FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas basketball team received a double dose of good news Wednesday when Joseph Pinion and Jalen Graham announced their intention to return for another season with the Razorbacks.
Both players recently completed their first season in the program, with Graham doing so as a transfer from Arizona State and Pinion being a traditional high school signee. While these two made only spot contributions in 2022-23, they have the potential to make bigger splashes next season with specific improvements.
Joseph Pinion, a four-star in-state signee out of Morrilton, first indicated his decision by retweeting UA graduate assistant Reuben Williams’ tweet about him having “a big-time year next year for the Razorbacks.” HawgBeat’s Jackson Collier confirmed that with him Wednesday night and then Pinion shared the news himself Thursday afternoon.
Jalen Graham’s announcement was made via a 53-second highlight video that concludes with “Year 2” graphic. He is using the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA in response to the pandemic, as he played three years for the Sun Devils and was listed as a senior for the Razorbacks this past season.
They are the latest players to publicly reveal their plans for the 2023-24 season. Nick Smith Jr. was the first to do so, declaring for the NBA Draft as was widely expected. Ricky Council IV has followed him into the draft and Davonte Davis is testing the waters while maintaining his eligibility.
The only other confirmed returning player is Trevon Brazile, who is bypassing the NBA Draft for what he hopes will be a full season after missing most of last year with a torn ACL.
Jalen Graham with Arkansas Basketball
One of the bigger transfer portal commitments of last offseason, Jalen Graham never got consistent playing time with the Razorbacks despite arriving with all-conference accolades from the Pac-12.
There were certainly glimpses of his elite offensive ability, such as 16-point efforts against UNC Asheville, Alabama and South Carolina, but for much of the season, his production came in garbage time when games were already well in hand.
Eric Musselman was always quick to point out his defensive lapses and, at times, his lack of rebounding despite being listed at 6-foot-9. There were also times when Graham didn’t seem to give maximum effort.
On top of that, he shot just 37.1% (13 of 35) from the free throw line and averaged 4.8 turnovers per 40 minutes, making him the most turnover-prone player on the team despite not playing a position that regularly handles the ball. (Anthony Black was second in that category, averaging 3.5 at the point guard spot.)
Those issues led to Graham not even coming off the bench in five games and playing five minutes or less in 13 other games. Many times, he’d get some run midway through the first half and then never see the floor again after checking out.
However, there is no denying his offensive prowess. In the 12 games he played double-digit minutes, Graham averaged 10.8 points. His 22.1 points per 40 minutes was the best mark on the team, even ahead of Nick Smith Jr. (19.5) and Ricky Council IV (18.9).
Known for his spin move, Graham has excellent touch around the rim that has led Musselman to compare him to Antawn Jamison, a two-time NBA All-Star and former NBA Sixth Man of the Year. It wasn’t on a super high volume, but he did shoot 65.5% from the floor.
If he can improve defensively — which means understanding his assignments and becoming more of a rim protector — while cleaning up his turnovers and being more consistent on the glass, Graham would earn more consistent playing time and likely become a household name because he’ll likely continue to put up points at an impressive rate.
“The bottom line is Jalen Graham can really score the ball, but we need him to defensive rebound,” Musselman said after he scored 16 points in a 65-63 win at South Carolina. “Defensive rebounding was a problem tonight. They had 13 offensive rebounds, and Jalen played 21 minutes and had one defensive rebound.
“His scoring is there… And he has to take better care of the basketball as teams come down and dig. People respect his offensive ability, but if you look at his turnovers per minute and defensive rebounds per minute, we need those to (improve). That’s a big part of how we can get him on the floor a little bit more because certainly from an offensive scoring standpoint, Jalen is a really special offensive player.”
At worst, though, Graham could hone in on his role from this past season: a situational player Musselman deploys in certain matchups. That was no more apparent than against Florida, when he abused Jason Jitoboh (6-foot-11, 285 pounds) with his quickness and athleticism in a season-high 26-point effort.
Even if he doesn’t improve to the point where he can be a starter or regular contributor, perhaps Graham can improve enough to be utilized in more matchups. It’s also possible that with another year, Musselman could scheme up other ways to use him. Considering Makhel Mitchell’s entry into the portal on Friday, there could also be more minutes available for Graham going into next season (although more bigs are sure to arrive via the transfer portal).
Regardless, it’s good to have someone with his skillset on the bench, especially when he had a good attitude about it throughout last season.
Joseph Pinion with Arkansas Basketball
Part of the Razorbacks’ second-ranked 2022 signing class, Joseph Pinion was tabbed the No. 94 overall recruit in the country by ESPN and turned down the likes of Kansas, Baylor and Creighton to stay home.
The six-man class featured a trio of five-star prospects, all of whom were mainstays in the rotation when healthy, and a trio of four-star prospects, all of whom played sparingly. However, among that latter group, Pinion got the most significant minutes.
He appeared in 26 of 36 games and averaged 5.7 minutes. In SEC play, Pinion played more than twice as many minutes (98) as the other two four-star freshmen — Derrian Ford (35) and Barry Dunning Jr. (8) — combined.
The reason for his playing time was simple: He was arguably the Razorbacks’ best pure 3-point shooter, especially with Trevon Brazile going down with a season-ending injury early in the year and Nick Smith Jr. missing most of the season. Davonte Davis eventually evolved into a threat from beyond the arc, but for a while, Pinion was the team’s only sharpshooter.
In a small sample size, he lived up to that reputation, knocking down 13 of 34 (38.2%) – the best percentage on the team, excluding Makhi Mitchell’s 1 of 1. He was even better in SEC play, making 43.5% (10 of 23) of his attempts.
Much like Jalen Graham, though, other aspects of the game prevented Pinion from getting more consistent playing time.
Despite being 6-foot-5, he averaged just 4.3 rebounds per 40 minutes. For comparison, Davis – who is two inches shorter – averaged 5.3 rebounds per 40 while playing extended minutes. Pinion was also a defensive liability at times, with teams specifically targeting him on the other end of the floor.
Those were the areas that Musselman singled out after the second of Pinion’s 13-point performances, even though it was his offense that sparked Arkansas to a win over Ole Miss.
“Joseph Pinion tonight rebounded the ball,” Musselman said. “He had five rebounds in just 21 minutes. He had four defensive rebounds. Defensive rebounding was a high, high priority coming into the game. It was something we talked about the last 48 hours that we needed to collectively defensive rebound.
“There’s no doubt his 3-for-6 from the field was extremely important to us. Defensively, I thought he did a really good job. He was really solid from a defensive standpoint, and loose balls and rebounding are important, as well. Tonight, he got loose balls. Had a steal.”
It’s understandable that fans are excited about Pinion returning, though, because he does possess a skill that has been somewhat lacking from Musselman teams — especially since the departure of Isaiah Joe and Mason Jones, who were on his first team.
That year, the Razorbacks ranked 178th nationally in 3-point percentage (33.4%). They dipped to 201st (33.2%) the following year, but have been near the bottom nationally each of the last two seasons, ranking 328th (30.4%) and 326th (31.3%).
For Joseph Pinion to make much of a dent in those numbers, he’ll have to get more consistent minutes as a sophomore and that would require him to improve his defense and rebounding because Musselman puts such a heavy emphasis on those areas. Otherwise, he could be relegated to a role similar to that of Graham this past season — playing only when matchups are favorable.
Other Razorbacks Yet to Announce
As mentioned above, there are now nine players who have made some sort of announcement regarding their status with the Arkansas basketball team in 2023-24. Here’s a rundown of those players:
- Nick Smith Jr. – declared for the NBA Draft
- Ricky Council IV – declared for the NBA Draft
- Davonte Davis – declared for the NBA Draft while maintaining eligibility
- Trevon Brazile – returning as a redshirt sophomore
- Jalen Graham – returning as a super senior
- Joseph Pinion – returning as a sophomore
- Keyon Menifield Jr. – transferring in from Washington
- Layden Blocker – incoming freshman
- Baye Fall – incoming freshman
Here are the remaining six Razorbacks who have yet to make any sort of announcement:
- Anthony Black – expected to declare for the NBA Draft (projected lottery pick)
- Jordan Walsh – indicated he would return as a sophomore immediately following the UConn loss, but is also appearing in some mock drafts
- Makhi Mitchell – could return as a super senior
- Makhel Mitchell – going into the transfer portal
- Derrian Ford – uncle indicated he would return, but has yet to announce plans for sophomore year
- Barry Dunning Jr. – could return as a sophomore
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