Nick Smith was the weirdest player I ever watched play basketball. He was tall. Insanely tall.
In fact, at 7-foot-2 and 250 pounds, Nick Smith is the tallest basketball player in Illinois history. Smith played four years at the University of Illinois from 2001-05. That means he won three Big Ten regular season titles (2002, ‘04, ‘05) under Bill Self and Bruce Weber. He played in the NCAA tournament all four years as at least a five-seed or better. The teams he was on made three Sweet Sixteens, including a Final Four that ended in a second-place finish. That’s absolutely staggering, especially when you consider the NCAA Tournament drought the Illini are currently facing.
Nick Smith played during the early stages of my Illini fandom, specifically between ages 6 and 10. I was still a huge fan at a young age, but sometimes you don’t know all the role player’s names. I knew Nick Smith’s name. There was no one else on the planet he could be confused with.
He was 7-foot-2 and the skinniest 250 pounds I had ever seen. Before the Mike Tisdale diet became part of the Illini basketball drinking game, Nick Smith’s diet was all the rage. I don’t know how much Michael Phelps ate to keep up with his Olympic schedule, but Smith probably ate twice as many calories just to survive being a 7-foot college center at his build.
I didn’t have as much knowledge about basketball at that age, but I can still hear my dad and other adults from my childhood imploring Smith to get into the paint and put his size to good use. Smith was not terribly athletic, fast or strong, but he did have a good shooting stroke and would often take jump shots from 10-plus feet out. In today’s game that may not seem that strange. But imagine it’s fifteen years ago, before pace and space, and the tallest player to ever wear your school’s uniforms isn’t always parked next to the rim. People couldn’t handle it.
His freshman and senior years he played 10 minutes a game, and his sophomore and junior years he played about 17 minutes per game. This was shocking to me because I felt like I watched Nick Smith out there so much, but he was just a bench player all four years and didn’t even play half of the game. But if you think about it, at his size, it would have likely been incredibly difficult for him to give the Illini much more than 20 productive minutes on any given night. Every trip up and down the floor for that big body was a marathon.
With that said, and with his size, you would assume Smith battled injuries over the course of his Illinois career. Maybe he was fighting off nagging injuries throughout his career that I can’t recall, but he played over 30 games every single year for four straight seasons. That was good for 145 career games played, and he would only start 15 of them. That’s remarkable durability for a 7-footer, even at his limited minutes.
His best scoring and rebounding season came in 2003-04 when he recorded 6.8 points and 3.2 rebounds per game in 16 minutes per game. In 2002-03, Smith finished sixth in the Big Ten in blocks (38), averaging 1.2 per game. It was the only season he averaged more than one block per game.
Smith finished his career 17 for 51 (33 percent) from three as well as being a 76 percent free-throw shooter. His shooting stroke was real — and it was good.
Imagine if he played 15 years later when bigs are not just allowed to, but are encouraged to step out and lure the shot blockers away from the rim. Add in his 99 career blocked shots and that’s a capable rim defender and floor spacing 7-foot-2 center who every team would want on their roster. Of course the style, pace and movement of today’s game would have challenged Smith’s body and athleticism, but I still would love to see how Underwood would use him.
Smith was oftentimes funny, interesting, exciting and frustrating to watch. He was the first freakishly tall basketball player I ever saw, and the memories of watching him play are still so, so clear. There’s no record of Smith playing professional basketball after his Illinois career ended. By all accounts, he moved back to his home state of Florida after graduation. Cheers to you, Nick. Oskee-Wow-Wow.