Next up on the docket for our series of Hornets Summer League report cards is Nick Smith Jr., Charlotte’s latter first-round pick of the 2023 NBA Draft.
After a nagging knee injury limited his availability in his lone season at Arkansas, the 2023 Summer League was Smith’s first time since high school playing at full health. Though there were some ups and downs — a consistent theme for Charlotte’s Summer League squad — Smith showed exactly why the front office took a chance on him in the late-first.
Smith falls into one of the game’s most polarizing player archetypes; the combo guard. He fits the description to a T at this stage of his development — not a “playmaker” but a willing-enough passer, more of a shot-maker than shooter, and an energetic but erratic on-ball defender. Smith separates himself from other guards of his ilk with supreme touch, smooth pace as a ball-handler, and first-step quickness that may have been overlooked as he struggled to stay healthy last season.
It’s hard to overstate the shooting touch Smith has and the wide array of moves he can pull off with the ball in his hands. He’s athletic and shifty enough to create space and utilize that touch, especially in the mid-range and painted area. The handle can get a bit loose driving downhill, but he also pieces together dribble combos with control and has awareness of his own limitations in that regard.
The suddenness of his handle and premium shooting touch were on full display against Portland. Smith finished with 33 points in that contest, 16 of which came in the fourth quarter. The creativity and finishing is pretty remarkable for a 19-year-old with 17 games worth of college experience.
Smith isn’t an NBA-caliber playmaker at this stage, but he has some passing feel and was making an effort at times to initiate offense and run ball screens for a creation-starved Hornets squad. The creativity and flair as a shot creator carries over as a passer, but it’s much less effective; the vision and consistency in reads aren’t there yet. He’s purely a combo, not a point, but he won’t have the heavy playmaking burden that he did in Vegas with the big league team. Smith should also have plenty of opportunity to hone his passing skill with the Greensboro Swarm early on in his career.
I’d expect Smith to be more effective off-ball alongside LaMelo, Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, and other quality playmakers. His catch-and-shoot game is intriguing; his shot has a high release point, smooth mechanics, plus the aforementioned touch lend itself to spot-up attempts. The ball flies softly off his fingers and his misses are typically close misses. The pull-up scoring is already there in the mid-range, too. It’s a strong bet that in time, he extends his range and becomes a consistent, versatile shooting threat from beyond the arc.
Overall, Smith’s efficiency numbers weren’t very good; 14 points per game on 41/36/60 shooting splits demonstrate the room he has to grow before he’s an impactful scorer in the NBA. But to me, this Summer League was more about Smith showing the same flashes as he did at Arkansas, only on an NBA floor and with greater frequency at full-health. I think he accomplished that.
Offensive grade: B+
Smith’s defense is mostly potential and ceiling at this point; though not a poor defender in Summer League, he was inconsistent on and off-ball, and it was quite apparent that he needs to get stronger. He reaches and picks up ticky-tack fouls away from the rim, but to the same degree he can benefit from have active hands. Against the Spurs, Smith’s aggressive digs on Victor Wembanyama’s drives were clearly making the big man uncomfortable as a ball-handler. The quick chemistry Smith developed with James Nnaji in drop pick-and-roll coverage was noticeable as well.
Smith utilizes his length in space defensively and covers ground quickly. For what it’s worth, he averaged 0.8 blocks per game as a skinny 19-year-old guard in Summer League. The main thing with his defense is a lack of physicality, but his instincts and awareness as a team defender provide a solid foundation given his age and experience level. Every interview Smith has given since joining the team contains some answer or comment that indicates he’s dedicated to becoming an asset on the defensive end.
With above-average positional size and length, Smith has the physical tools to develop into a quality defender in time. He plays with energy and seems committed to leaving his mark on that end of the floor, and was one of the few players whose defensive style looked like it’d fit on Steve Clifford’s team. Smith just doesn’t have the physicality or experience defending at a high level to make a consistent impact yet.
Defense grade: B
Smith has the foundational skillset of a quality NBA combo guard; shot-making in droves, ancillary playmaking skills and a willingness to run ball-screens, positional size and a team-centric approach to defense. The idealized version of his game fits like a glove in Charlotte’s system and would provide needed scoring and creation to the second unit.
Though Smith may be inconsistent in most areas right now, his foundation of touch, shot creation and feel for the game gives him plenty of room to grow. Summer League showed us some of the reasons why he was a top-ranked high school recruit just over a year ago. At the least, it’s another quality upside play from the front office on a player that fits well alongside the already-established rotation pieces. If all goes well, Smith is easily going to outplay his draft position at 27th overall.
Overall grade: B+