One of the biggest talking points of a wildly confusing 2022-23 Arkansas basketball campaign was the inconsistent playing time of big man Jalen Graham. At 6-foot-9, the Arizona State transfer possesses exceptional footwork and body control for someone his size. Combine that with a soft touch around the rim and a tendency to attempt highlight reel dunks and it’s easy to see why the Phoenix native is such an offensive force in the paint.
It was exactly those fancy post moves and high-flying finishes that led him to quickly become a fan favorite. It also caused more than a few fans to scratch their heads at his lack of overall playing time despite being a notable offensive weapon.
Graham appeared in 31 of Arkansas’ 36 games last season, averaging 5.2 points and 2.3 rebounds on 66% shooting in 9.4 minutes per game. This came only a season after averaging 9.9 points in 23.5 minutes as a starter for the Sun Devils.
There are many reasons for the overall drop off in his production, such as lack of team spacing and a stable of big men that seemingly took turns playing big minutes based on the Hogs’ needs that game. However, there was also an element of Graham’s personal preparation that limited his time on the court last season.
“Jalen Graham’s practice habits are dramatically different than last year,” Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman said recently. “Dramatically. He’s done an incredible job of understanding expectations and then following through on his part.”
Last season, his inconsistency on the practice court, along with weaknesses as a defender and rebounder, made him unplayable at times despite his stellar offensive efficiency. He also occasionally struggled with forcing up contested looks rather than kicking the ball out – though this could be partially attributed to the lack of shooters around him last year. Graham has taken conscious strides to remedy these issues this offseason.
“I need to be out there playing more and helping my guys, but that starts with me,” Graham said. “I’m not blaming anybody else but myself that I didn’t play more.
“When people collapse on me, I’m working on kicking the ball out. We’ve got a lot of good players, and I want to get them the ball when they’re open. I also want to be more versatile on defense. My biggest goal coming into practice is showing Coach Muss I can play really good defense.”
Best-Case Scenario for Jalen Graham…
Jalen Graham has already proven himself to be a monster in the post when given the opportunity to shine. He scored double digits six times, including a 26-point outburst at home against the Florida Gators – though it’s worth noting this was Florida’s first game after losing All-SEC big man Colin Castleton to injury.
The glaring weakness in Graham’s game is his ability to shoot the ball outside the paint, including from the free throw line. He was a career 53% free throw shooter at Arizona State before dropping to an abysmal 37% during his first year at Arkansas. It’s hard to imagine that percentage can get much worse, but if Graham can shore up that percentage to be a 60% shooter – which still isn’t a great number – that alone could make it a bit easier to leave him on the court in clutch situations.
He’s also never been a threat from long range, making only one 3-pointer in 22 attempts across four years of collegiate ball. Though the NBA has almost entirely moved away from the traditional non-shooting big man, this player archetype can still be useful in college. This became an issue last season because Arkansas was desperate for floor spacers after losing arguably their two best shooters to prolonged injuries.
Yes, Graham could score the rock with the best of them, as evidenced by the 25 points he racked up in last year’s Red-White game. But when the other four players on the court included some combination of Ricky Council IV (27% 3PT), Jordan Walsh (28%) and Anthony Black (30%), it was hard for Graham to even have enough room to work in the post given how far perimeter defenders could sag off of their assignments. Not to mention Graham’s struggles to defend the post meant he occasionally shared the court with Kamani Johnson or one of Makhel and Makhi Mitchell – all of whom were non-factors on the perimeter.
A lot of those issues were out of Graham’s control, and they nearly all project to drastically change this season. Along with the return of Devo Davis, Joseph Pinion and Trevon Brazile – who combined to shoot 36% from long range last season – Arkansas brought in a bevy of transfer guards and wings who are proven shooters with roles ranging from knock-down snipers to respectable floor spacers.
Even without Jalen Graham altering his practice habits for the better, the improved level of floor spacing he should see this season will allow him a ton of room to operate. Add that to his conscious effort to be a more willing passer and hopefully improve as a free throw shooter, it might be hard to keep Graham out of lineups this coming season.
Finally, let’s look at who he’s fighting for minutes with this season. Makhi Mitchell was the starting center for much of last season, so it’s not unreasonable to pencil him into that spot to start this season. The fifth-year senior was a full participant at the Red-White game, but his stamina could be worth monitoring as the season progresses after he wore a boot on one foot during the conditioning portion of the offseason.
After Mitchell, the frontcourt gets dangerously thin – literally. Baye Fall comes to campus as a highly-touted freshman recruit, but his lack of strength in the post is a concern. This isn’t an issue unique to Fall either. Many true freshman big men struggle to compete at a consistently high level due varying factors including frame, knowledge of how to defend collegiate big men and developing their raw offensive talent – all of which could be issues for Fall in Year 1.
The only other realistic option at center would be Brazile. Though he is 6-foot-10 and showcased otherworldly leaping ability at times last season, he faces some of the same weight issues as Fall. Brazile is more of a stretch big, comfortable with attacking from the perimeter offensively and coming over to block shots as a help-side defender on the other side of the ball. Plus, he’s coming off of a season-ending ACL tear, making it hard to predict exactly how productive he will be – especially at the start of the season.
With so many questions in the front court, Graham being a second-year player under Musselman would be enough to put him in line for significant minutes by itself without even considering how gifted he is offensively or the potential strides he made this offseason.
Don’t be surprised if Graham fights his way into the starting center position at some point even if Mitchell starts out in the role. With the floor spacing this team projects to have, Graham could prove to be a vital piece to turning the offense into a true juggernaut.
…and the Worst-Case Scenario
Given Jalen Graham’s well-documented struggles, his worst-case scenario is simple: he doesn’t take the necessary steps forward as a defender or physical rebounder.
If this is the case, he could easily be relegated back to a very similar role to the one he had last year when he played 10-plus minutes in only 12 total games and saw five minutes or less in 18 games. His offensive prowess all but guarantees he’ll get a shot at minutes next season, just like he did last season, but if his weaknesses prove to be too much to overcome, his opportunities may not increase as expected.
Another potential obstacle to playing time is the potential emergence of Baye Fall. If Fall develops quickly enough in light of the aforementioned issues, he could become a consistent contributor at some point this season.
While it may be an uphill battle for the freshman big man to earn real minutes, it’s far from impossible.
He’s listed at 6-foot-11, making him taller than every other player on the roster. Even with a relatively skinny frame, his wingspan at that height could make him an effective defender and rebounder.
The third potential problem standing in Graham’s way to a significantly increased role next season is the sheer amount of talent Musselman brought in through the transfer portal. Guys like Jeremiah Davenport (6-foot-7) and Chandler Lawson (6-foot-8) could make a push for minutes at the power forward position, but that alone shouldn’t impact Graham too much considering he works best as a center.
The obstacle arises when considering just how many talented guards this roster now has and Musselman’s tendency to resort to small-ball when his best players are guards. Last year, Jordan Walsh (6-foot-7) started several games at the four and we even saw some lineups consisting of Anthony Black and Ricky Council IV playing both forward positions simultaneously.
The year before that, Trey Wade and Stanley Umude (both 6-foot-6) soaked up nearly all of the power forward minutes. Moses Moody even saw time at the four in 2020-21 despite now playing mostly the two and the three when he gets on the court for Golden State.
Sure, transfers like El Ellis and Khalif Battle aren’t a threat to play the four given their size and defensive limitations, but Tramon Mark is listed at 6-foot-6 – about the same size as players Council and Moody. Pinion and Davenport are also listed around that height. It’s certainly not outside of the realm of possibilities for Musselman to decide that he needs more perimeter firepower on the court and field a lineup consisting of Brazile at the five, Mark at the four and any combination of the remaining guards in the backcourt.
This scenario wouldn’t eliminate a role for Graham since it’s unlikely Arkansas can succeed spending all of its time deploying small-ball lineups, but it could greatly limit his minutes if that hypothetical lineup proves to be successful.
Predicting Most Likely Role with Arkansas Basketball
Without taking into consideration the positive feedback from coaches and teammates on Jalen Graham’s work ethic so far this offseason, the 2023-24 roster is built in a way that better suits his play style. Although he did hit a three-pointer in this year’s Red-White game, he remains a regular-season non-factor from the perimeter on offense, and this hurt his ability to stay on the court at times last year when Arkansas didn’t have 3-4 other shooters on the court with him.
Expect the opposite this year. Graham and Mitchell could realistically be the only two players to take the court who aren’t viewed as a threat to shoot from long range (though Mitchell did make his only 3-point attempt last season).
That’s just from a personnel perspective. Graham has reportedly shown a “dramatic” improvement in his practice habits in his pursuit for more consistent minutes this season. Houston guard transfer Tramon Mark has taken notice of Graham’s work ethic.
“Jalen’s definitely one of our best practice players,” Mark told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “I heard a lot of stories about last year, how he wasn’t a good practice player. But this year, he really practices hard, and he’s a good player all around.”
Being a warrior at practice and translating it to actual production in games are two different things, but Graham has seemingly checked all the right boxes this summer to prove himself worthy of more opportunities.
Mitchell’s incumbent status as a starter makes it an uphill battle for Graham to earn the starting center position, but don’t count out that possibility just yet. If the Phoenix native has taken the necessary strides forward as a physical defender and rebounder, it’s a real possibility that he’s still in contention for the starting role.
Historically speaking, Musselman prefers to start games with his best defensive group on the floor and bring offensive firepower off the bench, even if that results in some of his starters playing fewer total minutes than bench players. That has been the case on each of his previous three teams.
Given that template, another possibility is Mitchell still starting games at center due to his defensive versatility, while Graham comes off the bench alongside whichever group of guards earn minutes off the bench such as Ellis, Battle, Pinion, Davenport or Layden Blocker.
In this scenario, Jalen Graham could still average upwards of 20 minutes per night while providing the consistent bench scoring punch Musselman needs. For now, this feels like the safest bet for the rare second-year Musselman transfer in his final collegiate season.
Check out some Jalen Graham highlights from last season:
More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…