Grant Nelson Sweepstakes Inspire a Classic Mike Irwin Dig at Crimson Tide’s Arena

Grant Nelson, Eric Musselman, Nate Oats, Arkansas basketball, Alabama basketball, transfer portal
photo credit: Alabama Athletics / NDSU Athletics / Arkansas Athletics

The battle for the top remaining player in the transfer portal is shaping up to be an All-SEC affair, as Grant Nelson is nearing a decision between the Alabama and Arkansas basketball programs.

Having already canceled a previously planned official visit to Baylor, the former North Dakota State big man recently wrapped up a multi-day visit to Tuscaloosa and arrived late afternoon/early evening on Thursday in Fayetteville for what his father told On3 would be a one-day visit.

The Razorbacks will get the last word in Nelson’s recruitment, as he’s expected to pick his next school on Sunday or Monday, according to Hogville’s Kevin McPherson.

Listed at 6-foot-11, 235 pounds, it’s easy to see why he’s such a coveted prospect. Nelson was a first-team All-Summit League selection after averaging 17.9 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.7 blocks last season. He actually tested the NBA Draft waters before withdrawing and focusing on the transfer portal.

Now that it appears Arkansas is going head-to-head with Alabama basketball for his services, Best of Arkansas Sports decided to take a look at the potential factors in his decision and how he’d fit in Fayetteville if he chose the Razorbacks…

NBA Experience and Development at Arkansas

For starters, the amount of NBA experience on Eric Musselman’s staff is nearly unmatched across all of college basketball. Musselman himself has 20-plus years of experience at the NBA and G-League level, including multiple seasons as an NBA head coach for the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings.

Add in assistants like Keith Smart and Ronnie Brewer Jr., who were both selected in the NBA Draft and spent several years around the association as a player or coach, and you already have one of the most experienced coaching staffs in the country.

Now consider the number of players that Musselman has already helped to achieve their NBA goals. Cody and Caleb Martin were vital cogs in the Nevada team that Musselman led to the Sweet 16. Both twins were selected in the 2019 NBA Draft, and while Cody is a key rotation player for Charlotte, Caleb has burst onto the scene with Miami, becoming arguably its most important X-factor during its surprising run to the NBA Finals.

Musselman hasn’t slowed down on producing NBA talent since joining the Razorbacks either. In fact, he saw his first NBA Draft pick in his first season when Isaiah Joe went 49th overall to the Philadelphia 76ers.

He’s also produced a few other quality NBA players like Jaylin Williams and Moses Moody – the first one-and-done prospect in Arkansas history and the first lottery pick since Brewer in 2006 – plus seen a bevy of players join NBA or G-League teams as undrafted free agents, such as Mason Jones, Stanley Umude, Justin Smith and Au’Diese Toney.

Perhaps his biggest selling point, however, comes in his most recent season with the Hogs when he took a pair of transfers – Ricky Council IV and Trevon Brazile – and helped develop them from role players at their previous schools to legitimate NBA prospects. Brazile’s injury caused him to fall off draft boards this season, but he was steadily climbing the ranks prior to his injury. Council is often projected to be drafted early in the second round, somewhere between picks 31-40.

It is worth noting that Alabama has produced a few quality NBA players under Nate Oats as well, including former SEC Player of the Year Herb Jones, who has carved out a valuable role on the New Orleans Pelicans. He’s joined by Kira Lewis, Joshua Primo and Keon Ellis as current NBA players. They will all soon be joined by a near-consensus top-three pick in the upcoming draft, Brandon Miller – which is a major selling point in Alabama’s favor for future recruits, especially tall forwards with guard skills.

Atmosphere and Tradition

It’s relatively easy for most fanbases to point out how crazy and passionate their fans are and the level of support they provide their players, but very few can truly rival the passion for Arkansas basketball. Being the only major sports program in the state certainly plays a huge role in that, which is something that few other SEC schools can claim.

Aside from the intangible “we care more than you” metric, it’s easy to see the appeal of playing in front of a near 20,000-person crowd every weekend at Bud Walton Arena.

In the latest episode of “Ask Mike,” Arkansas sportscaster Mike Irwin compared the aesthetics of Alabama’s basketball gym, the 15,383-seat Coleman Coliseum, to an airplane hanger when put side-by-side with Bud Walton Arena.

“I don’t know if (Nelson) has familiarized himself with the game at Alabama, but you got an aircraft hangar versus a basketball arena. It’s one of the worst basketball arenas in the SEC,” Irwin opined. “I don’t know why they don’t do something about it, because it needs to upgrade.”

If anyone needs a reminder of the advantage that Bud Walton Arena has over most arenas, we’d recommend taking another look at the Kentucky game from 2019-20 or the Auburn and Kentucky games from 2021-22 to see just how much of a home court advantage Bud Walton can provide.

The basketball tradition at schools can also play a big factor in certain players’ recruiting decisions. Arkansas may not be on the same level as the renowned “blue bloods” like Kansas, Kentucky or UCLA, but they’re certainly in the upper echelon of college basketball. Holding a national championship, multiple Final Four appearances and numerous trips to the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight holds weight with incoming recruits.

Alabama, however, has outpaced Arkansas in recent years in terms of regular-season success. It holds the upper hand in conference record, regular-season titles and SEC Tournament championships since Nate Oats and Eric Musselman entered the league.

Arkansas basketball fans will be quick to tell you that success in March trumps all, but it’s hard to discount the level of success Alabama has seen recently, albeit without nearly the same level of NCAA Tournament success.

NIL Opportunity

While it’s hard to know exactly how much money the top players are earning at each school, it’s no secret that Arkansas is among the frontrunners in the NIL game. Athletics director Hunter Yurachek and everyone involved with the NIL process have done a fantastic job of staying ahead of the curve and offering bountiful opportunities to all of the student athletes on campus, not just the stars in the money-grabbing sports.

One example of such innovation is the Athlete Advocate Consortium (AAC), which was created and is funded by Bryan and Mandy Hunt. This nonprofit organization provides an opportunity for student-athletes to connect with local nonprofits to give back to the community while also earning NIL money for themselves.

“NIL policy has given college athletes the option to enter the business world, but with great power comes great responsibility,” Bryan Hunt said.

While players aren’t earning money directly out of the Hunt’s pockets, it’s certainly an advantage to have one of the wealthiest families in the country backing the primary NIL organization on campus.

Alabama Basketball Recruiting Battles

All three of these aspects – NBA experience, atmosphere and NIL opportunities – played a major role in the recruitment of Nick Smith Jr. and Barry Dunning Jr., an Alabama native. Dunning was a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Alabama, making him a sure priority for the Tide. Musselman, however, beat out Alabama basketball coach Nate Oats in the chase for Dunning. 

As for Smith, the North Little Rock product had narrowed his list of schools down to a few SEC schools, including Arkansas and Alabama. Coming out of high school as the No. 1 recruit in the class, it was imperative for Musselman to find a way to get him on campus and he did – once again beating out Oats in the same offseason.

Chance Moore also held an offer from Alabama before choosing the Hogs, though Nate Oats got the better of Musselman when four-star forward Keon Ambrose-Hylton chose Alabama after including Arkansas in his top five. He went on to average 1.1 points in 4.7 minutes per game at Alabama before transferring to SMU, where he averaged 3.4 points per game in 2022-23.

Injuries played a factor in Smith not living up to his full potential, but to be fair, Dunning and Moore met similar fates as Ambrose-Hylton.

The two coaches have gone head-to-head in the transfer portal as well, including this offseason. Washington transfer guard Keyon Menifield Jr. listed Arkansas and Alabama in his top six before ultimately committing to the Razorbacks. Alabama was also in consideration for two other Arkansas transfers, Ricky Council IV and Stanley Umude.

Grant Nelson’s Potential Fit at Arkansas

Grant Nelson is an aggressive, offensive-minded stretch big man – though at the next level he could possess the skillset to play down a position similar to how Lauri Markkanen (7-foot-0, 240 pounds) became a starting small forward over the last few seasons in the NBA.

Coincidentally, Arkansas has filled out nearly every aspect of its roster aside from a tall wing player that can soak up minutes at the four (and potentially three) alongside players like Makhi Mitchell and Jalen Graham.

The most appealing part of Nelson’s game comes in his ability to blow by bigger defenders with his impressive ball-handling ability for his size. He excels in the open court and moving off ball thanks to his above-average athleticism. It also helps that he violently attacks the rim once he does find himself in the paint, putting together quite the dunk reel during his time at North Dakota State.

Nelson is a solid rebounder as well, which is an encouraging sign for a relatively thin, perimeter-oriented forward. Of course, this would help him stay on the court for the Razorbacks next season, but it will also help Nelson as an NBA prospect as scouts look for peripheral additions to his game beyond scoring and highlight dunks.

The biggest flaw in Nelson’s offensive game is his ability to be a facilitator, though this likely won’t be a primary responsibility of the 6-foot-11 big man at the NBA level.

Last season, Nelson had a negative assist-to-turnover ratio, meaning that he averaged more turnovers than assists per game. This can perhaps be attributed to his notably high 29.9 usage rate. For reference, offensive spark plug Jalen Graham had a 28.1 usage rate when he was on the court for Arkansas and the National Player of the Year, Purdue’s Zach Edey, had a 32.8 usage rate.

Next season in college, regardless of where Nelson ends up, it’s likely that he operates more as a screen setter – especially given his ability to step out and hit 3s or provide a vertical lob threat at the rim – or a cutter off-ball most of the time while still being able to provide an isolation skillset at times.

In the scenario where Nelson joins the Razorbacks, their plethora of experienced transfer guards would be doing the majority of the facilitating for the Razorbacks, freeing up Nelson to have a more defined role to thrive in. Having a smaller, more defined role could significantly help Nelson in this department and show NBA teams that he won’t be a turnover liability when not forced to be the entire offense on a team.

Defense is the other aspect of Nelson’s game that stands the most to gain. He was a decent enough rim protector at North Dakota State, but one might expect his block rate to be a bit higher against lower competition given his 6-foot-11 frame.

 He doesn’t possess great lateral quickness on the perimeter, though his length and overall athleticism gives him the tools to recover and contest shots well most of the time if he’s committed to closing out hard.

Grant Nelson will likely be fine in a defensive scheme like Musselman plays, especially with other plus defenders on the court around him. Still, he’ll need to either add strength as a post defender or quickness as a perimeter defender to be a standout defender, especially if he wants to be impactful defensively in the NBA.

Arkansas Basketball: Who’s Next

If Arkansas missed on Grant Nelson, a transfer possibility in his stead would be the 6’11” 235-pound Jordan Brown, who began his career under Musselman at Nevada before transferring to Arizona and most recently Louisiana.

Brown, a former McDonald’s All-American, was Musselman’s first five-star recruit as a college head coach and had been the top-ranked player in California before joining Musselman’s former team.

That didn’t work out as well as hoped, with Brown averaging just 3.0 points and 2.1 rebounds before he transferred to Arizona following Nevada’s coaching change from Eric Musselman to Steve Alford.

Brown won the Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year award in 2020-21 and has showed out the last two seasons after transferring back to the mid-majors. At Louisiana last season, Brown averaged career highs in points (19.3), rebounds (8.6), assists (1.8) and blocks (1.2) per game. He also made a personal-best 57.1 percent of his shots and won the Sun Belt Tournament MVP.

While he’s not the multi-dimensional offensive threat that Nelson is, Jordan Brown as a concession prize would be an intriguing option to add interior depth if he wanted to rejoin his former coach.


Watch more from Irwin about Arkansas and Alabama basketball target Grant Nelson at 23:30 here:

More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…

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