For the fifth summer in a row, Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman made waves nationally in his relentless pursuit of the best available transfers. He was able to successfully recruit seven experienced transfers to join five returning players – the most he’s ever had at Arkansas – and two highly-touted freshmen.
It’s always exciting for the fanbase to learn new names and daydream about all the possible outcomes for the new skillsets set to take the court next season, especially when transfers like Tramon Mark, Khalif Battle and El Ellis bring in a great amount of experience and exciting playmaking abilities.
All of this excitement makes it easy to forget about the players returning from last year’s roster. Of course, fans will likely never forget about Devo Davis and most are eager to see the highly anticipated return of the high-flying Trevon Brazile, but it’s also worth paying attention to the other three returners as they spend another offseason developing under Musselman.
Joseph Pinion in particular possesses an extremely valuable skillset that the Razorbacks often lacked during their rollercoaster ride of a season in 2022-23 – shooting the ball from long range. Still, coming in as one of six true freshmen, Pinion struggled to find a consistent role on a team trying to define their identity.
Part of the issue was a lingering knee injury from his days at Morrilton High. That, however, is “completely gone” now, Musselman said after Thursday’s practice.
“I don’t think that’s in his mind, and he’s not wearing a brace,” Musselman said. “A year ago from today, he had a heavy brace on, and that’s hard for certain players, especially a guard, to wear, so I think mentally he’s overcome the injury as well.”
Last season, while the Hogs lacked shooting, they also often struggled to defend without fouling and had a notable lack of overall experience. Pinion wasn’t quite ready to help in either of those areas as a true freshman but has continued to sharpen his defense in the offseason.
The Best-Case Scenario for Joseph Pinion…
In 2022-23, Joseph Pinion found himself in a limited role of coming off the bench and trying to provide a scoring spark when called upon. This was a relatively tricky task considering how rarely he got on the court for significant minutes, playing more than 10 minutes only four times all season despite appearing in 26 total games.
He’s proven his ability as a shooter even in a limited role last year, piling up double-digit points on a combined 8 of 16 shooting from long range in all three games in which he played 15-plus minutes last season. He finished the year shooting 38.2% (13 of 34).
One of the biggest knocks in his game was his ability to defend without fouling. He was beat off the dribble or got caught fouling a jump shooter far too many times during his freshman season – though those could be written off as freshman mistakes.
It was also surely a thrilling experience to take the court those first few times with Arkansas basketball after growing up in the state. Now, with a full season of experience and the freshman jitters long gone, perhaps the game has slowed down a bit in Pinion’s mind.
Even if he hasn’t become a lock-down defender, which would admittedly be a big leap to take for any offensive-minded player, he still has the ability to develop into a high-IQ team defender that could afford him extra minutes on the court to showcase his offensive game.
Plus, Arkansas brought in one of the top defenders in the country at the wing position in Tramon Mark to play alongside Devo Davis. Hypothetically, let’s say Musselman decided to play these two lock-down defenders alongside Pinion with a frontcourt of Trevon Brazile and Makhi Mitchell. It’s not unreasonable to think the presence of four plus-defenders alongside Pinion – who could still take a step forward as a defender – would be more than enough for Arkansas to maintain its gritty defensive identity while keeping an elite shooter on the court at the same time.
While this is certainly one starting five possibility for Musselman, it seems more likely that he will call on the services of El Ellis or Layden Blocker at point guard alongside Davis and Mark at the wing positions. That doesn’t mean Pinion can’t find himself in a prominent bench role, though. Basically every season Musselman has been at Arkansas, he’s found a dynamic scorer to bring off his bench.
Ricky Council IV assumed that role when Nick Smith Jr. was healthy last season. Devo Davis spent most of the 2021-22 season in that role. JD Notae averaged 13 points off the bench the season before.
Sure, Khalif Battle seems to be a likely candidate to assume that role if three other guards start ahead of him, but who’s to say Musselman won’t deploy two elite scorers off the bench this season?
Pinion could certainly find himself playing 20-23 minutes per night as a backup wing behind Davis and Mark. His combination of experience, shooting, and a presumed step forward in other aspects of his game could make him hard to take off the court this season.
…And The Worst-Case Scenario for Arkansas
Without the 2023-24 Arkansas basketball team even playing a game, it’s relatively clear that both shooting and experience were addressed in the offseason. The six active transfers (not counting Keyon Menifield, who will redshirt this season) combine for a total of 514 made 3-pointers on better than 34% shooting in 511 Division I games played.
That goes without including the experience of the other four returning players besides Pinion. For reference, last season’s entire 13-man roster combined for only 419 games played before the season started.
In other words, even if Pinion does take a step forward as a player, he’s still the third-least experienced player on the active roster, ahead of only two true freshmen – both of which hold a higher class ranking than Pinion did coming into last season.
The biggest threat to Pinion’s playing time comes from Cincinnati transfer Jeremiah Davenport. During his four collegiate seasons, Davenport has accumulated 205 made 3-pointers at a nearly 35% clip on his way to 1,060 total points in 109 games.
He’s also listed at 6-foot-7 and carries a guard designation – meaning he essentially plays the same spot as Pinion. Sure, he could be utilized as a small-ball power forward at times given his size, but Arkansas also brought in Chandler Lawson (6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-7 wingspan) and Denijay Harris (6-foot-7, 215 pounds), both of which project more as power forwards than wings.
Neither forward is necessarily thought to be pushing for major minutes on this loaded roster, but it’s also important to remember that Musselman rarely plays more than 7-8 players regularly in his rotation. While we likely won’t know for certain who those top eight players are until around January, it’s reasonable to assume several guys — Davis, Mark, Brazile and Mitchell seem to be locks, while Battle, Ellis and Jalen Graham are also in heavy contention for minutes.
This goes without mentioning either incoming freshman, both of which have the talent to work their way into a more significant role by the end of the season similar to what Davis and Jaylin Williams did in their freshman seasons.
This leaves very few openings available for guys to fight their way into the rotation.
If Davenport is able to prove his worth as a knock-down shooter and net-neutral or better defender during the offseason and early on in non-conference play, he could overtake Pinion as the go-to offensive punch when Musselman looks to the bench.
That would mean Pinion is then fighting an uphill battle against both Davenport and the other guards likely to be ahead of them in the rotation for minutes at the backup guard/wing positions. It’s not unfeasible that the incoming transfers could entirely eliminate Pinion’s role for the season – though this doesn’t seem overly likely.
Arkansas’ Development of Shooters Under Musselman
Given Eric Musselman’s tendency to turn over the roster each offseason, we don’t have much data to form a conclusion about his ability to develop shooters from one season to the next. Devo Davis is the clearest sample subject with three years playing under Musselman, and his steady improvement each season is a great sign for Pinion’s potential development.
Davis shot only 15% from long range as a freshman on under 0.5 attempts per game, but has seen that number climb to 27% and nearly 35% in each of the last two seasons respectively.
Other players have seen a bump in their shooting percentages when coming to Arkansas for the first time such as Trevon Brazile (33% up to 38%), JD Notae (32% up to 34%) and Stanley Umude (35% up to 37%), but none of them were in quite the same situation as Pinion is this year.
Notae is one of the few transfers who has seen a second year under Musselman, but his shooting percentage as a senior dropped notably to below 30% – though this can likely be attributed to his major spike in usage going from SEC Sixth Man of the Year to an SEC Player of the Year candidate.
Jaylin Williams is another player with a very similar progression in his second season under Musselman, dropping from 30.4% as a freshman to only 23.9% as a sophomore. Again, he went from an 11.9% usage in 15.9 minutes per game to over 18% usage in roughly 32 minutes per game. It’s not uncommon for players at any level to have a dip in their efficiency when their usage rises substantially.
Pinion’s situation is different from either of those former All-SEC standouts, though. Even if he does take an exceptional step forward as a player, his best-case scenario still projects as an essential role player rather than a potential all-conference type of performer because of the sheer amount of talent and experience ahead of him on this year’s roster.
In other words, Pinion is in a great position to boost his efficiency within his defined role similar to what Davis has done the previous few seasons.
Season Prediction for Pinion
The most likely scenario at this point in the offseason – considering the sheer quantity and quality of transfers Arkansas basketball brought in, along with Pinion’s unique skillset and assumed step forward – is that the second-year forward will slightly expand on the role he had last season.
As previously mentioned, Pinion played in 26 of the Hogs’ 36 games last season, but only saw extended minutes in three games – though he capitalized on those opportunities by averaging 12.0 points in roughly 23 minutes per game.
It seems reasonable that Pinion could fall out of the top 7-8 guys who form the primary rotation, but he could be in line for a significantly increased number of games in which his shooting abilities are needed.
Last year, he averaged only 5.8 minutes, including his three standout performances. Perhaps this year he will push that number closer to 10-12 minutes with several more games where he gets extended minutes to provide the Hogs with a scoring punch even if he’s not part of the every-night rotation.
It’s also not out of the realm of possibility that someone who currently appears to be higher in the pecking order doesn’t pan out as expected. Perhaps one of the incoming transfer guards sees an overwhelming drop in production playing against tougher competition. Maybe Blocker isn’t quite as ready for the collegiate level as previously expected.
While neither of these are likely scenarios, they are certainly possible, and if a situation like those does arise, Pinion would be a strong candidate to step in and soak up minutes at either wing position off the bench. Either way, the sophomore wing should expect a bench role in some capacity this season. Whether that role turns into an 18-minute-per-night player or an occasional scoring punch similar to last year remains to be seen.
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