Nick Smith has never been a staple in the Illini big man rotation throughout his career. Sure, he sees anywhere from ten to twenty minutes a game, leaning towards low side of the range. But, he really has never been someone Illinois could count on for consistent production while on the court. There are games Nick is invisible, and Illinois wins despite him. Then come the games where Nick Smith is one of, if not the main reason Illinois wins. The black and white dichotomy in the game Nick brings to the court makes him one of the most frustrating players I have watched in the Orange and Blue.
Since Nick is a senior, I think it is safe to say we already know what to expect from him. It is very rare that a player makes a drastic jump between his junior and senior seasons, and I do not expect a jump like that from Smith. Nick will be expected to continue to do everything he does well on the court (pass and shoot), while improving his defense and attitude. When looking down the bench, Bruce Weber will probably see Nick Smith as his first option off the bench when he needs to give either Augustine or Powell a rest.
Nick Smith may have the best looking outside jump shot on the team. Yes, the Illini guards are good shooters, but Smith's form, release, and rotation are the same for every shot. His solid form and shooting ability are on display when he is on the free throw line. Bruce Weber has so much confidence in Smith that when he is on the court, he will be the one to shoot technical foul free throws if the situation arises.
Nick like many of his contemporaries is a big man that can step out and hit the three-point shot, though he rarely attempts them unless the defense completely ignores him. Most of Nick's outside shots occur on pick and pops, or on offensive rotations that leave Nick wide open for a jump shot from the wing or notch. Opponents quickly figure out they better rotate quickly and get someone in Nick's face because these shots are nearly automatic for the Illini big man.
If you were to go up and down the Illinois roster and name the best passers on the team, you have top place number forty five in the top three. Nick is a valuable asset to the Illini offense because when he gets the ball, he can see over the defense and find an open teammate cutting to the basket or the open spot and get them the ball. Sure, his passes are not spectacular like a guard's, but they get the job done.
The other thing Nick does well is feed the post. When Nick is in a position to feed the post, ninety-nine percent of the time it means there is only one big man on the inside to defend the basket. Nick has the ability to find his teammate from the wing with the bounce pass, or in the high-low with the lob. Some of the easiest post entry passes Illinois will have throughout the course of next season are when Nick is spread out, feeding Illinois' other big man.
Some of the prettiest plays last season in Illinois' offense involved Nick Smith and Deron Williams playing off each other in the two-man game. The end of Illinois' game against Indiana in Bloomington saw the Illini go to that two man game on possession after possession. Nick would set a pick on Deron's man, and then read which move to make based on what the defense gave him. If the defense left open the middle by going over the screen, Nick would roll to the basket for a lay up or dunk. If the defense clogged the middle, Nick would pop out to the wing for the open seventeen footer.
Nick's shooting skills and intelligence make him Illinois' best big man at running the two man game. He also was one of the few Illinois big men that would actually make contact with a defender when setting a pick. I hope to see more of Nick with the Illinois guards in a two man game. It is the most basic element of team offense, yet the most difficult for defenses to stop when run correctly.
Nick is a very smart person and he has a great grasp for how the game of basketball should be played. Unfortunately, Nick's how he thinks the game should be played often times creates problems on the court. When a teammate does not make the cut they were supposed to, or the read Nick thought they should have made, Nick becomes visibly frustrated. If you had to pick one thing holding back Nick's progression as a basketball player, it would have to be his attitude.
Throughout the course of a game, Nick's attitude can changes more than a chameleon's colors, but normally once he hits pout mode, Nick's mind is through working for the game. He becomes a detriment to the team when he is on the court. When he gets into this mode that I call "Eeyore mode," Nick pouts and has a look on his face that resembles Eeyore. When Nick is in Eeyore mode, he is a destructive influence on his teammates, and he needs to be put on the sidelines for the rest of the game. Nick has not been able to control his emotions for the previous three seasons, so I do not see any reason why I should believe he will be able to do so this season.
Perhaps the most famous mention of Nick's off court attitude would be his comments during the Illinois State film session mocking the Redbirds. Well, as that game in Champaign showed the Illini and their fans, a determined Redbird team with a very determined Marcus Arnold (who will be wearing the orange & blue starting in the 2005-2006 season) was not something to be mocked as they pushed Illinois to the limit.
Other times Illinois fans have seen Nick get frustrated are when calls from the refs don't go his way. The most famous of one of these incidents may be when the Illini lost in Madison to the hated Badgers. A ref asked Nick for the ball after a free throw, and Nick would not get the ball after he had thrown it away from the ref. Nick was given a technical foul, and as retribution to his teammates Nick had to sing Beautiful by Snoop Dogg after practice.
The most obvious weakness to Nick Smith is his strength. Nick just has not been able to put on weight during his tenure at Illinois, as anyone who looks at him can testify to. Nick's lack of strength and bulk make it difficult for him to play on the inside. He is not able to get inside position most of the time, Nick has been known for slapping at rebounds (thus his nickname Slappy by IlliniBoarders), instead of grabbing them.
Nick's lack of strength contributes to problems Nick has on offense. Nick is not strong enough to routinely get post position. When Nick does get post position on defenders, he is not able to take the ball up strongly to the basket and he normally settles for a hook or a fade away jump shot. On the rare occasion that Nick takes the ball to the basket, it is normally blocked because he is not strong enough to take it up over other big men.
There is nothing that I have seen from Nick that makes me think he will provide anything more than he did last year to Illinois. Nick's minutes in the big man rotation are up for grabs right now, just like every one's are if their name is not Roger Powell or James Augustine. Nick will get time, but the extent of it will depend on a combination of his attitude and the play of Brian Randle, Warren Carter, and Shaun Pruitt. I think the best thing that can happen for Illinois is for Nick to get ten to fifteen minutes of solid play, and then another person takes those other five minutes from Nick by playing better than him.
When Nick is in the game, Illinois will lose some of their strength inside, but they will gain offensive versatility. Nick will be able to spread the floor and give Illinois' other big man more room to fight for position on the inside. He will also be a valuable asset for Dee Brown and Deron Williams in the two man game.
There will always be games where Nick gets too frustrated with either the refs of his teammates for not making the right call or being in the right position. When this happens, Bruce Weber and his coaches need to realize this and take Nick out of the game right away to cool off. When he is in Eeyore mode, the negatives far outweigh the positives. Nick needs to control his on-court attitude better, or the coaches will need to keep him off it when his attitude flares up.
Oh yeah, I also expect national announcers to mention at least 30 times next year that Nick is the "Tallest Player in Illinois History."