Arkansas basketball came into this season with more NBA Draft prospects on its roster than ever before, highlighted by five-star freshmen Nick Smith Jr., Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh.
The Razorbacks’ trio of McDonald’s All-Americans garnered high praise in nearly every 2023 mock draft before the 2022-23 campaign even began. The emergence of transfers Ricky Council IV from Wichita State and Trevon Brazile from Missouri early in the season gave Arkansas five players in legitimate contention to be among the top 40 picks in the 2023 NBA Draft.
Unfortunately, things haven’t quite unfolded that way.
Brazile went down with a torn ACL in early December after playing in just nine games, severely hurting his draft stock just as he was starting to creep into first-round discussions with a hot start to the year.
Injuries have also caused Smith’s draft stock to fluctuate, as he was once projected as a consensus top 3 or 4 pick and has now slipped to the mid-to-late lottery (picks 8-14) in some projections. Again, this is primarily due to him missing 19 total games this season and partially due to his struggle to seamlessly fit back into the rotation upon returning in late February.
Jordan Walsh, on the other hand, hasn’t missed a single game, yet his draft stock has plummeted from potentially being picked in the back half of the first round to being completely left off several mock drafts.
He was always viewed as a raw prospect who impacts games with his physical traits and intangibles such as on- and off-ball defense, offensive rebounding, and spacing the floor for others. Few analysts, however, expected him to struggle to the extent he did for much of the regular season.
Regular-Season Roller Coaster
Simply put, Jordan Walsh struggled to put the ball in the basket for most of the regular season, especially from beyond the arc on a team desperate for 3-point shooters. Though Walsh actually shot 5 of 11 (46%) from 3-point range over a three-game stretch early in the season, he combined to shoot a meager 23% from long range over the course of his first 17 career games.
Of course, struggling with an outside jump shot is nothing unusual for true freshmen and likely wouldn’t have been detrimental to Walsh on its own – especially since he’s considered to be a more defensive-oriented forward who can contribute to an offense in other ways.
It was Walsh’s inability to stay on the floor for long stretches due to foul trouble that truly hindered him early in his first collegiate season. Including fouling out of his first career game in only 18 minutes of action, Walsh proceeded to average 3.0 fouls in 24.7 minutes of game time over his first seven games.
Since the 6-foot-7 wing is a physical defender who excels at deflecting passes and poking the ball free from unsuspecting ball-handlers with his 7-foot-2 wingspan, a higher number of fouls isn’t too surprising given his youth.
However, it seemed as though Walsh picked up a reputation early on that he was prone to fouling – perhaps causing referees to be less tolerant of his physical brand of defense early in games. Not being able to stay on the court for consistent minutes or stretches of game time almost certainly affected Walsh’s rhythm as an offensive player and confidence on both sides of the ball.
After coming off the bench in his first game, Walsh was a main-stay in the starting five through his next 15 games. While he had several good outings throughout this stretch – including an 18-point performance on a perfect 6-of-6 shooting from the field against Bradley in North Little Rock – Walsh often picked up early fouls as a starter, throwing him off his rhythm and changing the entire rotation for the rest of the game.
After a five-game stretch in which he averaged more than four fouls per outing, Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman made the move to bring Walsh off the bench against Vanderbilt in mid-January. While he went 0-of-6 in his first game in his new role, the change of pace seemed to benefit Walsh’s ability to come in and impact the game without picking up early fouls. He scored at least 12 points in four of his next seven games and picked up three or fewer fouls four times in that same stretch. This move seemed to be the first step toward turning Walsh into the kind of player he’s become this postseason.
Postseason Success for Jordan Walsh
Although Jordan Walsh began to understand his role more late in the regular season – including improving as a rebounder and 3-point shooter down the stretch – it wasn’t until March Madnessthat Walsh truly became an impact player that Eric Musselman could rarely afford to keep off of the court.
In his two NCAA Tournament games, Walsh has averaged 8.0 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals while shooting 50% on low volume from beyond the arc – but it’s his intangibles, which don’t always show up on the box score, that have made Walsh a pivotal piece for the Razorbacks in March.
He was a team-high plus-22 against Illinois in the first round and plus-11 in a one-point victory over Kansas in the second round. That means the Razorbacks outscored the Fighting Illini and Jayhawks by a combined 33 points in the 61 minutes he was on the floor, but were outscored by 21 in the 19 minutes he was on the bench.
“When you’re a freshman, you have to get used to things and it can be difficult when you come here and things don’t go your way,” teammate Kamani Johnson said. “If anything, it’s just a credit to him. When the lights are bright, he’s showing up and performing. That’s what we need from him right now, and that’s what we’re getting. I think he’s been a great addition in March and kind of an X-factor in why we are winning these games.”
Against Illinois, Walsh played a huge role defensively in holding the Fighting Illini’s second-leading scorer Matthew Mayer to only 2 points on 0 of 6 shooting. Meyer’s only points came on a pair of free throws after Walsh was just a bit too aggressive contesting one of his jump shots. Walsh also recorded two offensive rebounds and three steals in the first-round victory.
Then, against Kansas, Walsh was seemingly everywhere on the court and proved crucial in defending first-team AP All-American Jalen Wilson. The senior forward still hurt the Hogs with 20 points, thanks mostly to his 11 free throw attempts, but Walsh was phenomenal in keeping Wilson contained down the stretch while the Hogs were roaring back from a double-digit deficit.
With less than nine minutes to play, Walsh capped an 11-0 run with a wide-open 3-pointer to give Arkansas its first lead of the second half. His biggest play of the game, though, came with just 23 seconds remaining and isn’t even reflected in the box score.
After Ricky Council IV missed a free throw that would have put the Razorbacks up by two, Walsh didn’t give up on the play and tapped the ball away from two potential Jayhawk rebounders. It ultimately ended up back in Council’s hands and he was immediately fouled again. He made both free throws this time, giving the Hogs a much more comfortable three-point lead instead of the one-point lead they would’ve had without Walsh’s extra effort.
After Walsh recollected: ““What’s crazy about that play, I wasn’t even about to spin off of [a Jayhawk opponent] and go that way until I talked to Kamani, and you know Kamani, he’s the offensive rebounding expert on our team.”
“So after Ricky made the first one, I went over to Kamani, and I was like, ‘Hey Kamani, I should X and I come over, and you come over?’ And he was like, ‘No. No, don’t do that. Just spin off of him, and the ball will come straight to you.’ I was like, ‘Okay. I got you.’ And so, I lined up, I spun off of him, the ball came off the rim perfectly.”
Game-changing plays like this significantly boost the value of a player despite it showing up as a rebound for Council. Arkansas basketball has had its fair share of game-changing players like this in the past couple of years – such as Jalen Tate, Justin Smith, Au’Diese Toney and Jaylin Williams, among others – enabling the Razorbacks to reach three consecutive Sweet 16s.
“I feel like March brings out the dog in people,” Walsh said. “It’s bringing out the dog in me. It’s boosted all attributes of my game. I feel like it’s made me to be even more of a competitor than I already was. I feel like for those reasons, my confidence has skyrocketed to be able to help my team win in any situation.”
Walsh’s ability to affect the game away from the box score throughout the NCAA Tournament, along with his intriguing upside as a Swiss Army knife-type of role player, has turned the heads of NBA scouts and draft analysts on Twitter:
That begs the question: Did Walsh’s flash of excellence come too late in the season after a regular season full of struggles on both sides of the ball?
Understanding the Nuances of the NBA Draft
In 2021, Moses Moody led the Razorbacks in scoring throughout the entire regular season, averaging 16.8 points on 36% shooting from long range. He capped the regular season with back-to-back 28-point outings. In the NCAA Tournament, however, Moody averaged only 13.0 points on 33% shooting from the field and 18% shooting from beyond the arc. His poor tournament run did very little to impact his draft stock, as he still went No. 14 overall to the Golden State Warriors.
Now, Walsh faces a near-perfectly inverted situation. He struggled throughout much of the regular season, occasionally showing glimpses of his true potential, before finally becoming an irreplaceable player for the Razorbacks in the Big Dance.
Why is his situation different than Moody’s? In short, the NBA drafts on potential. Moody put together an entire body of work that solidified his skillset and potential for NBA scouts, rendering a few mediocre games virtually meaningless in their overall evaluation.
Walsh came into this season with high expectations and scouts already paying attention to his potential as a player. While his overall numbers have caused many to drop him out of the first round, he’s still shown enough flashes throughout the season – along with stellar play in the postseason – to prove to those scouts that his potential is still there.
Most NBA teams tend to prefer an unpolished 19-year-old early in the draft rather than an established 22-year-old college senior. While the senior is likely the better player at the time of the draft, the NBA has to consider how good the younger player will be after spending three years in an NBA training facility, with an NBA training and nutritional staff, playing against NBA players every day as their primary job with no school work or additional distractions.
By the time that 19-year-old turns 22, he could be far better than the now-25-year-old who spent three additional years without NBA-level training and nutrition. Now, the younger player is likely closer to where his NBA team needs him to be and three years further away from the average retirement age compared to the older player.
This mindset bodes well for raw, unpolished players like Walsh who have an immense amount of untapped potential. Even with an inconsistent outside stroke and an ever-improving understanding of how to defend without fouling, Walsh is already making game-changing plays. Scouts have no choice but to take notice.
Jordan Walsh’s Looming Decision
With all of that being said, NBA Draft boards haven’t yet reflected the recent game-changing performances by Jordan Walsh since they haven’t updated after the first two rounds of the tournament. However, even the most recent mock drafts don’t favor Walsh.
One of the more recently updated mocks from hoopshype.com has Walsh being drafted No. 57 overall. NBA.com and Yahoo Sports haven’t updated their draft boards in a few weeks, but both have Walsh in the 46-55 range. Bleacher Report and NBADraft.net both still have Walsh going undrafted entirely.
His current draft grade presents a difficult decision for Walsh. Of the 23 players drafted No. 35 or later in last year’s NBA Draft (three teams forfeited second round picks due to violating league rules), only six actually signed a full contract with their NBA team. Eight ended up with two-way deals allowing a player to split time between the G-League and NBA and can be worth up to $449,000. Nine, meanwhile, ended up with no contract at all.
If Walsh and the Razorbacks are able to play a couple more games in the NCAA Tournament and get the highest level of exposure possible, it’s still highly likely that he doesn’t climb into the first round at this point in the season, barring any other-worldly performances.
Even if he does climb into the late 20s of the upcoming draft, no player drafted in that range last year signed a contract worth more than $2.25 million for their first season. Given the current climate of NIL deals affording players opportunity to make substantial money before turning pro – along with the possibility that he could fine-tune his offensive arsenal and potentially become a first-round lock next season – Walsh could stand to gain multiple millions of dollars if he takes a gamble on returning to Arkansas. Even with the NBA’s affinity for drafting the younger prospects first, after all, 10 of the first 20 draft picks last summer were sophomores in college or older.
Of course, there’s always the chance of injury or a decline in production from season to season, making it possible that Walsh drops even lower on draft boards or loses out on the money entirely. Still, with the way Jordan Walsh has been trending toward the end of this season, returning for another year certainly seems like a risk worth considering – especially if it’s too late in the season to drastically improve his draft projection.
Check out our full preview of the upcoming Arkansas vs UConn matchup:
Hear from Jordan Walsh ahead of Arkansas basketball’s appearance in the Sweet 16:
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