“He Looks Like Kobe Bryant” & Other Takeaways from Razorbacks’ Time in Italy

The similarities, right down to an NBA Draft projection, are eerie.

Trevon Brazile, Nick Smith, Arkansas basketball
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

After starting its European tour with a resounding 48-point victory over Valencia Seleccion, Arkansas faced three teams much more prepared for its overall level of athleticism.

The Razorbacks rallied from an early deficit for a 99-86 win over Catalan Elite – an older team with better size and experience — in their final game in Spain before heading to Como, Italy, for two more games.

Best of Arkansas Sports has already touched on the key takeaways from those first two games, so here’s another look at the last two…

Game 3: Arkansas 75, Orange1 Basket Bassano 54

After a brutal day of travel Saturday morning that included losing luggage, team balls and the backdrop for media sessions, the Razorbacks took the court against Orange1 Basket Bassano, a youth program that aims to develop young players into professionals in Italy and neighboring countries.

Anthony Black Impresses On and Off the Court

Part of the Razorbacks’ travel woes between Games 2 and 3 came at the airport. Head coach Eric Musselman noted the team had issues getting their boarding passes until Black stepped up to help.

“I mean, I couldn’t figure it out, my wife couldn’t figure it out,” Musselman said. “Somehow A.B., the world-renowned traveler, got eight guys through security a hell of a lot quicker than I got through it.”

Black lived in Germany until he was 4 years old and, though he hadn’t been back to Europe in a long time, he was still able to figure out the machines at the airport to help the team get their boarding passes and efficiently usher them through security lines.

After assisting the team in their journey, Black showed off his talent on the court in his third game with the Hogs. He opened the game with a confident-looking 3-pointer from the corner, followed by a driving flush. He finished the game with 9 points on 4-of-7 shooting (including 1 of 2 from beyond the arc), 3 rebounds and 3 steals while committing zero turnovers.

This was Black’s best game so far when focusing on the box score, but his impact as a ball handler and playmaker doesn’t always translate to the stat sheet. Across the four games, Black tied Davonte Davis for the most assists (16) while committing four fewer turnovers and playing just one less minute than Davis.

Defensive Intensity

Arkansas struggled with defensive discipline in their previous game against Catalan Elite, allowing a team full of crafty veterans to get open shot attempts far too often due to gambling for steals and losing their defensive assignment on simple cuts.

In Game 3 against Orange1, however, the Razorbacks seemed to find a different level defensively. For starters, they held their opponent to 54 points – including a 9-point third quarter. That stretch clearly showed the Hogs’ potential on the defensive side of the ball.

“I feel like that was a great quarter,” freshman forward Barry Dunning Jr. — who had three of the team’s 18 steals — said postgame. “That just shows us the potential that we have defensively as a team. We can hold teams to nine or less points, and all we can do is build from there.”

Musselman noted that he put a lineup on the court to start the third quarter that he expected to go on a big run: Anthony Black, Nick Smith Jr, Devo Davis, Trevon Brazile and Kamani Johnson. “Watch what happens to the score,” Musselman told his staff as they left the locker room after halftime. He knew exactly what to expect as the Hogs put together a 16-0 run during their stellar defensive quarter.

Kobe Bryant and Nick Smith Jr

The Razorbacks essentially have three ball-handlers that have emerged throughout their European tour: Nick Smith Jr., Anthony Black and Davonte Davis. While it’s reasonable to predict one of these three players could provide a ball-handling option off the bench this season, Musselman made a point to mention how well all three have played when sharing the court in Europe.

“I really like how Devo, A.B. and Nick played together,” Musselman said after Game 3. “When we had them in, one of the first things I said was ‘Hey, you guys just share the point guard position…Whoever is closest to an outlet pass (take the point),’ and they did a phenomenal job of sharing it and running different things for each other. I’m really happy with how they executed together.”

Smith led the way from a scoring standpoint across the European tour, averaging 18 points per game in his first three games before leaving Game 4 with a minor knee injury. At one point during Game 3, former Arkansas coach Matt Zimmerman said Smith “looks like Kobe Bryant” with the way he carries himself on the court. Smith does ooze a confidence and swagger that only the most gifted basketball players can successfully portray.

Kobe Bryant, much like we saw from Smith in the first half of Game 4 against the Bakken Bears before his injury, was also somewhat inconsistent as a scorer when he was Smith’s age (18). After an adolescence partly spent honing his craft in Italy, Bryant was good enough to be taken as the 13th overall pick in the NBA Draft by Charlotte (though the Lakers traded for him) – but he was far from the steadily productive superstar he would later become. In fact, in his 18-year-old rookie NBA season, Kobe Bryant averaged only 7.6 points on 41.7% shooting from the field.

Coincidentally, NBADraft.net also forecasts Nick Smith Jr as the No. 13 overall pick… by, yes, the Charlotte Hornets.

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Game 4: Arkansas 70, Bakken Bears 59

The Bears projected to be the toughest opponent scheduled on the European tour given their legitimate size and history of dominance in the Basketligaen (Denmark’s top league). After a dominant start defensively from the Hogs, the Bears put up a physical fight for the final 30 minutes of the game, including outscoring the Hogs in the second quarter.

Trevon Brazile Climbing the Ladder

Brazile was known to be a high flyer before he ever took the court with the Razorbacks. Standing about 6-foot-10 with a roughly 7-foot-2 wingspan, even Arkansas fans were blown away by the level of athleticism the sophomore forward showed on this putback dunk that evoked another NBA star of yesteryear, Shawn Kemp:

His mini-highlight reel wasn’t all that turned heads on Monday, however. Brazile finished the game against Bakken with a team-high 28 points on 13-of-15 shooting from the field, including knocking down a smooth-looking 3-pointer early in the second half. Both of his misses were from beyond the arc.

“I thought he played incredible the entire time,” Musselman said of his newest star forward’s performance in Europe. “I know it’s just exhibition games, but he played as well as any guy that I’ve seen play over a four-game stretch.”

Through his four games in Europe, Brazile missed only five shots on 34 attempts, finishing with 63 total points (15.8 per game) on an absurd 85% field goal percentage, including going 28 of 30 (90.3%) from inside the 3-point line.

This level of efficiency will obviously drop when facing SEC-level big men, but the former Missouri Tiger has shown the ability to score effectively in a variety of ways. He’s also already learning what Musselman expects from him as a key part of the forward rotation.

“The first two games I didn’t do a good job rebounding,” Brazile said after his dominant performance against the Bears. “I probably had 3-4 rebounds total over the first two games, so a big emphasis the last two games was just rebounding and I think that led to a lot of my success.”

Brazile finished each of the last two games 7 and 9 rebounds, respectively, after grabbing only four total in the first two games.

More Realistic Arkansas Basketball Rotation

After all 13 scholarship players got a chance to start at least once, Musselman noted after Game 3 that he was likely to use a tighter rotation for their final test against the Bears.

“I’ve gotten everybody a start, so that box is checked,” Musselman said. “We’re probably not going to play all 13 guys. We tried that on this trip, and 13 isn’t going to work… When my mom sends me her notes and says ‘shrink the rotation,’ Mama knows. She’s right.”

Musselman started the game with a physical and high-energy starting five of Smith, Black, Dunning, Brazile and Johnson. Smith and Black are near-locks to start in the backcourt and Brazile is not far behind – especially if he can continue to have performances like his 28-point outburst against the Bears.

Johnson and Dunning are high-energy guys who have earned Musselman’s trust through effort, energy and making those “dirty work” plays that contribute to winning.

Only five players played 20 or more minutes in the Hogs’ final game, led by Brazile and Council with roughly 35 minutes each. Council noted postgame that he’s still adjusting to being more of a team player rather than a score-first option.

“(I) wasn’t scoring as much as I usually have in the past,” Council said. “After the first game, I was solely focused on doing what Coach Muss wanted me to do. When I did that, I saw my minutes increase greatly. I think I played my first 30-minute game because when I was on the floor, I was doing what he asked.”

Davis, Black and Johnson all played more than 25 minutes. Smith did not appear in the second half of this game due to what Musselman called a first-degree knee sprain, but it doesn’t sound serious.

“In a regular season game, we would have let him get loose at halftime,” Musselman said. “I was not going to jeopardize him at this time of the year.”

Along with Walsh, who played roughly 15 minutes, these seven players could easily become the core of the late-season rotation. The other most likely candidates to crack the rotation by the end of conference play based on this European tour are Dunning and the Mitchell twins.

We’ll have more on the projected starters and rotation soon.

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Turnovers Persist

Musselman noted his concern with the team’s alarmingly high turnover rate after their second game on Thursday – a game in which Arkansas turned the ball over 23 times as a team – the Razorbacks closed out their tour with their highest turnover game so far with 30.

As a team, Arkansas committed roughly 82 total turnovers (20.5 per game) across their four international games according to the unofficial stats on their trip. A few of these turnovers can be attributed to the stricter traveling calls by European officials that won’t be called in the NCAA or to not knowing where their feet were on courts with 20 different sets of lines, but 20 turnovers per game is quite alarming.

Davis, Smith and Black combined for 14 turnovers alone in Game 4. Musselman noted postgame that the team’s goal is 9 (or fewer) turnovers in a game, so “that has to drastically improve.”

Thankfully, Musselman and his staff have nearly three months to iron out the wrinkles and get their freshman guards better adjusted to the offense and tendencies of their teammates. Keep in mind that this is still a very young team that has played in only four games together. Don’t expect the kind of ball protection that Tom Brady can deliver on the gridiron, which helps keep the Tampa Bay Buccaneers odds higher for taking home another title.

“The turnovers are ridiculous,” Musselman said. “Words can’t describe how concerned I am about our turnovers. Our three-point shooting has got to improve. I didn’t think it could match last year, but it kind of is.”

“So in a short amount of time, meaning September and October, we have some guys that really have to work on taking care of the ball and then we’ve got to improve perimeter shooting.”

Arkansas Basketball Box Score Takeaways

Trevon Brazile led the way in scoring with 15.8 points per game, though Nick Smith likely would’ve taken home that honor had he not gotten hurt in the first half of the final game. Smith averaged 18.0 points on 52% shooting from the field and 42% shooting from behind the arc in his three full games played. Ricky Council (10.8 ppg) joined Brazile and Smith as the only three players to average double figures in scoring.

Kamani Johnson set the tone on the boards, pulling down 15 more total rebounds than the next closest Razorback. He finished with 37 total rebounds (9.3 per game) to go along with 37 total points scored, having one of the more surprising trips for the Razorbacks. Ricky Council (5.5 rpg) and Brazile (5.0) round out the top rebounders in Europe. Brazile averaged 8.0 rebounds over his last two contests after Musselman demanded more consistent rebounding from the athletic forward — which was prompted by poor outings in his first two games.

Anthony Black and Devo Davis tied for most assists per game at 4.0 each, but Black managed to put up an assist to turnover ratio of 2.0 while Davis managed just a 1.3 ratio. Smith also showed off his versatility as a playmaker, averaging 3.3 assists in his three full games prior to injury.

Johnson made a surprise appearance in the top four of the assist per game category for the Hogs with 2.8 per contest. He had by far the most well-rounded trip with 9.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.5 steals per game on a very efficient 68.4% shooting from the field and 84.6% shooting from the free throw line. For reference, Johnson shot 62.1% from the field and only 53.5% from the free throw line last season. If he maintains this improved free throw shooting, it’ll be hard to keep him off the court.

Four different Razorbacks averaged at least two steals per game: Davis (2.3), Brazile (2.3), Smith (2.0) and Walsh (2.0). Barry Dunning was the only Arkansas player to average at least one block with, notching 1.3 per game. Dunning also contributed 1.0 steals across his 11.5 minutes per game.

Brazile put forward one of the most efficient four-game shooting performances in Razorback history, granted they were exhibition games. He shot 85.3% (29 of 34) from the field including, 28 of 30 (93.3%) from inside the 3-point line. He also shot 4 of 5 (80%) from the free throw line and 1 of 4 (25%) from long range.

While these absurdly efficient numbers aren’t sustainable, it’s worth noting that these shots came in a variety of ways and from different places on the court, fully demonstrating the weapon that Brazile could become for the Hogs. He is quickly developing into a Swiss Army knife that can go through – or over – opponents.

Check out what Eric Musselman said about his team following the fourth and final game of the trip:

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