By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — We’re more than a month away from the Arkansas Razorbacks’ rare and valuable foreign exhibition-game tour (four games set for Aug. 6-16 in Spain and Italy), and the start of the 31-game regular season is roughly four months out from tipping up. Still, it’s never too early to speculate on the player rotations that Eric Musselman will trot onto the floor.
We know several things, or we think we know, going into this endeavor: a) Musselman sticks to a tight 7-player rotation; b) the 2022-23 team has 11 newcomers out of the 13 scholarship players, so most of the top rotation will consist of new blood; c) the exhibition tour and some non-conference games will allow Musselman to spread out playing time beyond his typical rotation; and d) with the early team strength identified as being on the defensive side of the ball (specifically rim protection), it likely foreshadows who among the personnel will earn significant playing time, at least in the early stages.
While some if not all of this may seem obvious (i.e. the three 5-star are going to play), here’s my first crack at the top 7 rotation …
– Nick Smith, Jr. (6-5 freshman combo guard) … Smith is a weapon both on and off the ball offensively due to his combination of skill as a scorer and facilitator, high-energy effort, and ability to create even when a play devolves. And because he’s coachable, fiercely competitive, and adapts quickly to schemes and expectations he’s going to be a leader on both sides of the ball. Smith comes in rated as the national No. 1 class of 2022 prospect as well as a projected top 3 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, but he’s always put potential distractions on the shelf while steadying his mindset and focus on winning. With the latter meaning the most to him, it bodes well for the Razorbacks.
– Trevon Brazile (6-10 sophomore forward / center) … the Missouri transfer is long, athletic, versatile, and he’s been a difference-maker in practices on both sides of the ball because of those attributes. Abilities as a shot-blocker and shot-alterer on defense and face-up skill with good enough handles to create on offense are the wheelhouse tangibles that Brazile brings to the floor. Brazile flashes NBA potential, and he checks too many boxes not to be a factor for the Hogs. While departed all-league big man Jaylin Williams was effectively a one-man frontline a season ago, Brazile could be the anchor of a 5-player corps of bigs in ’22-23.
– Davonte “Devo” Davis (6-4 junior combo guard) … Devo is a proven commodity for the Hoop Hogs, having been part of the top 5 rotation in back-to-back Elite Eight runs as a freshman and sophomore. His energy, on-ball defense, slashing and mid-range shooting, and knack for turning 50/50-ball battles into advantages for the Hogs have collectively been the strengths of his game (if not always consistent) with improved three-point shooting and assist-to-turnover ratio something to keep an eye on during his junior season. As is his ability to consistently be effective whether playing on or off the ball. With so many newcomers and with the key roles Devo’s played in two highly successful seasons, it’s hard to imagine him not being at the heart of what this team accomplishes.
– Ricky Council IV (6-6 junior small forward / wing) … the Wichita State transfer brings size, athleticism, rim-hunting prowess, and enough skill to the wing position that he evokes memories of Michael Qualls when he was a junior at Arkansas in ’14-15. It’s too soon to suggest Council will have the same impact as Qualls did during an all-league season, but the similarities are there plus Musselman has raved about Council’s end-to-end motor and effort during early practices. Council also fits the mold of the big guards/wings that Musselman prefers, and if it turns out he can defend multiple positions he will see heavy minutes in the rotation.
– Jordan Walsh (6-7 freshman 3/4-combo forward) … his explosive leaping ability, elite length (7-3 wingspan), agility, long strides, and ability to move laterally has drawn praise from those who have seen him in action so far on the defensive side of the ball, and his gifts have spilled over enough to the offensive side that he makes for a tantalizing first-year high-major prospect. Projected as a first-round NBA draft pick by several 2023 mock drafts, Walsh should factor into the top rotation if for no other reasons than his abilities to a) defend; b) compete at a high level; and c) finish above defenders, whether in transition or in halfcourt sets as a slasher and rim-runner. His passing, especially in transition, is an underrated part of his game, and his craft as a face-up scorer continues to emerge.
– Anthony Black (6-7 freshman combo guard) … maybe no other player on this roster is as intriguing as Black. His combination of vision, court-awareness, timing, and ball-placement as an any-way-you-want-it facilitator is elite, and defensively he uses his size, athleticism, wingspan, footwork, strength, and instincts to be a consistent, disruptive stopper. Just his overall floor IQ makes his ceiling off-the-charts good. Black recently helped Team USA win the U18 FIBA Americas gold medal while leading the team in rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks, but it was his savvy, unselfishness, and determination that ultimately stood out on a team full of future stars. Pencil Black into the rotation.
– Makhi Mitchell (6-9 senior forward / center) … the Rhode Island twin-package transfer has a nice combination of soft skills facing the basket (ball-handling and passing); aggressive know-how in getting to the basket off pick-and-rolls, dribble-hand-offs, and various two-man-game scenarios; and finishing moves with his back to the basket. He’s a volume rebounder (11.8 boards per 40 minutes last season at URI), a sneaky lane-crasher defensively, and a good shot-blocker. Mitchell and Brazile appear to be the most versatile among the true frontline options Musselman has at his disposal, and for that reason it seems that both will see the majority of minutes at the 4/5-spot.
That group goes 6-4, 6-5, 6-6, 6-7, 6-7, 6-9, and 6-9, and with their collective length, athleticism, and positional versatility it gives Musselman more matchup flexibility than he had with his first three Arkansas rosters.
But here’s the thing: Musselman in back-to-back seasons came to a crossroads — awful starts to SEC play, that is — that forced his hand to make rotation tweaks with a redistribution of roles and minutes. Plus, it’s so very, very early in a long journey that will truly take off in November, shift into more of a grind in January, and come to lasting conclusions and results in March. So it’s certain that frontcourt veterans Jalen Graham, Makhel Mitchell, and Kamani Johnson will get their opportunities on the court when it matters, and freshmen Derrian Ford, Joseph Pinion, and Barry Dunning, Jr. have all shown promise in early practices.
Graham was second-team All Pac-12 last season and can be very effective playing 15 feet and in from the basket. Makhel Mitchell adds a little more size than his twin Makhi, and it’s reasonable to think the two could rotate for each other which in turn could expand Musselman’s rotation. Johnson proved last season he could help the team in stretches of games and effectively served as No. 8 in the playing rotation; Ford is strong and a determined driver into the paint to get to rim finishes while Pinion has been shooting the ball well of late while also showing he’s a good passer. Dunning’s athleticism and potential to defend multiple positions are desired traits.
* While defense has been the early team strength emerging from the Arkansas Razorbacks’ limited summer practices spanning the first three weeks, Musselman’s video-clip tweets from practices are mostly of impressive offensive plays. Here are the latest …
* As mentioned in this space last week, each preseason the players go through mile-run testing, and Musselman has twice released results. The first five he disclosed were: Smith completed the mile in 5:27; walk-on Cade Arbogast in 5:28; Dunning in 5:30; Pinion in 5:33; and Walsh in 5:35. Then about a week or so later, Musselman announced another group of players and their mile times: Davis in 5:26, Black in 5:44, Brazile in 5:44, and Graham in 5:44.
* Smith came in at No. 1 on The Field of 68.com’s list of “Top 25 impact freshmen in 2022-23,” which was released via Twitter on Friday, June 24.
* RECRUITING: Arkansas coaches continue to be busy recruiting, and they cashed in on those efforts on Saturday when priority in-state recruit Layden Blocker committed to the Razorbacks as the program’s first recruiting win in the class of 2023, which also assured the Hogs having at least one national Top 100-ranked high school prospect (and 12 total) spanning the last four recruiting cycles (my Hogville.com article published on Saturday and linked here includes all the details of Blocker’s commitment and recruitment plus video interviews with Blocker: https://forums.hogville.net/index.php?topic=743142.0).
Joining Blocker as the only two June official visitors to Arkansas is 2023 priority Hogs target and ESPN national No. 4 / 5-star prospect Ron Holland (6-8 forward, Duncanville, Texas) who is currently busy with Team USA preparing for the U17 World Cup in Spain that tips on July 2. Holland recently trimmed his Final 8 to a Final 5 of Arkansas, UCLA, Kentucky, Texas, and the NBA G-League. Among the four schools, Holland has already visited the first three listed with intentions of taking an OV to Texas.
Arkansas coaches fanned out over the past weekend to watch 2023 and 2024 Hog targets compete in various scholastic live-evaluation-period events as assistant coach Gus Argenal was in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and assistant coach Anthony Ruta was in the Atlanta area. Among the players Argenal got to see play in Texas were 2023 national Top 40 Wesley Yates III (6-4 guard, Beaumont, Texas); 2023 ESPN 4-star Ashton Hardaway (6-7 small forward / wing, Duncanville, Texas); 2023 Cameron Barnes (6-10 forward / center, Duncanville, Texas); 2024 national No. 3 / 5-star Tre Johnson (6-6 guard, Lake Highlands, Texas); and 2024 national Top 30 Dink Pate (6-7 combo guard, Dallas Pinkston).
Hog coaches will continue to evaluate high school talent this week at the prestigious NBPA Top 100 camp in Orlando. Fla., as Blocker, Hardaway, 2023 Arkansas offer Brandon Garrison (6-9 forward / center, Del City, Okla., national Top 60 / 4-star-prospect), and 2024 Arkansas offer Dallas “Slim” Thomas (6-8 wing, Little Rock Parkview, national No. 27 / 4-star prospect) are among the players they’ll be watching.
Arkansas’ staff has been very busy recruiting the class of 2024 of late (linked is my Hogville.net article detailing the long list of first-direct-contact prospects that Hog coaches reached out to beginning at midnight on June 15: https://forums.hogville.net/index.php?topic=743542.0). New offers have emerged from that list, including the aforementioned Dink Pate as well as 2024 national No. 1 / 5-star Naas Cunningham (6-7 small forward / wing, Gill St. Bernards in New Jersey); 2024 national No. 2 / 5-star Ian Jackson (6-4 shooting guard, Bronx, NY); 247Sports’ national No. 6 / 5-star Trentyn Flowers (6-8 small forward / wing, Winchester, Va.); composite national No. 23 / 5-star Jase Richardson (6-2 guard, Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, son of Jason Richardson who played in the NBA for Musssleman at Golden State); and ESPN national No. 31 / 4-star Labaron Philon (6-3 guard, Mobile, Ala., cousin of former Hogs football star and NFL defensive lineman Darius Philon).
* PRO HOGS: Former Arkansas star and Fort Smith native Jaylin Williams was selected No. 34 overall (early second round) by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2022 NBA Draft held on Thursday (linked here is my Hogville.net article detailing Williams’ draft night with video interviews and more: https://forums.hogville.net/index.php?topic=743795.0). Williams’ selection meant a former Hog being drafted in the last four NBA drafts, a second player drafted from the Hogs’ highly regarded 2020 recruiting class, and the third highest-drafted former Hog in the past 16 years.
Arkansas fans will soon get to see Williams as well as Isaiah Joe and Moses Moody compete in the fast-approaching NBA Summer League. Williams and OKC as well as Joe and the Philadelphia 76ers will play in the four-team Salt Lake City Summer League (July 5-7) with the two teams scheduled to play against each other on July 7. Moody and his Golden State Warriors — the newly minted ’21-22 NBA champions — will get started in the four-team California Classic Summer League (July 2-5). After those events, the three former Hogs and their teams will compete in the 31-team NBA Las Vegas Summer League (July 7-17).
Former Arkansas 3/4-combo forward and transfer-one-and-done Stanley Umude signed an undrafted free agent Exhibit 10 contract (one-year, non-guaranteed at the rookie minimum) with the Detroit Pistons, which all but assures him of a spot on the Pistons’ Summer League roster with a chance at earning a two-way contract. Former Arkansas star, All SEC first team pick, and Associated Press third team All American JD Notae went undrafted with no announcement of a free-agent deal since Thursday’s draft. Former Hog transfer-one-and-dones Au’Diese Toney,Trey Wade, and Chris Lykes also went undrafted.