In his own words: Arkansas sophomore Khalil Garland talks for first time about his Razorbacks journey

Pig Trail Nation
EDITOR’S NOTE: Questions regarding specifics related to Arkansas Razorbacks guard Khalil Garland’s medical status over the past two seasons while he was held out of competition were NOT asked or answered in this exclusive interview, but in his own words Garland talked about his transition from being one of the most highly regarded basketball prospects in Arkansas to continuing his college education while remaining a part of the Hogs team as a student assistant under first-year head coach Eric Musselman.


By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — Khalil Garland is and forever will be the 501 Boss. 

It was earned. Because he understood more than anyone there’s never a dull night on a basketball court in Little Rock when the lights come on, so you better come prepared with an expectation to win.

Garland did exactly that and was a star at storied Little Rock Parkview (2015-17), combining his jack-of-all-trades ability with slash-and-attack rim runs between the lines while at the same time flaunting a knack for pushing buttons to ignite fan energy and excitement outside the lines. It was a dual performance he brought to every high school venue in the city.

A lean 6-foot-5 specimen, Garland is blessed with baby-faced good looks and a charming, often stirring smile. A muscle-flexor, a talker, and a bit of a character, he had a flare for engaging teammates, opponents, and the crowd at just the right moment. And he had the talent and game to back up the showmanship. 

He could set off a buzz in the gym, and when he did you knew his swag was the real thing.

But you have to understand how loaded the in-state 2017 guard class was — especially in central Arkansas — to truly appreciate Garland planting his flag at the top of the heap: Darious Hall (Little Rock Mills wing, now at DePaul after transferring from Arkansas); Tremont Robinson (Maumelle combo guard, now at East Carolina); Tyree Appleby (Jacksonville combo guard, first-team All Horizon league at Cleveland State in ’18-19); Exavian Christon (Hot Springs shooting guard, now at Louisiana Tech); Cam Johnson (Little Rock Central wing, now at Stephen F. Austin); Czar Perry (El Dorado combo guard, now at Cal State-Bakersfield); Avery Benson (Southwest Christian Academy in Little Rock, shooting guard, now at Texas Tech); Marquis Eaton(6A state title game MVP at Jonesboro, point guard, now at Arkansas State) and Tevin Brewer (7A state title game MVP for Fort Smith Northside, point guard, now at Florida International).

“I just went into each game telling myself that nobody has worked harder than me to be better than me, and I just used that every night,” Garland explained in a recent interview.

Possessing sprinter’s speed, plus-athleticism on takeoff, and plus-finishing skill with either hand, Garland was a master in transition. He also knew how to navigate and carve up a halfcourt defense on his way to the rack. His ball-handling, court awareness, and unselfishness made him a worthy playmaker for teammates, too. Defensively, he was tough and menacing. Not afraid to do the dirty work, Garland was always in the scrap and mixing it up to win 50/50 balls. 

Current Little Rock Trojans assistant Charles Baker was head coach at Southwest Christian Academy in Little Rock in 2016-17, and though he was in the midst of leading his team to an independent-school national title that season he paused long enough to notice and call out Garland’s impact on the local hoops scene.

“He’s a pro in the open court,” Baker said at the time. “He’s really, really good in a strong class.”

The MVP of Parkview’s 5A state title-game win over rival Little Rock Mills as a junior in ’15-16, Garland commanded a co-starring role playing with 17U Team Penny on the Nike EYBL circuit in the spring and summer of 2016 that was followed by a late summer invitation to the prestigious Nike Skills Academy in Los Angeles.

But Garland probably made his biggest splash in the early stages of his senior season in November 2016. Just days after signing his national letter of intent to be a Razorback, Garland punctuated a 36-point scoring night with a monster smash in the mug of eventual first-team All SEC center, recent NBA draftee, and uber-athletic Daniel Gafford of El Dorado during a Thanksgiving weekend tournament — a performance that would magnify Garland’s promise as a future Razorback. 

“I saw (Gafford) coming to challenge me, and I knew I had to get to the rim and finish fast and strong,” Garland said in a post-game interview while describing his poster dunk on his future Hog teammate Gafford, who at 6-11 with 7-2 wingpan was an ESPN national top 50 prospect.

Garland’s final ESPN national ranking of No. 58 in the 2017 class was the highest for a Little Rock prospect since former Hog and SEC Player of the Year Bobby Portis in 2013, and his long list of high-major offers further validated his projection as an eventual difference-maker at the college level.

“I look forward to it because I’m trying to take my game to the next level, and I think I can do that at Arkansas,” Garland said just days before his move to Fayetteville in late May 2017. “I’m someone who’s going to go out and grind every day, and play defense first.”

A chance to watch a final private workout in Little Rock at the start of Memorial Day weekend was actually more of a last-minute opportunity for a basketball journalist to wish Garland well than it was to evaluate his workout. In less than 48 hours he would be leaving the city, and it was only right to pay respects to the 501 Boss before sending him on his way — not just on his way to northwest Arkansas as an intregal part of what was arguably the best Hogs’ recruiting haul in years, but on his way to something more than what is confined between the lines on a basketball court. 

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Move-in day at UA was special, and photos that made their way back to Little Rock depicted a happy Khalil Garland posing with fellow freshman, Little Rock hooper, and dormitory suite-mate Darious Hall. Those images of Garland’s smiling face from his neatly appointed dorm room helped cement the fact that he was taking the next step as a student-athlete while becoming an independent young man.

In the days that followed, Garland, Hall, and Gafford would all have physical examinations as part of the standard requirements of joining the Razorbacks basketball team.

For Garland, a setback of not receiving an initial medical clearance would trigger a 24-month-plus holding pattern of doctor visits, testing, limited practice regimens, and cheering on his Hog teammates from the bench for two consecutive basketball seasons.

Ultimately, a decison was made that Garland would end his basketball playing career in favor of transitioning to a student assistant role with the Razorbacks — a decision that Garland acknowledged 10 days ago.

“Yes,” Garland said to confirm his new role in the basketball program. “And I’m on medical (hardship) scholarship.”

Although a medical hardship technically means Garland can never play basketball on scholarship at Arkansas — but presumably could at another school if he transferred — it’s a possibility he could appeal for a waiver at a later date should he receive a medical clearance to resume full athletic participation.

That’s a consideration for another day. Right now, Garland is looking forward to his new opportunities.

“I’m excited to be able to still be a part of the Razorback team and still be able to get my education for free,” he said. “I’ll use this opportunity to be there for my teammates whenever they need me.”

Garland’s presence on social media has been entertaining while casting a spotlight on his gift for gab on many topics. He’s honing a skill that could help him down the road if his path leads him into sports journalism. 

“My long term goals are to graduate and become either a coach or a sports broadcaster,” Garland said.

Though he never played in full-contact practice or in games at Arkansas, Garland’s first two seasons included conditioning and limited practice drills in addition to team meetings, on- and off-court instruction, team activities includig community service, and keeping with practice and game-day schedules. 

He was able to watch and learn under former head coach Mike Anderson in ’17-18 and ’18-19, and since early April when Eric Musselman was hired he’s been experiencing the same transition as his teammates as they learn a new system with new challenges and expectations.

“It has been beneficial learning from two different coaches and their staffs because they both bring different things to the table,” Garland said. “I’m glad I’ve been able to learn from both of them.”

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Going back to the last time Khalil Garland played in a real-game atmosphere — two teams, game referees, fans, game clock, scoreboard, etc. — it was the Senior Showcase all-star game in Little Rock in the spring of 2017, and the prized Arkansas recruiting-class trio of Garland, Gafford, and Hall were on the same court in the same game for the first time ever.

It was a glimpse of a future that never materialized, but it was a happening that is etched in the memories of those who attended that night roughly 27 months ago.

In the end, Garland’s team defeated Gafford’s and Hall’s squad, and Garland was taking playful jabs at his future Hog teammates after the game.

“I just want to say my team won,” Garland said following the game while pointing to the scoreboard with Hall and Gafford at his side. “They (Gafford and Hall) were on the same team, but you know we won, 100-92. I mean it feels good playing against each other and playing together with each other. It’s going to be a special sight to see next year.”

As it turned out, not only did Garland never suit up, but Hall transferred to DePaul after his freshman season (’17-18) at Arkansas while Gafford left the program following his sophomore season (’18-19) to enter the 2019 NBA Draft pool, resulting in him going 38th overall in the second round to the Chicago Bulls on the same day (Thursday, June 20) that Garland’s transition to student assistant was confirmed.

While Garland was sad to see Hall leave Arkansas last year, he was excited for Gafford’s upcoming NBA opportunity.

“I’m happy for Dan,” Garland said. “He worked so hard for this moment. Since he was a 9th-grader he’s always been determined to make it to the NBA. He had a great college career and I’m just excited to see how he does in Chicago. And I know he’s going to be phenomenal.”

As for Garland, his hard to work to chase his hoop dreams has obviously taken some unexpected turns while leading him down a path he never envisioned. What could have been is now behind him as he moves forward knowing he’s not facing a dead end.

“I’m glad that I was able to get a full-ride scholarship to come play for my home state,” Garland said. “I made some lifelong friends with my teammates. It wasn’t a lot of bad things, but disappointment, yes. I just felt like I let my brothers down not being able to battle on the court with them every night. 

“This situation did help me realize that I am more than basketball, and I’ll be fine.”

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