In years past, John Calipari and the Kentucky coaching staff have prioritized athleticism and length on the recruiting trail, sometimes putting pure skill and shooting on the back burner in favor of potential. The floor is typically higher with the latter prospects, but the ceiling for growing athletes with NBA-ready bodies who may need just a few tweaks in their games is exponentially higher. After a disaster of a season that saw UK miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013, though, Calipari pledged to reevaluate everything within the program, specifically shifting his recruiting priorities.
“Now shooting is even a bigger deal than it’s been, and it’s everywhere,” Calipari said on February 4. “You’ve gotta be able to make shots. Well, the game is changing and shooting is a premium.”
Oddly enough, 2022 four-star guard Nick Smith Jr., known for his silky-smooth jump shot and knack for scoring, added Kentucky to his list of top schools just two weeks later on February 15. He may not be the most explosive prospect in the country, and he’s still got growing to do and weight to put on – he’s listed at 6-4, 175 pounds – but goodness, the kid can score.
At the MADEHoops Midwest Mania event in the outskirts of Indianapolis this weekend, KSR caught up with the standout guard to talk about his game, his recruitment, and where things stand with Kentucky, among other topics.
How does it feel to be back on the road playing at events like this?
It feels good, especially just playing AAU in general. When you’re playing state, nobody can really come see you play. National media, they can come watch you play and see how you’re doing, so it’s pretty fun so far.
What do you think of the crowd?
I’m used to it since my 11th grade year has been kind of hectic, the crowd doesn’t really bother me.
How’s your recruitment going? Are you in the process of scheduling visits for this summer?
A lot of coaches are trying to set up official visits with me, but as of right now I haven’t set any. I’m just focused on competing at a high level and playing with my teammates. (I’d like to take visits) for sure, I’m just not worried about that right now.
What schools are recruiting you the hardest?
Obviously Kentucky, Arkansas, I’ve started talking to Michigan more, Oklahoma, Georgetown, Ole Miss, pretty much the whole package. It was a lot of stuff changing, (Chris Beard’s) move to Texas from Texas Tech, Arkansas moving coaches, just a lot of things going on. I had added Kentucky, so I might as well just reopen my recruitment. I don’t want to look like a dude just seeking attention, I’m not into all that. I’m just trying to find the right fit for me.
What has the level of contact been like with Kentucky?
When I started my 11th grade year, at the beginning, it was on and off. As I started getting bigger and better, they saw that I could really play at a high level. I started to talk to Coach Cal more, talking to the assistant coaches, just really trying to create a bond.
What coaches are in contact right now?
I only talk to Jai Lucas right now. I’ve been knowing Jai since he came from Texas because I took a Texas visit in the 10th grade, an unofficial visit. Me and him are pretty cool, he’s a pretty cool dude. They’re very serious about their program, and I like that because I’m a very serious guy. I feel like Coach Cal just builds pros, you know what I’m saying? It’s just a great system.
Calipari said he was planning to recruit more pure shooters and scorers after the team struggled this past season, and you were one of the first players he reached out to since then. How does that feel?
Not every season is going to be peaches and cream. A lot of people panicked when they saw (this season) because it is Kentucky. A lot of programs have a lot of bad seasons, and you wouldn’t even know it. If Kentucky has a bad season, you know Kentucky has a bad season. Me believing myself, knowing what they were going through, I feel like I could’ve helped that team a lot.
What will you prioritize most in your recruitment?
I’m big on family and loyalty, just sticking with me through thick and thin. If you stick with me, you know I’m going to stick with you, also. Just a family vibe, sticking together, playing great basketball, that’s really all I’m looking for.
What do you feel you bring to the table as a player? What’s your biggest strength?
I’m a big culture guy around the organization, I like to bond with my teammates because if I don’t bond with my teammates, I don’t really feel right as a player. If I’m not bonding with my teammates, I don’t feel like I’m playing my game. Being a leader on and off the court, just playing my game. My teammates believe in me night in and night out, and it shows.
What position do you hope to play in college? It feels like you’re comfortable playing both the one and two?
I’m not really worried about that, whatever the coach I’m playing for wants me to play. If it’s the one, I can play the one, I can play the one a lot. I can score the ball, I can defend, I can rebound, I can do pretty much anything a coach asks me to.
Who do you model your game after?
I took a lot of players’ (traits) and put it in my game like Russell Westbrook, Devin Booker, Brad Beal, LeBron James, all those types of guys. I try to take after them. I’ve been paying attention to Michael Jordan a lot, people say he’s the GOAT, but I haven’t watched him play so I don’t really know. But I’ve started to watch him more, how he got to his spots, stuff like that, I’m just trying to add that to my game.
What do you hope to prove this summer as events like this ramp up?
I don’t feel like I have anything to prove to anybody, I’m just going to go out there and play my game with my teammates, try to get a win. My biggest goal right now is to get to Peach Jam, that’s really all I’m looking for.
What are you looking to improve in the next couple of months?
Especially my body, hopefully I grow a couple more inches. I’m 177 (pounds), but when I get to college, I want to be around 195. But I know I have a lot of time to do that stuff, so I’ll be fine.
Smith is ranked as high as No. 23 overall in the 247Sports player rankings, with Rivals listing him at No. 36 and ESPN listing him at No. 41 in their latest updates, respectively.