By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas shooting guard Isaiah Joe was in Fayetteville with his Razorbacks teammates on Thursday (July 2) when the calendar turned the page to his 21st birthday, and less than a month from now the calendar will mark one of the biggest decision days of the Eric Musselman era at Arkansas: Will Joe return for his junior season in 2020-21 that has college basketball analysts already billing the Hogs as having a national Top 25 team if he stays, or will he remain in the 2020 NBA Draft?

The NCAA’s deadline for college underclassmen to withdraw from the draft and return to college is August 3, and Joe’s decision carries considerable weight on many fronts.

ESPN national analyst Jeff Borzello on Wednesday framed Joe’s upcoming choice as No. 12 among the “biggest remaining offseason decisions” in all of college basketball, and on Joe’s birthday 247Sports’ Kevin Flaherty was the latest of many national analysts to include Arkansas in a way-too-early Top 25 for 2020-21 — Flaherty slots the Hogs at No. 19 — and the common thread in these early-guess rankings is the caveat that Joe remains a Hog.

On the flip side, Joe — he has not hired an agent thus preserving his option to return to college — is viewed by many NBA Draft analysts, scouts, and general managers as a solid second-round draft pick with a ceiling of being a late first-rounder. 

NBA Draft Top 100 big boards look like this for Joe: The Athletic ranks him at No. 72, at No. 62, ESPN / NBA DraftExpress at No. 60, CBS Sports at No. 54. Mock drafts vary as well as projects Joe to be selected No. 43 overall (second round) and at No. 57 overall (second round), while has Joe projected as the No. 35 overall pick (second round) in the 2021 draft. There are a few mock drafts that have Joe being selected in the late first round.

ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton — he’s a highly regarded NBA draft analyst whose prospect rankings aren’t necessarily meant to line up with where teams will actually draft players — sees Joe as the 15th-best prospect in the 2020 NBA Draft pool, citing the 6-5 Fort Smith native as offering “more versatility than a typical (perimeter-shooting) specialist.”

Then there are two NBA scouts — one representing an NBA Eastern Conference team and the other from the league’s Western Conference — who recently spoke with about Joe’s draft possibilities.

One scout declined to project a draft range for Joe and repeated his earlier belief that Joe should return to Arkansas. The other scout — who by the way took part in his team’s Zoom interview with Joe — said he believes if Joe remains in the draft he’d be selected in the “second round but inside the top 40”, which if it were to play out that way would likely mean that Joe would secure a contract with at least two years of guaranteed money (similar to former Hog Daniel Gafford, picked No. 38 in the second round by Chicago in June 2019 before he agreed to his contract the following month that included guaranteed money).

That same scout who views Joe as an early second-round pick also said Joe has a legitimate chance to make himself into a first-rounder AND progress his readiness to help an NBA team as a rookie IF he returns to Arkansas for one more season to prepare for the 2021 draft. Returning to school is not always viewed as the best choice an underclassmen with real NBA potential can make, so the scout’s takeaway on Joe’s upside if he returns to Arkansas is noteworthy. In the end, NBA general managers will make draft-day decisions with the aid of scouts’ and other consultants’ feedback. 

Adding to the complexity of making a decision has been the near-complete paralysis of contact sports since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has rendered basketball on hiatus at all levels of the sport for nearly four months.

On a normal schedule, the NBA Draft combine; individual workouts, interviews, and medical exams with teams; and the NBA Draft all would have been completed before the end of June, with a stay-or-go decision from Joe having been made in early June. But with schedules pushed out (the Draft is now set for Oct. 16) and/or in limbo (the combine has not been rescheduled) due to the pandemic, all parties involved are effectively stranded in no-man’s land with the notion of having no 2020-21 season part of the spectrum of possibilities moving forward.

So for now, Joe is participating in voluntary workouts with his Razorback teammates in Fayetteville and doing Zoom interviews with NBA teams (he’s interviewed with most in the league with several circling back for second interviews), while Musselman is using his vast NBA experience and contacts to help provide feeback to assist Joe in his decision.

The Head Hog weighed in during a Zoom press conference on Wednesday regarding where things stand in the process that will reveal a decision soon enough, including plans being laid for life with or without Joe.

“I don’t really know what Isaiah and the Joe family, what their timeline will be,” Musselman said. “I think that a lot of guys have been doing Zoom interviews. Those are going to start tapering down. … And they’ve already started tapering down in the last week. And it’ll continue to go in a slower pattern. And well past August, I’m sure those interviews will start ramping back up.

“Just as I’ve stated in the past, we’re just here to support Isaiah, here to support and facilitate any of these Zoom interviews as we possibly can. I’ve said it, you know we’ve got two different depth charts and two different game plans. And until we find out one way or the other, we’ll just keep proceeding one team with him and one team without him.”

Joe announcing a return would be the equivalent of Musselman landing a 5-star commitment in the summer. He’s already captured a national top 5 high school recruiting class to go with a national Top 10 college-transfer class, but returning arguably the best shooter in college basketball in Joe would help soothe the sting of losing Co-SEC Player of the Year and the league’s leading scorer Mason Jones — who did hire an agent and is remaining in the 2020 draft — as well as the backcourt departures of third-leading scorer Jimmy Whitt, Jr., and veteran guard Jalen Harris.

Joe did have mid-first-round to mid-second-round draft projections coming into 2019-20 as a preseason All SEC pick after an SEC All Freshman season in ’18-19 that saw a 13.9 points per game average, an SEC regular-season best and school-record 113 made 3-pointers, and an SEC best 41.4% shooting from distance. But those projections took a hit in ’19-20 due in large part to a mid-season knee injury that severely limited Joe in five games and caused him to miss six more outings in the heart of the SEC portion of Arkansas’s schedule. 

Still, Joe played in 26 games for the Hogs as he finished the season as the team’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 those six games due to the knee injury. 

The best way to peel back Joe’s true value, though, is to eliminate the five-game numbers (9.2 points per game on 27% shooting from 3 as Arkansas went 2-3) he tallied while hobbling with the injury, and focus on the 9 SEC games he played in when healthy (3 prior to injury and 6 following a right knee procedure) in which he 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%) as the Hogs were 6-3 in those contests.

And Joe’s 3-point shooting efficiency from NBA range? Better than 44% last season. 

Count those as All SEC first-team numbers, and with a healthy Joe the Hogs’ record was 17-4 (as opposed to their 3-8 mark while he played hurt or missed games). 

A common misconception is that Joe is mostly a catch-and-shoot scorer, but his smart, economized work as a ball-handler and shot-creator has led to him being among the best in nation in efficient scoring off the bounce (ranked 89th and 97th percentile nationally in two seasons at Arkansas). Less is more, and the evolution of the college and pro games offers plenty of opportunities for gravity floor-spacers like Joe who can: a) quickly and effectively strike from 25 feet thus drawing a defender close to him, b) move the ball quickly without pounding it on the deck, c) and provide length, athleticism, and smart effort on the defensive end of the floor. 

It probably went unnoticed by many, but playing in 8 fewer games as a sophomore than he did during his SEC All Freshman campaign Joe actually topped his two-point shooting volume in takes and makes as well as improved on his efficiency with the same being true of his free throw shooting, which provided another indicator that he was performing at a higher level offensively inside the 3-point arc. 

Defensively, Joe was hailed on multiple occasions by Musselman as one of the best backcourt defenders in the country. He also led the team in charges in both of his seasons in Fayetteville.

When looking at everything in proper contexts and depending on the lens(es) you’re looking through, there are multiple reasonable takes that include Joe being a first-round NBA Draft value, a likely second-round pick, benefitting from a return to Arkansas, and being one of the best volume shooter-scorers — if not THE best — in college basketball if he comes back to Arkansas for a third go-round.

Whatever your take is on the pros and cons of Joe staying or going, Musselman knows a decision is imminent as the process winds down.

“I think it’s been exhausted,” Musselman said of the information gathering and exchange. “I don’t know much more we can do. We put together a pretty extensive book when the process was beginning and we gave some of our feedback. We continue to give feedback. (Special assistant) Hays Myers keeps a running tab of the interviews and I’ll follow up or someone on staff will follow up and get feedback from those NBA teams and from those interviews. 

“Whatever information we can share with Isaiah and with his father, Derrick, we do that and that’s just kind of how the process goes.”

Where Joe goes has the attention of Razorback fans everywhere, and the calendar is turn-key ready for a roll call. 

Linked below are mutliple Twitter posts with highlights from a recent Joe workout as well as our two-part interview …