In this situation, I didn’t want to be right. But after 25 years of covering teenagers and preps and college sports, I was almost positive I would be. And Oregon head coach Dana Altman only confirmed my hunch throughout the season. The dots were easily connected.
Ducks freshman big man Kel’el Ware, a North Little Rock High School product, announced on March 27 that he was hitting the transfer portal and not entering the NBA Draft.
I watched closely during Ware’s senior season as his stock shot up, and he became a McDonald’s All-American along with a glut of other honors. He starred alongside Nick Smith Jr., who recently declared for the NBA after completing his freshman year at Arkansas, for the Charging Wildcats. Ware is the best big man I’ve seen in Arkansas prep basketball – an intimidating shot blocker who could score in the paint and knock down 3-pointers.
Kel’el Ware and Oregon Basketball
He made the decision during the fall of his senior year to sign with Oregon. A big reason was then-Ducks assistant Chris Crutchfield. Ware became acquainted with Crutchfield while he was a Hogs assistant.
When Crutchfield landed at Oregon, he continued to court Ware. Then, last May, Nebraska-Omaha hired Crutchfield as its head coach. That was a great break for him but a bad one for Ware.
That’s when I figured if Ware didn’t have a good enough season to raise his NBA Draft stock, he’d be in the portal. In the wake of the Crutchfield news, the Ware camp confirmed he was not wavering on his decision, but I’ve seen this story before. A player establishes a relationship with an assistant, that coach leaves and the player is left to fend for himself/herself. Many times it doesn’t end well.
Two things made this situation even more doomed. One, Ware is painfully shy and not very outgoing. Last February, I sat down with him and visited for over 30 minutes. My 13-year-old son, J.D., sat in on it and said, “Dad, how are you going to write this story? (Ware) didn’t say anything.” Well, he did say enough and with insight from then-NLR head coach Johnny Rice and Smith, the story gave great insight into the quiet big man. Ware wasn’t impolite or arrogant, he just wasn’t talkative. That isn’t uncommon among high schoolers, but J.D. did witness one of my more all-time quiet subjects.
However, being an introvert can also appear as indifference. Rice saw through that and after a talk at the end of his junior season, Ware became more attentive, and the coach and player were on the same page. Hence, a big state-championship performance as a junior and a monstrous senior season that put him in the national spotlight. It wasn’t exactly necessary to read the best betting site reviews to know he was trending toward becoming a favorite for lottery pick status in the 2023 NBA Draft.
In Oregon, that spotlight didn’t stay affixed to Ware for long. He averaged 6.6 points and about four rebounds in nearly 16 minutes a game. It didn’t appear that Altman and Ware ever had the rapport that he and Rice did. Altman was publicly critical of Ware at least twice. One can only assume that didn’t sit well with Ware. Crutchfield could have been that conduit between the two.
Secondly, Eugene, Ore., is a long way from North Little Rock in more ways than one. Ware said he liked the laid-back vibe of the Oregon campus, which drew him and his soft-spoken side in, but when things got tough, his support system was a long way away. It’s not like his family could jump in the car and drive to Eugene.
All factors led to Altman’s doghouse and a disappointing freshman season. How much of this was Ware’s doing? After all, he does have some respsonsibility here. Did he put his best foot forward?
What’s Next for Kel’el Ware
(UPDATE: Two weeks after entering the transfer portal, Kel’el Ware announced he would play for a former NBA head coach – but not Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman. Instead, he will continue his career with Indiana basketball, where he’ll play for Mike Woodson.)
That is for his next coach to decide. He can delve into what went wrong and how both parties could have handled things better and what a more productive relationship in his new program would look like. Ware will need to both talk and listen. Communication in this process will be very important to make sure he makes a good decision.
So, the next coach. It will definitely help if the two parties have familiarity. From the program side, they’d need to ensure that what happened at Oregon this season won’t happen next year and that Ware is mentally ready to embrace coaching and prepare for a major role. If he is in the right frame of mind and in the right system, he is an NBA talent.
But Ware has something to prove. After the paltry debut on the court and the rocky relationship, NBA draft experts took notice. You can bet scouts did, too. To wit:
“Ware’s freshman season has been a disaster since losing his spot in the starting lineup in mid-December,” wrote ESPN’s Jonathan Givony earlier this month. “He hasn’t been able to bring the competitiveness or intensity needed in games or practices to earn any trust or momentum from coach Dana Altman, and his feel for the game has been severely lacking. Ware will need to perform very well in the pre-draft process, especially in interviews, to combat the significant negativity that is currently surrounding him off the court.”
Potential Fit for Arkansas Basketball?
As far as the Arkansas basketball program goes, Ware to to the Hogs makes sense. Arkansas recruited him, and he is familiar with head coach Eric Musselman. The question may be, is there enough room? After sitting out most of the past season with a knee injury, on Thursday Trevon Brazile announced his return for the 2023-24 season. No question, he’ll absorb a lot of the front court minutes alongside the 6’10” Baye Fall, the incoming five-star recruit from high school.
The presence of Brazile and Fall, regardless of what other big men end up returning to Arkansas or arriving via the portal, means competition will be stiff up front.
Ware should be at ease with the state of Musselman’s program as he has engineered three straight Sweet 16 runs, including back-to-back Elite Eight finishes before this season. On the cusp of breaking through to the Final Four on multiple occasions, Arkansas is settling into being an elite program again. There is a reason some of the top transfer portal prospects are considering the Hogs, and now Ware is considered the top-ranked Razorback basketball transfer target available.
No matter where Ware lands, he will have a second chance. That could be big for him and the program that lands him.
Check out some highlights of Kel’el Ware from his one season at Oregon:
More coverage of Arkansas basketball and the transfer portal from BoAS…