LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas Razorbacks sophomore guard Isaiah Joe will test the 2020 NBA Draft waters, but he has not hired an agent and is considering a return to Arkansas for his junior season in 2020-21.
Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman announced Joe’s plans on Monday, reflecting what a source confirmed on Sunday when Joe sent in his draft declaration a week before the NBA’s April 26 deadline for draft-eligible underclassmen to declare. The NCAA currently has a June 3 deadline for underclassmen to withdraw from the NBA Draft, which is currently scheduled for June 25 at the Barclays Center in New York, in order to remain eligible to resume their college basketball careers.
Joe (6-foot-5 with 6-9 wing span, 182 pounds, shooting guard, Fort Smith native) was Arkansas’s second-leading scorer at 16.9 points per game (7th in the SEC) and the league’s leader in made 3-pointers (94) despite missing six games due to injury. He’s currently projected by many mock drafts, NBA scouts, and other research-driven feedback to be selected among the 60 picks that make up the first and second rounds.
More spefically, the current collective data projects more than a fleeting chance that Joe could be drafted in the late first round with most indicators pointing to him being selected somewhere in the early-to-mid-second-round range.
Two NBA scouts who recently spoke with Hogville.net on the condition of anonymity were split on whether or not Joe should come out. One scout said Joe should return to school for his junior season, while the other said the feedback he had gotten while talking with other scouts and draft decision-makers pointed to Joe being selected “somehwere from 25 to 40” — the latter equating to a late-first-round-to-early-second-round projection.
Only draft picks going in the first round are guaranteed rookie contracts with guaranteed money, but an increasing number of second-round picks (think top 10 in the second round) are negotiating and getting at least two years of guaranteed money in their rookie deals.
A big part of draft selection and contract negotiations are the months of prospect preparation that includes in-person interviews and workouts with teams, NBA-agent combines and the official NBA Draft Combine that lead up to the draft, as well as the NBA Summer League that is crucial in assisting both second-round picks and undrafted free agents in making NBA rosters or earning NBA/G-League two-way contracts — ALL of which are in jeopardy of either being pushed out to later dates or cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
You don’t have to look back very far to see a former Razorback benefitting from the NBA Draft Combine and the NBA Summer League as El Dorado native Daniel Gafford, picked No. 38 overall (8th pick of the second round) by the Chicago Bulls in June 2019, signed his rookie contract with guaranteed money during the middle of his productive run with the Bulls in the Las Vegas Summer League in early July.
For Joe, not having those platforms could be significant and potentially problematic since he is not projected as a lock to be drafted in the first round. Another caveat specific to Joe was the arthroscopic procedure to his injured right knee on Feb. 4 that caused to him to miss five games — all losses — over an 18-day span. Although he was cleared medically and played well during the Hogs’ 4-2 finish to the season, NBA teams might be inclined to expect their own medical professionals on staff to evaluate Joe’s knee in person — another hurdle given the freeze on all in-person NBA activity due to the pandemic.
When looking at Joe’s on-court value in 2019-20, it’s likely best to view his season through the lens of the 21 games he played in when healthy while understanding the 5-game stretch he played in when injured was an outlier.
And maybe no bundle of games offers more valuable insight than what Joe did during the 9 SEC contests he played in while healthy (first 3 SEC games and the final 6 SEC games). When you combine those the Hogs were 6-3 as Joe averaged 20.4 points while shooting a collective 36-of-94 from 3 (38.3%) and 42-of-43 from the free throw line (97.7%). Those are numbers that stack up quite favorably to the All SEC first-team performers from last season.
Joe injured his knee during a brilliant 34-point performance that fueled the Hogs’ 76-72 come-from-behind win at Ole Miss on Jan. 11, and in Arkansas’ next game against Vanderbilt (just four days later) Joe was seen wearing a brace on his right knee. He played injured in five games — a stretch when Arkansas went 2-3 — with a noticeable limp as he was clearly limited physically.
In Arkansas’ first 15 games playing healthy, Joe averaged 18.2 points per game (ranking top 5 in the SEC) while shooting 59-of-165 from 3 (35.8%) with six games of 20 or more points, including two games of 33 or more points. Just as significant, he was one of the best perimeter defenders in the nation, something that Musselman talked about during various press opportunities.
In the five games he played while injured, the Hogs went 2-3 as Joe averaged 9.2 points (includes the only scoreless outing during 21 minutes against in his 60-game Arkansas career) on a combined 13-of-47 shooting from 3 (27.7%). Joe’s lateral movement, ability to plant and change directions, flexibility, strength, and vertical athleticism were noticeably compromised at both ends of the floor.
Upon returning for the Hogs’ final six games, the Hogs were 4-2 as Joe averaged 20.0 points (he scored at least 21 points four times) while shooting a collective 22-of-60 from 3 (36.7%) and a perfect 34-of-34 from the free throw line.
In his total of 26 games played in ’19-20 (21 healthy and 5 injured), the Hogs went 19-7 as Joe averaged 16.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 1.4 steals in 36.2 minutes per game while shooting 94-of-275 from 3 (34.2%), 38-of-85 from inside the arc (44.7%), and 81-of-91 from the free throw line (89.0%). He was Arkansas’s best two-way player (offense and defense) in ’19-20.
On the day he had his arthroscopic procedure (Feb. 4), Joe was among 10 college basketball players named as finalists for the 6th annual Jerry West Award that goes to the nation’s top shooting guard at the end of the season. He was among 20 players on the preseason watchlist for the award, the winner of which will be announced in April following a shortlist of 5 finalists that will be released in March.
Joe was named SEC Player of the Week once during the 2019-20 season, sharing the honor with Kentucky’s Nick Richards after Joe put up a 24-point, 5-rebound performance in Arkansas’s 71-64 come-from-behind win at Indiana on Dec. 29. In that game, the Hogs erased an 11-point second-half deficit as Joe scored 18 of his points in the final 20 minutes.
Joe was a preseason 2nd-team All SEC pick by the league’s coaches and media. He was named to the SEC All Freshman team a season ago after scoring 13.9 points per game while shooting 41.4% from 3. His 113 made 3-pointers marked the most in a single season at Arkansas and tied the freshman record in the SEC. He finished the regular-season as the league leader in made triples as well as 3-point shooting percentage. Joe was the first Arkansas freshman to start every game since Bobby Portis (2013-14).