By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — The last time a big import with the promise of NBA talent from the Show Me State debuted in an Arkansas Razorbacks basketball uniform was 40 years ago, that is until Trevon Brazile arrived on campus in late May before putting on a show overseas recently during the Hoop Hogs’ European exhibition tour.
Brazile (6-10 with 7-3 wingspan, sophomore transfer from Missouri, native of Springfield, Mo.) moved to Fayetteville amid talk of possessing a next-level combination of size, length, athleticism, and skill. His four on-court performances as a Hog earlier this month (two Arkansas exhibition wins in Spain followed by two more in Italy) not only served to underline the notion that Brazile is likely headed for an NBA future, but it stirred the echoes from an era in Arkansas’ storied hoops program that produced another big-man transfer and native Missourian who would go on to have a brilliant college career before a lengthy pro run — Joe Kleine (a.k.a Big Joe from Slater, Mo.).
Four decades have elapsed bridging Kleine’s beginnings at Arkansas (his first season to compete as a Hog was in 1982-83 after transferring from Notre Dame) to Brazile’s arrival (debuting in ’22-23), and sandwiched in between were six Hog frontliners — Andrew Lang, Oliver Miller, Corliss Williamson, Bobby Portis, Daniel Gafford, and Jaylin Williams — who each enjoyed enormous college success before moving on to the NBA.
Perhaps nobody better than Kleine — a Parade All American in high school, a first-team All Southwest Conference honoree as a Hog, an Olympic gold medalist, the No. 6 overall pick in the 1985 NBA Draft, a 15-year NBA veteran who won a championship, years as an NCAA Division 1 assistant coach, and now a color analyst with the SEC Network — can appreciate Brazile’s path to Arkansas as part of his journey to what lies ahead in the near future as a pro.
Kleine knows a thing or two about Arkansas big men, SEC big men, and NBA big men, and he was as intrigued as anyone with Brazile’s upside as a freshman at Mizzou.
“Last year, I think I had them (Mizzou game broadcasts) three times,” Kleine recalled. “And every time I saw them he was better and he was doing something that he hadn’t done in the game before. You could just see his improvement. You could tell he was trying to put on weight.”
A budding talent in the Tigers’ lineup in ’21-22, Brazile started in 23 of the 25 games he played in and averaged 6.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks in 21.5 minutes per game while shooting 53.4% from the field, including 33.3% from 3, and 62.0% from the free throw line on a Missouri team that went 12-21, including 5-13 in the SEC. His per-40-minute averages were 9.5 rebounds and 3.6 blocks, and the fact he knocked down a respectable 11-of-33 from the three-point-line made him a welcome face-up threat in pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll schemes on offense. He scored in double figures a total of four times last season and had one game of at least 10 rebounds. He had seven games of at least 8 rebounds, and he had 17 games with multiple blocked shots (including a season-high of 6).
In two matchups against Arkansas last season — both losses — Brazile averaged 5.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks. He averaged 10.4 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks in his final five games of the season as Missouri went 2-3 in those contests with wins over Ole Miss and Georgia and losses against LSU twice and South Carolina. In his season-finale loss against LSU in the SEC tournament second round on March 10, Brazile recorded a season-high 15 points to go with 8 rebounds. Brazile’s “breakout” game came in early January when he notched 9 points, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks, 3 assists, and 1 steal in Missouri’s upset home win over then-No. 15 Alabama.
Kleine saw enough in him that when Brazile landed in the portal it immediately got Kleine’s attention.
“When I saw he went into the portal, I was like — and I’m not that kind of guy — but I wanted to call Muss and go, ‘He’s from Springfield, you need to …’ When I saw that he was coming (to Arkansas), I was like, ‘That’s as good a portal get as there is.’ I think that much of him. I think he just has a tremendous upside.”
The Razorbacks’ ’21-22 campaign had just ended with their second consecutive NCAA tournament Elite Eight run in mid-March when the program quietly brought in Brazile, who had entered the transfer portal, for a late-March visit that quickly led to his commitment. He was the first domino — and the most significant one — in a run of four total frontline portal commitments for the Hogs in a matter of a week.
Looking back now, the departure of first-team All SEC big man Williams to the NBA Draft and the recruiting loss of 5-star prospect and in-state 7-footer Kel’el Ware did not sting nearly as much once Brazile pledged to the Razorbacks.
Since moving onto campus in late May, Brazile has drawn rave reviews from limited and full practices before putting his gifts on full display for his coaches, the fanbase, and media in the recent Euro tour.
In both Spain and Italy, he was consistently productive and wildly efficient in the four games, but he looked like a star ready for the biggest stages of D1 basketball when he rang up a game-high 28 points (13-of-15 field goals, including 1-of-2 from 3, and 1-of-1 free throw) to go with game-high-matching efforts in rebounds (9), steals (4), and minutes (35) plus 2 assists and 2 turnovers in a 70-59 win over the Hogs’ toughest opponent, the veteran Danish pro club Bakken Bears.
Brazile finished the foreign tour shooting 29-of-34 from the field for a white-hot 85.3% combined through four games. He totaled 1-of-4 from 3 (25%) and 4-of-5 from the foul line (80%) while averaging a team-high 15.8 points to go with 5.0 rebounds (but 8.0 boards in the final two games after being challenged by the coaching staff) and a team-high-matching 2.3 steals per game. He was credited with only 3 blocked shots in four games based on the available stats, but it seemed like he had at least twice that many while altering shots and stifling drives.
“He improves every time I see him,” Kleine said. “He looks better physically, he looks stronger, he does something with his back to the basket, or driving a certain way. I think he’s going to play in the NBA, he’s going to definitely get a shot.
“I just watch him play, and I think he really, really fits today’s NBA. How the big men play, I think he’s perfect because he can rim-protect, he’s long, he can rebound, he can offensive rebound, and now he can do some things away from the basket and stretch the floor. That’s the modern day NBA, they want to space you out and get to the rim and get good looks from 3.”
Fourth-year Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman was smitten with Brazile’s play in Europe.
“I thought he played incredible the entire time,” Musselman said. “I know it’s exhibition games and all that, but he played as well as any guy that I’ve seen play over a four-game stretch. If you look at his numbers, they’re absolutely insane, what he’s done.
“He’s just so quick to the ball. He’s so long. He runs the floor. He can play facing the basket. He can play with his back to the basket. I thought he was just unbelievable. He’s got an incredible, incredible future ahead of him as well.”
In multiple analysis of Brazile recently published here at Hogville, we’ve expressed getting a sense of a Daniel Gafford / Bobby Portis hybrid with all-league gifts while possessing potential as a future first-round NBA draft pick. Agility, quick bounce, long strides and long reach (again, he’s 6-10 with a 7-3 wingspan), shooting touch around the basket and facing up all the way out the three-point line, open-court skill, plus instincts as a defender — ALL of it was evident in Europe.
His shooting efficiency never waned from game to game, and given that his volume of shot makes and attempts skyrocketed in game four against Arkansas’ toughest competitor (again, 13-of-15 for 28 points against the Bakken Bears) he crossed a line from being ultra-efficient to being downright unstoppable. In that final game, Brazile expanded on what had been mostly a breathtaking athletic close-range scoring arsenal (a la Gafford) by stepping out and facing up for a 12-foot runner, a 19-foot mid-range bucket, and a three-pointer (a la Portis).
As good as he was, Brazile was not completely satisfied with his performances.
“Over the first two games I wasn’t satisfied with my play,” Brazile said following his team’s 11-point win over Bakken on Monday. “I feel like I could’ve played way better rebounding-wise and just on the perimeter in general, maybe defense, too. The second set of games in Italy, I feel like I played way better defensively and rebounding. Like I said, that’s just how I play. I’m just motored to play like that. I’m motored to play, run the rim, and do the little things.”
Like Kleine faced battling great college big men Hakeem Olajuwon of Houston and Jon Koncak of SMU in SWC play in the ’80s, Brazile in just a handful of months will be up against the SEC frontline likes of reigning college national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe of Kentucky and 5-star freshman Yohan Traore of Auburn.
There will be other significant hurdles, but Kleine is convinced big things are on the horizon for another Hog big from Missouri.
“I think he’s going to be a helluva player,” Kleine said. “I think he’s a guy who impacts both ends of the floor. That’s huge.”