LITTLE ROCK — That they appear in multiple 2023 NBA mock draft projections speaks plainly enough about the talent, skills, and physical / athletic measurables of Texas natives and Arkansas Razorbacks freshmen Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh.
Counting freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., the rookie trio represents the Hoop Hogs’ first multiple 5-star prospect class in program history as fourth-year Head Hog Eric Musselman has assembled what is arguably the greatest overall recruiting haul — 11 high school and transfer prospects combined — ever at Arkansas.
To see what went into those 5-star valuations up close and in person — which media who cover the Hoop Hogs got to do for 40-plus minutes of practice on Wednesday — it was obvious that all three are deserving of their next-level draft projections before stepping on a court for their first college game.
Black and Walsh in particular have a combination of positional size, length, athleticism, skill, and floor IQ that immediately make both potential candidates to be among the best two-way players in the SEC, and in unique ways. Depending upon production and impact (along with team accomplishments), both have potential for not only all league recognition but also All American consideration (Smith, too).
Let that sink in: Freshmen (plural) with All American potential … as freshmen. Black and Walsh are in line for significant roles and playing time in Musselman’s top 7-8 rotation, and both will help navigate what the Razorbacks are able to accomplish in 2022-23.
So much of what stood out about both players before they arrived on campus were on display in some capacity during Wednesday’s practice.
Black arguably has the best combination of court awareness, vision, and passing ability — talking about playmaking using every inch of the 94-by-50 foot court — ever at Arkansas. Add in that he’s a sturdy 6-7 pushing 6-8 at 195 pounds, and what he brings to the floor looks and feels like NBA-level stuff.
He sees everything, partly because of his gifts and instincts and partly because of his size that allows him to see over smaller guards defending him. But his superpower is what can be lovingly referred to as his X-ray vision. That is, despite 9 other big bodies moving quickly, banging, clogging up lanes, etc., he seems to see through all the traffic to make perfectly timed laser-precision passes to teammates for easy finishes.
As a big lead guard, Black has an advanced understanding of spacing, pace, ball movement, numbers advantages, and where all the pieces on the chess board are located at all times. You see very little wasted movement or wasted dribbling in his game, and the fact that he plays the right way as a floor leader will likely be contagious and embraced by teammates.
He’ll pass quickly out of a trap or over a hounding defender when he sees the numbers advantage, but he also knows how to use his big frame and handling skills to bully-ball his way to the spots he wants to get to. He’ll make the hockey assist, he’ll make the exceptional pocket pass, he’ll make the devastating lob pass, he’ll move the ball without hesitation to make the defense work harder to stay attached, and he’ll use skip passes and diagonal passes to create open shots for others while stressing out defenders trying to recover and close out. He’ll snatch a defensive rebound to throw over a transition defense for a lightning fast-break strike or make a lengthy cross-court pass that’s on the money, or he’ll push and flawlessly pick-and-choose as he goes.
Black will enter the ’22-23 season as possibly possessing the best all-around lead-guard game in college basketball. But that’s not all.
Black is not “sneaky athletic” as some have suggested, rather he’s legitimately in-your-face athletic when you see his long strides and lift in transition for impressive above-the-rim finishes. Defensively, he’s able to move well laterally to wall off drive attempts by smaller and quicker guards, or keep pace and stay attached when they do get downhill. What’s underrated are: a) Black’s ability to weave through defenders in transition to get to finishing angles, and b) his shot-blocking ability because he is a backcourt player. Black is also a plus-rebounder when you consider he’s often away from the basket as a primary handler or guarding a primary handler, and putbacks on the offensive end will be part of his scoring production. Musselman believes Black will be able to offer capable shooting beyond the arc as well. He’ll score opportunistically out of the gates but expect his proactive scoring to progress nicely.
On a team of national all stars in June when Team USA won the gold medal in the U18 FIBA Americas event in Mexico, Black led the squad in rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks per game.
It’s likely Black ends up up challenging for the team lead in most if not all of the same categories as a freshman at Arkansas with assists being an area where he can be elite. Like Jaylin Williams was last season, Black could be the Hogs’ most consistent fixer at both ends. And because of his defensive strengths, he could end up being one gem of a two-way player as detailed above.
While he is a different kind of talent, Walsh also has the makings of an exceptional two-way player as a freshman.
Standing 6-7 with a 7-3 wingspan and at 200 pounds, Walsh has a freakishly elite package of length and quick-explosive bounce to go along with plus flexibility and wicked long strides that make him a one-man, coast-to-coast transition phenom.
Those physical and athletic gifts combined with Walsh’s instincts and competitive determination made him arguably the most versatile defender in the nation at the high school level — he guarded all 5 positions at a high level — and though it’s yet to be determined how quickly that translates to the high-major Division 1 level it’s not unreasonable to think as a 3/4-combo forward that he’ll be able to defend multiple positions in year one.
Musselman has referred to Walsh as a violent defender, which was given as a huge compliment. The fact that he can bend, quickly slide his feet laterally or turn and keep up going north-and-south, and spread out his seemingly never-ending arms to assist in walling off drives made life hell on smaller guards trying to get downhill, and then Walsh disrupted so many pass attempts with deflections and steals.
Looking like some kind of transformer on the basketball court, Walsh can quickly adapt and convert that size and length from a horizontal defensive package into a vertical defensive package in successfully checking frontline opponents in the paint. There were times that Walsh’s length defending down low and at the rim felt like a 6-10 presence: Blocking shots, altering shots, easily getting into position closing from out of his area.
The part of the equation that ties it all together is Walsh’s determination and competitive fire to win individual battles to get stops, win possessions, and cause the opposition to second guess both its perimeter and interior gameplans. You have to account for him with extra attention.
Offensively, Walsh is an elite transition finisher (both primary and secondary fast break) and an effective slasher to the cup when he puts the ball on the deck to drive. One of the staples of his game in high school was finishing off tough drives through contact even when he was not playing above the rim. Walsh also displayed understanding of reading pick-and-roll scenarios as both a passer and mid-range shooter at the high school level, often making the correct read to pull up and shoot or pass down to a teammate for a layup.
Maybe the most underrated part of Walsh’s offensive game is his plus-passing ability, both in structured offense and in transition. His high basketball IQ has been further demonstrated by his willingness as a passer to create a better shot for a teammate when it would be tempting for him to just rely on his physical and athletic gifts to attack on his own.
Musselman said he believes Walsh will be a competent shooter from distance, which if that materializes bodes well for him as he projects as a 3-and-D wing at the next level. But as a 3/4-combo forward at Arkansas he helps give Musselman the kind of matchup flexibility and personnel package diversity that he hasn’t had entering his eighth season as a D1 head coach.
Walsh has all the tools to be an elite defender at this level and potentially at the next, and if that side of the ball plus enough of his offensive gifts surface consistently he could develop into a two-way force as a freshman.