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BOYS PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Nick Smith steps right in at NLR, sets path for team’s state title

Smith steps right in at NLR, sets path for team’s state title by Erick Taylor | March 27, 2022 at 3:36 a.m.
North Little Rock?s Nick Smith scores a basket during the first half of Friday night?s game against Bryant at Charging Wildcat Arena in North Little Rock. See more photos at Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

North Little Rock's Johnny Rice didn't need to get a heads-up on what to expect from Nick Smith when he transferred in from nearby Sylvan Hills last offseason.

The long-time coach knew plenty about the nation's top combo guard long before he ever set foot on the Charging Wildcats' campus.

He was privy of all of the accolades the 6-5, 175-pounder had received the previous three years, and he'd heard quite a bit through word of mouth about how he's able to dominate a game without ever having to make a basket.

If that wasn't enough, Rice could look no further than social media to get a glimpse at just how surgical Smith could be with a basketball in his hands. But he didn't need to see any of that because he had a pretty good idea about what he was getting in a kid who consistently dropped 20-plus points last summer with the Brad Beal Elite program while dealing with a wrist injury.

Nevertheless, there was a characteristic about Smith that Rice didn't take into consideration. It's one that he didn't anticipate before the Charging Wildcats held their first practice together.

"I'd heard about how competitive he was, and you can tell that by watching him play," Rice said of Smith, the two-time Arkansas Democrat-Gazette All-Arkansas Preps Boys Player of the Year. "But I had never seen it behind the scenes. His competitive nature is like no other. It's just not on game day, it's not just the day before a game, it's every day.

"He puts the work in. Before practice, after practice, weekends and nights. Shoot, going into the state tournament, he's sending the coaching staff his own scouting report because he's watched film on everybody. I mean it was a really, in-depth scouting report, and it was good. That's different from anybody I've ever coached."

Different is what generally comes to mind when describing Smith, who was also the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's All-Arkansas Preps Boys Underclassman of the Year as a sophomore. He averaged 26.5 points, 8 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game to power North Little Rock to a second consecutive Class 6A state title and a No. 13 national ranking in ESPN's top 25.

But it's not the eyebrow-raising numbers that make Smith a rare commodity: It's his relentless drive to be the best version of himself on a nightly basis that sets him apart.

"When I got in there, Coach Rice didn't really know me and how I prepare myself," Smith said. "He didn't really know how competitive I was. For me personally, every day in practice I'm going at everybody. I don't care who it is, but that's just how I am.

"Once we're out on the court, I'm going to do what it takes to win. That's always been my mindset."

There was a time where Smith didn't know if he'd be able to go at anyone in his final high school season after questions arose surrounding his transfer. He was ruled ineligible before the Arkansas Activities Association restored his eligibility in October.

That decision would ordinarily be a relief for most student-athletes who found themselves in a similar position, but for Smith, it also led to some stressful days.

"We faced adversity all year long," he explained. "We always had to deal with other people making assumptions of what we were. There was so much going on that a lot of people have no idea about, so much that was being said about me and the team in general. And there was a lot of pressure on us to kind of live up to the expectations that were placed on us each and every day.

"We knew that every time we played, someone out there would criticize us, especially if we had a bad game. But in a way, it was good for us to go through that early because by the time the second half of the season came, we were used to it and blocked it all out. From there, we just went to work."

Armed with weapons in the backcourt and on the wings and fellow 5-star big man Kel'el Ware in the interior, the Charging Wildcats won their final 20 games, most of which were convincing. And Smith routinely went out and performed in ways that left Rice amazed.

For example, there was the 32-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist effort in a victory over Cane Ridge, Tenn., during the King Cotton Classic in December that Rice called Smith's best at the time. He followed that with a 33-point outing a day later.

There was also Smith's 36-point showing against Little Rock Catholic in January as well as his game-winning bucket against rival Little Rock Central in February. Still, it's what the McDonald's All-American does beforehand that Rice said allows him to go out and do the things he does.

"He's an elite player because of his skill level, and he's an elite player because of his athleticism," he stated. "But what makes him a top two or three player in the nation is his drive to be good, his competitiveness. The energy level he plays with is unmatched, period.

"I've had some of the best players to ever come through here, but over the last month of the season, I've never had or seen anyone that locked in on wanting to win a state championship. Nick's had all kinds of accolades in between that, but he didn't want to be that guy to not win a state title. That drove him all year."

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Smith at a glance

SCHOOL North Little Rock

CLASS Senior



NOTEWORTHY Averaged 26.5 points, 8 rebounds and 7.3 assists. … Ranked as the No. 6 overall player in the Class of 2022 by ESPN. … Has signed with the University of Arkansas. … Was the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette All-Arkansas Preps Boys Underclassman of the Year as a sophomore and the overall player of the year as a junior.


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