on Twitter. "You can swing for the high upside play or you can look for a high return on a lower salary.

"If you're a team that's rebuilding and the playoffs aren't necessarily a strong priority, taking a big swing is the path that makes the most sense, and this is a swing, because Nick Smith was the top-ranked high school player in the country a year ago."

The Hornets finished 27-55 this season, so Smith will be part of a building process.

"Because of the knee in large part, [Smith] was not the player we expected [at Arkansas]," Finkelstein said. "However, there were other concerns. His feel for the game wasn't what we expected. He always seemed to be in a rush, and defensively he was a liability.

"Now, if we think that in large part was due to the knee and due to the pressure of trying to perform, then there's a lot of faith that you have a big guard who can really score the basketball, who can play on and off [the ball on defense] and has a very high ceiling.

"There's a potential for a very high return with this pick. Philosophically, I really buy into the pick and his talent is high enough where it could really, really work out.

"There's a chance it doesn't work, but at this point in the first round, this was the right strategic play."

Alabama forward Brandon Miller, an AAU teammate of Smith's, was the No. 2 overall pick by Charlotte.

"Brandon is my right-hand man," Smith said. "I talk to [Miller] every day, and obviously I'm going to talk to him every day now, still.

"He's an extremely good player. I've been playing with him ever since I was in high school. As the journey continues, I feel like everything [happens] for a reason."

Smith attended the draft at the Barclays Center in New York and had to wait three hours to be picked. He cried and held his head in his hands when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced his name.

"It was just everything I dreamed about going into the process," Smith said when asked about his emotional reaction. "Just to hear my name called, man, it was definitely a thing my family was waiting on. I was extremely happy and it was tears of joy."

  photo  Charlotte Hornets guard Nick Smith speaks during an introductory news conference Friday in Charlotte, N.C. The Hornets drafted the former Arkansas Razorback with the 27th pick overall Thursday. Smith was one of three Razorbacks taken in this year’s NBA Draft. (AP/Matt Kelley)