After last year’s absurd haul from the high school ranks that included three five-star prospects who competed in the McDonald’s All-American game, Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman turned his focus back to the transfer portal this offseason.
It’s not as he failed to recruit high quality transfers last season or that he doesn’t have high quality high school recruits set to join the program for the 2023-24 season – he accomplished both. However, last year’s team was somewhat hurt by its overall lack of experience and leadership, especially once injuries took root among key offensive pieces.
Musselman seems hellbent on not letting the same issues be the source of his problems next year. Arkansas could have as few as four combined freshmen and sophomores. They seemed to be frontrunners for No. 1 overall player in the 2023 class, but Ron Holland decided to take his talents to the G League Ignite seemingly at the last minute.
Along with returning five players from the 2022-23 season, Musselman has brought in four transfers with at least four years of collegiate experience.
Khalif Battle Bouncing Back
One such transfer is former Temple standout Khalif Battle. Standing at 6-foot-5, Battle is the brother of former Syracuse standout Tyus Battle, an All-ACC performer with the Orange.
The newest Hog says that he learned “almost everything in terms of basketball” from his older brother in a recent interview with Tye Richardson.
“I woke up one day and I wanted to be as good as (Tyus) was,” Battle said. “I saw all the places it was taking him and I wanted that for myself.”
Battle has enjoyed a similar level of success as his older brother, albeit at Temple — especially during his injury-shortened junior season. In just seven games before going down with a season-ending foot injury, he averaged 21.4 points and 3.9 rebounds while shooting 54% from the field and 49% from long range.
In the following 2022-23 season, Battle still managed to put together a more-than-respectable effort, tallying 17.9 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game with 41.0%, 35.0% and 89.8% shooting splits across 27 games – 19 of which he came off the bench.
“I feel like I had a bad season last year,” Battle said despite his rather impressive stat line. “I think before my injury in my junior year, I showed how much work I put in in the offseason. I want to be better than I was before then. [In 2022-23] I only had three weeks prior to the season to get ready because I was coming off of an injury. I only had three weeks to prepare for my first game, so I was behind the 8-ball the whole season just trying to get back in shape.”
Breaking Down Battle’s Game
Battle is a 6-foot-5, score-first guard with a high offensive IQ and underrated athleticism. His ability to get up high off the ground on jump shots allows him to turn contested looks into routine jumpers. It also gives him a level of fearlessness from potential closeouts that it leads to defenders fouling him on his jump shots, resulting in more trips to the free throw line.
Sometimes, having too much lift on a jump shot can cause issues with stationary shooters. The less motion a shooter has to go through on each repetition, the less potential chance for error that could cause a miss.
Battle, however, has shown a keen ability to control the lift on his jump shot depending on how guarded he is. He sets his feet and doesn’t over-jump on set, catch-and-shoot jump shots, though he’s capable of rising up over defenders before locking in on the rim when necessary. You can see elite three-level scorers do this in the NBA all the time – players such as Kyrie Irving, Devin Booker and even all-time greats like Kobe Bryant.
Watch the difference in height on their jump shots when firing a wide open 3-pointer versus pulling up over a defender in the midrange. The mechanics of their form don’t change, but the elevation needed to get a good look changes constantly depending on the defense. Battle has shown a good understanding of this concept.
His athleticism also allows him to be relentless in attacking the rim. Similar to Ricky Council IV – albeit on a smaller scale due to Council’s unreal leaping ability – Battle can fly into the paint, absorb contact and still have enough height and momentum to readjust his shot attempt as needed. This makes him a deadly scorer inside the paint and constant threat to get to the free throw line.
However, even without dissecting film, you can see the shift in Battles’ game between his roaring start in 2021-22 compared to his full 2022-23 season – especially in his willingness to attack the paint. When he was pouring in over 20 points per game before injury, Battle was primarily focused on attacking and getting to the rim. Doing this well typically unlocks three doors for well-rounded offensive players.
First, it allows them to get shots closer to the rim that are nearly always high-percentage. Secondly, it allows players to draw fouls on their opponents and get trips to the free throw line, resulting in free points and a better offensive rhythm. Finally, having a strong attack off the dribble forces defenders to back off half a step in an attempt to guard the dribble drive, in turn opening up 3-point opportunities.
Battles capitalized on each of these aspects in his seven-game junior season – 58% of his made baskets came inside the 3-point arc, causing his free throw rate to follow suit at .387 attempts per field goal attempt, amounting to over five free-throw attempts per game. He was also hitting from long range at an absurd 49% clip on roughly 6.1 attempts per game.
In the season following his injury, Battle notably settled for more long-distance bombs, attempting roughly 8.1 threes per game. The shift in his attack caused his three-point percentage to drop significantly to 35% – though still a respectable percentage. His free throw rate dropped to .286 attempts per field goal attempt (4.0 attempts per game) while his 2-point field goals dropped both in quantity (5.9 compared to 7.1 prior to injury) and efficiency (49% compared to 58%).
“I think now that I have a (full)] summer, I can work on more things,” Battle said. “I can work on driving left, work on my finishing, work on my spot-up shooting, coming off curl (screens), work on reading the game, work on defense. I think I can work on all aspects of my game, really.
“The sky is the limit. That’s why I’m so excited. This summer, I don’t want to take any days off or take basketball for granted. I’ve been a year without it, and it was probably the worst year of my life honestly. Just having it back means the world to me and I don’t want to take it for granted.”
How he Fits with Arkansas Basketball
It’s virtually impossible to pin down a steady rotation this early in the offseason, especially when Eric Musselman is known for tinkering with lineups throughout the first several weeks of a season. We can, however, take a deeper look at how the roster is constructed and what roles players could potentially play if their number is called at some point.
The return of Davonte Davis puts this roster one step closer to its final form. Jordan Walsh staying in the NBA Draft likely didn’t take the staff by surprise, especially considering his impressive NCAA Tournament run and even more impressive performances during drills and scrimmages at the NBA Draft Combine.
Now with Ron Holland ending up with the G League Ignite, it seems that Musselman and staff are mainly focused on a wing or forward to fill out the roster judging by their more recent transfer portal contacts. In other words, we have a good understanding of what the entire backcourt will look like next season despite still having one open roster spot.
Along with Battle and Davis, Arkansas is returning Joseph Pinion from last year’s team and bringing in 5-star recruit Layden Blocker from the high school ranks along with three other experienced guard transfers who can play either guard position: Keyon Menifield from Washington, Tramon Mark from Houston and El Ellis from Louisville.
Battle’s role within the offense while he’s on the court should be relatively clear. Among these seven guards, he projects to be the most consistent, pure scorer. He has a chance to be Arkansas’ most lethal offensive weapon next year. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s locked into a starting spot, however. Musselman has shown an affinity for starting defensive-minded players. That’s why players like Trevon Brazile and JD Notae have come off the bench in previous seasons.
Davis is well-known by Arkansas fans for his defensive prowess, and he’s not likely to lose his starting role now that he’s returning for his senior season with the Hogs. Tramon Mark, meanwhile, could rival Davis for being the best perimeter defender on the team next season.
Having both of them playing side-by-side in the starting lineup – especially considering they both have the ability to score when necessary – is a luxury most college coaches would kill to have.
Even if Musselman opts to insert more offense beside Davis instead of pairing him with Mark, he still has the options of Menifield, a smaller, explosive young scorer from Washington capable of lighting it up from all over the court when he gets hot, and Ellis, an experienced scorer who could thrive in an off-ball role after struggling to lead a poor Louisville roster last season as its only ball handling option.
That means four guards aside from Khalif Battle could earn a starting role without even mentioning Pinion or Blocker. It’s slightly less likely that either of those young guards earns a starting role early in the season due to the sheer volume of experience ahead of them, not because of their lack of talent.
However, Musselman has also proven that the five who start games don’t matter nearly as much as the five who finish them. His closing lineup has been different than his starting lineup down the stretch of nearly every season he’s been at Arkansas.
Even if Battle is slotted in as the sixth man for this team, he could still find himself playing 25-28 minutes per night and contending to lead the team in scoring, similar to the role of JD Notae in 2020-21 and Ricky Council IV in 2022-23 after Nick Smith Jr. came back from injury – especially with the trajectory of the current roster trending towards mostly guards (including some bigger guards at 6-foot-5) alongside post players.
Don’t be surprised to see several four-guard lineups that include some combination of Davis, Mark or Battle at the forward positions alongside someone like Brazile, Graham or Mitchell at the center position – unless, of course, Musselman brings in one more stud forward to finalize the roster.
In short, it will be hard to keep Battle’s elite scoring ability off the court next season, especially after the Hogs struggled to score the ball so much at times last season. Whether or not he starts and his overall minutes distribution will likely depend on how heavily Musselman relies on more defensive-minded players, matchup-dependent rotations and who has the hot hand on any given night.
And that hot hand could come from any number of places considering the number of experienced, talented guards the Hogs reeled in this offseason.
Check out some highlights of Khalif Battle at Temple:
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