For years, Arkansans have thought they had some something special brewing in their state when it comes to young basketball talent. The beginning of the most recent “golden era” in Arkansas high school basketball featured standouts like Archie Goodwin and James Anderson who made major splashes in college and ended up as first round draft picks, but never found traction in the NBA.
Their lack of big league success, however, didn’t stop the floodgates from opening. In the last few years, a parade of Arkansans like Bobby Portis, Moses Moody and Isaiah Joe have followed Anderson and Goodwin into the league. It’s enough to have lifted Arkansas past “basketball states” like Indiana and Kentucky to No. 4 in the nation in terms of NBA players per capita.
Still, although followers of the Arkansas basketball scene knew something big was underway in their state, the quality of Natural State natives wasn’t being reflected on the sport’s biggest stage – the NBA Playoffs.
Boy, how times change.
In the first part of the 2023 NBA Playoffs, a handful of NBA Arkansans including Jaylin Williams, Malik Monk, Bobby Portis and Austin Reaves have starred in the opening of the playoffs like no previous cohort of Arkansas natives. Before this year, the big-time NBA Arkansan success in the postseason was usually isolated to a player or two.
In the 1980s, great playoff performances were consistently served up by former Arkansas basketball great Sidney Moncrief, then the 1990s belonged to Hamburg native Scottie Pippen before Little Rock native Derek Fisher took a starring turn at the start of the 21st century. But those natives rarely saw other Arkansas natives showing out at the same time in the playoffs.
Below is a player-by-player account of what happened to mark this historic moment in Arkansas basketball history on the biggest stage:
Jaylin Williams (Oklahoma City Thunder)
In a play-in game on Thursday vs the Pelicans, the former Razorback put up 8 rebounds, 8 assists and 8 assists in a do-or-die win that helped the league’s youngest team advance to yet another play-in game (these aren’t your dad’s NBA Playoffs, that’s for sure). While the Thunder lost that second game to Minnesota, the Fort Smith native availed himself well on offense with an efficient 8 point, 6-rebound effort on 2 of 4 shooting from beyond the arc.
In that same contest, Fayetteville native Mike Conley Jr. played a steady role for the Timberwolves win with 14 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. Meanwhile, Isaiah Joe didn’t play as well for the Thunder as Jaylin Williams in those two games, but the Fort Smith native still finished his best season in the pros yet by averaging nearly 10 points a game for one of the NBA’s most exciting teams.
Malik Monk (Sacramento Kings)
No Razorback fan wants to hear this, but it looks like Malik Monk’s controversial decision in 2015 to join his friend De’Aaron Fox at Kentucky is still paying major dividends. The backcourt duo flashed big-time potential in their single season in Lexington and now that college chemistry is now manifesting in a way not seen in the NBA since Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.
In their first NBA Playoff game together, Monk and Fox went toe-to-toe with future Hall of Famers Steph Curry and Klay Thompson (not to mention a star third wheel in Jordan Poole) and walked away from the gunfight victorious. When the smoke cleared, the duo had set numerous NBA records as they scored 28 of the Kings’ final 35 points on Saturday night.
Coming off the bench, Monk made all 14 of his free throw attempts en route to 32 points and set two NBA records in the process – most consecutive free throws made in an NBA playoff debut and most points scored off the bench in an NBA playoff debut.
Afterward, Monk was a just a bit juiced about the team’s first playoff win 17 years:
In Game 2, Fox, Monk and the Kings kept it rolling. On Monday night, Monk put up 18 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists while playing a starter’s minutes as Sacramento beat Golden State 114-106. Golden State’s current core of Curry, Klay Thompson and Green, in 27 previous series, has never faced a 2-0 deficit.
In Game 3, however, Monk finally came back down to earth, vomiting up a 1-for-9 dud. Not surprisingly, the Kings lost in what was essentially a do-or-die for Golden State.
In Game 2, Golden State’s Moses Moody, the former Razorback in his second year in the NBA, played good defense on Monk and put up an efficient 4 points and 5 rebounds in 8 minutes off the bench. In Game 3, with more minutes because of Draymond Green’s suspension, Moody upped his offensive production with 13 points on an efficient 4-of-76er shooting night.
Austin Reaves (Los Angeles Lakers)
For the most part, the overarching narrative of Arkansans in the NBA Playoffs seems to be one of sidekicks. There was, of course, the role Pippen played to Jordan. Then Fisher and Kobe Bryant, Joe Johnson as the complementary piece to Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudamire and Corliss Williamson with the Pistons’ core group.
More recently, we have Bobby Portis complementing Giannis Antetokounmpo and Monk with Fox.
So it just went without saying that Newark native Austin Reaves would fit into that same arc on Monk’s former team, the Los Angeles Lakers. Reaves, an undrafted guard out of Oklahoma, was supposed to feel lucky just to get to share the same court as luminaries like LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Even when Reaves’ minutes surged in the last couple months, leading to “Hillbilly Kobe” averaging 17 points a game in March, nobody in their right mind would have expected to Reaves to take the reins down the stretch of a taut playoff game on the road against the No. 2 seed Grizzlies.
Yet, on Sunday, that’s exactly what happened. “The guy handling the rock in the closing stages of the road win wasn’t the dude who’s the leading scorer in NBA history, and with the fourth-most assists in NBA history, and more playoff experience than the entire Memphis roster,” NBA writer Dan Devine wrote. Hell, it wasn’t even the Lakers’ other max-contract player, De’Angelo Russell.
Nope, “it was the one who was playing his first career playoff game, the one people call ‘Hillbilly Kobe’ — and the one who looked a lot like his nickname-sake as he rudely closed the door on his hosts:”
Don’t expect for LeBron and AD to permanently defer to Reaves from here on out, but having this much faith in Reaves in a crucial series opener speaks volumes about way the 24-year-old out of northeast Arkansas has improved since Mike Anderson chose not to wait for Reaves to qualify when he came out of Cedar Ridge High School.
In Game 2, Reaves cooled off to score 12 points and also contributed 5 rebounds along with 4 assists.
Bobby Portis (Milwaukee Bucks)
The five-star recruit Mike Anderson absolutely did get to come to the Hill has become a steady force off the bench for the Bucks and played a big role in bringing home a championship two years ago.
Now in the prime of his career, Portis wrapped his best regular season yet shooting nearly 50% from the field and averaging 14 points and nearly 10 rebounds a game to put him into contention for Sixth Man of the Year alongside Malik Monk and Austin Reaves.
Although the Bucks lost their Game 1 to the Miami Heat, the Little Rock native kept it rolling with 21 points on 9 of 10 shooting from inside the arc and 8 rebounds.
Then, Bobby Portis played a huge role in Game 2 win for the Bucks with 13 points (on 3 of 4 three-pointers!) and 15 rebounds, including the below:
Former Arkansas Basketball Players in NBA/G-League
The below aren’t playing in the 2023 NBA Playoffs, but are still familiar names to track:
Daniel Gafford — Washington Wizards
STATS: 78 G/47 GS, 9.0 points (73.2% FG, 72.9% FT), 5.6 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 1.5 assists
Having finished his second full season with the Wizards, Daniel Gafford is developing into a really solid NBA player. About 32 games into the season, he moved into the starting lineup and remained there ever since.
After becoming a starter, the El Dorado native averaged 10.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.38 blocks and 1.5 assists while shooting 75.4% from the field. He ranked among league leaders in true shooting percentage, offensive rebound percentage and block percentage.
Dusty Hannahs — Santa Cruz Warriors
STATS: 26 G/21 GS, 17.5 points (48.8% FG, 43.2% 3PT, 93.9% FT), 2.5 rebounds, 3 assists NOTE: The Little Rock native appeared in four total NBA games with the Grizzlies across the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, scoring 20 points in 39 minutes.