NBA Draft Jostling Should Determine Hogs’ Final Rotation Players

Wooga Poplar, John Calipari, Egor Demin, Arkansas basketball, transfer portal

After a few quiet weeks, Arkansas basketball coach John Calipari struck again by landing Kentucky transfer DJ Wagner on Sunday.

Based on his comments earlier this month, the addition could be one of the final big splashes of Calipari’s first offseason with the Razorbacks, as he puts them at eight scholarship players for 2024-25.

That leaves him five open scholarships, with Best of Arkansas Sports contributor Brandon Baker’s roster tracker painting the full picture.

With the transfer portal closed and the NBA Draft withdrawal date approaching on Wednesday, the chips should fall into place on rosters around the country in the coming weeks. There no other obvious commitments looming for the Hogs, so it begs the question of what Calipari will do with his remaining spots.

After the commitment of Wagner, some national reporters already have slotted Arkansas near their preseason top 10s. CBS’ Garry Parrish made Arkansas his biggest riser in today’s too-early poll, soaring up 7 spots to crack the Top 20. With the heart of the team seemingly set, what comes next for Coach Cal’s Razorbacks?

NBA Draft Withdrawals Can Help for Arkansas Basketball

While the Hogs are well-stocked at the center position with the big bodies of Jonas Aidoo (6-foot-11) and Zvonimir Ivisic (7-foot-2), Calipari could use an extra frontcourt piece to complement those post players. Currently, there’s no pure power forward, or even a pure “stretch 4,” so this appears to be the biggest

Uber-athletic wing Adou Thiero is a great start with his flexibility to play at the three or the four spot, but Arkansas needs another body there for depth and versatility.

The first name on Calipari’s chalkboard might be Illinois transfer Coleman Hawkins, a jack-of-all-trades forward who averaged 12.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists last year while shooting 36.9% from behind the arc. His defensive impact was also felt with his 1.1 blocks and 1.5 steals per game.

That skillset at 6-foot-10 has not gone unnoticed at the professional level, as Hawkins was a standout at the NBA Combine and is hoping to hear his name called in June:

“I’d really love to hear from a team that I can at least get a minimum contract, something guaranteed,” Hawkins said after the showcase. “Honestly, I really don’t want to go back to school.”

Well…it doesn’t get much clearer than that. But only 60 prospects get to hear their name called in the draft each year, and Hawkins can rest easy knowing that a wagon full of NIL money will be waiting for him if he doesn’t make the cut this year.

At the college level, it was reportedly a race between Arkansas and North Carolina to become Hawkins’ preferred fallback option. After the Tar Heels received a commitment from Vanderbilt transfer Ven-Allen Lubin to play the power forward spot, it appears that the Hogs are the frontrunners for Hawkins if he returns to college – and that’s a big if, according to the man himself.

Adding the Sacramento, Calif., native into the frontcourt next to Aidoo would be a dream come true for Calipari, as Hawkins’ athletic playmaking and ability to stretch the floor from the four spot make him a nightmare for defenses to guard. It’s no certainty that he’ll be a Razorback, by any means, but he’s the most tantalizing remaining option in the portal.

Two other possibilities here are JT Toppin, who appears much more likely to head to Texas or Texas Tech at this point, or Arthur Kaluma, the Kansas State standout who could return to Kansas State. For what’s worth, NBA Draft analyst Ryan Hammer says Kaluma is a “likely return” to college basketball from the draft while he gives Hawkins and Toppin a 50/50 shot at doing the same.

Sometimes, however, you just got to take the best player available almost regardless of roster considerations. Certainly that applies to Russian forward Igor Demin, who is among the top international prospects for next year’s NBA cycle. ESPN’s Jonathan Givony lists him as a potential top-10 pick in the 2025 Draft.

The 6-foot-8 wing shows the ability to handle the ball, make shots from the perimeter and defend multiple positions on the floor. He can do anything on offense from spotting up as a shooter to running pick and rolls himself. 

Calipari has shown himself to be one of the best global recruiters in college basketball, right up there with Gonzaga’s Mark Few and Arizona’s Tommy Lloyd. In fact, Demin wouldn’t even be the only Eastern European on the Hogs’ roster next year, as he would suit up alongside the Croatian Ivisic. 

If anyone can pull Demin stateside, it’s Coach Cal. Sure enough, Arkansas is reportedly in the mix for the Russian, per multiple sources. Other schools in the race for him include BYU and Illinois – Hawkins’ former school. While there’s plenty of competition for him, getting Demin in a Razorback jersey next year would cause a red scare around the college basketball world.

If the Hogs could come away with one of Hawkins or Demin, the frontcourt rotation with Aidoo, Ivisic and Thiero would make Arkansas a physical team that would be a matchup nightmare. At least with Hawkins, it would be nearly impossible to contain in the paint.

Never Enough Shooters

Arkansas is shaping up to be a capable perimeter shooting team next year. Boogie Fland and Karter Knox’s scouting reports both mention shooting as one of their best traits and Johnell Davis knocked down over 40% of his 3-pointers for FAU last year – but you can never really have enough in that category.

One of Calipari’s remaining spots could well go to either a more pass-first point guard or to a true 3-point sniper on the wing. When it comes to the latter possibility, a name that has been mentioned frequently is Miami transfer Wooga Poplar, who averaged 13.1 points per game and shot 38.5% from behind the arc. He’s also a prime candidate for the fabled “All-Name Team,” which automatically makes him an intriguing prospect.

The 6-foot-5 guard reportedly has visits planned to Arkansas, Kentucky and Oregon with a possible trip to Kansas, as well. That puts the Hogs firmly in the mix for Poplar, who would be an excellent complementary piece in the backcourt.

His elite spot-up shooting would allow him to slot right in playing off-ball while Wagner, Fland or Davis run the offense. Poplar and Knox would give Calipari a pair of reliable perimeter scoring options on the wing.

Surprise End to the Arkansas Basketball Roster?

The third and final option for the open roster slots is to simply…leave them open. Some folks might question why in the world you would want a roster cupboard that isn’t even all the way full, but there’s actually a number of potential benefits to leaving those final spots empty.

Say Arkansas lands Poplar and one of Hawkins or Demin. That would put the Hogs at 10 scholarship players. Are there any coaches out there who are playing more than 10 guys anyways? Even if there’s a couple injuries on the roster, you can still rotate seven or eight players, which is what most coaches do anyways.

Calipari himself has said that the addition of fringe pieces to the roster can sort of be a waste of time for college coaches. It sounds like rather than his previous strategy of talent-loading at Kentucky, Coach Cal is looking for quality over quantity on his inaugural roster at Arkansas.

“You may think I’m crazy, but I told my staff I only want to have eight or nine guys,” Calipari said on the Ways to Win Podcast a few weeks ago. “They’re leaving anyway, and why would I develop a kid for someone else? Why would I do that?”

There’s also the added benefit of not having to worry about unhappy characters in the locker room. If you fill a roster up with 13 guys who all want to play, you do get the benefit of added competition – but it’s also a double-edged sword that can cause chemistry issues. Arkansas basketball fans saw this firsthand with Eric Musselman’s final team at Arkansas.

Calipari also pointed to women’s basketball programs’ use of student managers as practice bodies as an example of what Arkansas practices might look like without a completely full roster.

“I want those [graduate assistants] to have played in Europe or just got done playing and can still play,” he said. “We can use them in practice. The women’s programs have five guys that they call ‘managers,’ but that’s who they scrimmage against. Maybe I do it that way. We have some walk-ons, we have some [graduate assistants], we have eight or nine guys and that’s it. And if there’s a 10th guy, he knows he’s the 10th guy.”

Transfer Portal Is Going to Wreak Havoc Regardless

As long as you’re confident that all 10 guys on the roster can be contributors, it’s not necessarily a bad thing stop well short of 13 – and with the chaos of the transfer portal, anything can happen at any time. 

Players move schools year-round in a sort of free agency that has even expanded to roster moves in the middle of the season. Last year, Kansas State big man Nae’Qwan Tomlin entered the portal in December after he was dismissed from the team. He committed to Memphis a couple weeks later, and was immediately eligible.

The point is that you never know what’s really going to happen in college hoops nowadays, and keeping at least one or two roster spots open can give coaches flexibility to be prepared for anything.

NIL has also meant that every program has a sort of “salary cap” on their roster each year depending on their budget. Once you spend all of your projected money, you can’t really guarantee anything to prospective transfers who are weighing staying in the NBA Draft vs returning to college. With Arkansas already landing big-money transfers in Davis and Aidoo, the majority of the Hogs’ reportedly lucrative war chest might have already been spent.

If that’s the case, man did those dollar bills do their job. National reporter Aaron Torres believes that Arkansas’ current eight-man roster is right up there near the best in the country.

“I’m not going to sit here and lie and say that I believe they’re the best team in the country, because I don’t,” Torres recently said. “But what I will say is this: It’s hard to find many teams with a better top eight than the Arkansas Razorbacks. Unlike some previous years with Kentucky, it’s a blend of a lot of veterans with a lot of young talent, as well.”

“If you don’t think this Arkansas team has a chance to potentially make a Final Four, potentially do some real damage in March, then you’ve got another thing coming to you.”

The likely course of action for those final few roster spots is to fill it out with at least one power forward type who would be content with taking less NIL money and OK with spending time on the bench. Beyond that, a pure point guard and/or simply best available player. Whatever happens, Calipari has already built a solid core of players that has Arkansas in a position to compete in the SEC in the upcoming season.

What comes next will just be the cherry on top.

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DJ Wagner was quite inconsistent in the second half of the season while battling an ankle injury.

He had a 7-game stretch in late Jan to Feb where he went 0-15 on three-pointers, then made 9-14 in the next three games before limping to the regular season finish line shooting 1-12 from beyond the arc.

But when he was on, he was great, as you can see here:

Locked on College Basketball’s Issac Schade believes Calipari will use three more scholarships. More starting at 6:30 here.

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More coverage of Arkansas basketball recruiting and the transfer portal from Best of Arkansas Sports:

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