An unprecedented run of success for Arkansas basketball at the collegiate level is slowly turning into an unprecedented Razorback presence in the NBA.
Sure, at any given time in recent decades, there’s usually a few former Razorbacks making their names known in the NBA – think Corliss Williamson, Ronnie Brewer, Joe Johnson, Bobby Portis and others.
The recently completed 2023 NBA Summer League, however, hinted that soon there will be more than just a light sprinkling of former Arkansas basketball players in the NBA in coming years. Seven Razorbacks were on summer league rosters this month – including four rookie participants from last year’s Sweet 16 squad.
A few young players like Jaylin Williams and Isaiah Joe have a relatively clearer picture of the near future with their current teams, but the new guys still have a lot of questions to be answered.
Their performances in the NBA Summer League perhaps filled in a few blanks about what could lay ahead for them in the coming seasons. And heck, a lot can still happen even before their first season in the NBA actually starts.
Anthony Black – Orlando Magic
After being selected No. 6 overall by the Orlando Magic, Anthony Black showed flashes of what makes him such an appealing prospect during his summer league stint. In three games, he filled up the stat sheet by averaging 8.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.0 steals and 0.7 blocks while also providing a scoring punch when needed, tallying 11.0 points per game.
Glancing at his box score, one’s attention might be drawn to his poor 3-point shooting performance, as he shot just 1 of 6 from long range. It’s important to remember a few things, though.
First, Black was not drafted for his shooting ability. His ability to do literally everything else at such a high level compensates for this weaker part of his game. Secondly, this was his first taste of NBA action with a team he’s unfamiliar with. It’s very common for rookies to shoot poorly in their first summer league run. Finally, many rookie guards are wince-inducing shooters to start their careers.
Current NBA standouts Jalen Green and Anthony Edwards both shot under 28% from long range during their first 15 games before becoming 34% and 36% 3-point shooters, respectively, last season. Josh Giddey – Black’s most common NBA comp – barely shot 26% as a rookie before elevating to 33% in his second season.
Black doesn’t have to become an elite shooter; he just needs to become respectable enough to let the other aspects of his game flourish. If he can climb somewhere close to Giddey’s 33% or better in his first few NBA seasons, he’ll have a long NBA career as a huge playmaker with a knack for defending at a high level.
As for his rookie season, there are still a few major questions surrounding the Magic. Earlier in the offseason, it was rumored they would be making one of their current young guards available in trade talks – likely Jalen Suggs or Cole Anthony – especially if they drafted another guard at pick No. 6. Not only did they do that, but they also took another combo shooting guard/small forward with the 11th pick in Jett Howard from Michigan.
Just how big of a role Black has as a rookie will depend on potential trades that Magic could still be exploring. Even without any trades, he seamlessly fits beside nearly any other guard capable of shouldering a scoring load, including former No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, Anthony and even Suggs to an extent. Black’s size, defense and playmaking make him a perfect plug-and-play option beside nearly any backcourt mate.
Assuming the Magic ride into the season with all four young guards still on the roster, expect Anthony Black to still get 20-25 minutes a night as a rookie, and potentially more due to the current climate of the NBA with players taking a cautious approach with injuries and playing time during the regular season.
Jordan Walsh – Boston Celtics
Of the four Arkansas basketball rookies in summer league, Jordan Walsh was the most impressive despite being selected at pick No. 38 in the second round of the NBA Draft. He led all former Razorbacks in scoring with 16.0 points per game on 41% 3-point shooting across five games. Walsh also contributed 4.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.0 steals while flashing more ball handling than he showed in Fayetteville and continuing his brand of disruptive defense.
Not only was Walsh’s shooting through the roof compared to what he showed with the Razorbacks, but his ball handling and vision had a chance to peek through the surface on a court with more NBA-like spacing – something Arkansas definitely didn’t have last season with injuries to arguably their two best shooters.
Perhaps his comments about being “handcuffed” at Arkansas weren’t so far from the truth, after all? His role was certainly defined during his time at Arkansas, and he struggled to stay on the court mainly due to foul trouble along with being hesitant to shoot open looks.
Walsh had no qualms about either aspect of his game during his summer league stint. He did average 3.2 fouls per game, but they give players a 10-foul limit in the summer league for a reason given all the young players playing with high energy and aggression on both sides of the ball and trying to prove themselves. Fouls are much more likely in this setting.
The Celtics started and played Walsh at the shooting guard position after he spent much of his time at either forward spot at Arkansas, allowing him to defend smaller guards. Taking a big player capable of playing forward positions and utilizing him at the two or the three is right in line with how the Celtics have used both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
Walsh is also coming into Boston’s system at the perfect time. They just traded their long-time starting combo guard in Marcus Smart for former All-Star big man Kristaps Porzingis. They also shipped out combo forward Grant Williams for a collection of draft picks.
These deals leave the Celtics with a pair of ball handlers in Derrick White and Malcom Brogdon (though Brogdon is still battling injuries), a trio of useful big men in Porzingis, Al Horford and Robert Williams III, and their two superstars in Brown and Tatum. That’s seven players etched into a rotation likely to consist of at least 10 players throughout the regular season and maybe eight or nine come playoff time.
The other players in contention for a rotation spot include Payton Pritchard, a third-year ball handling guard, Oshae Brissett, a useful bench piece standing at 6-foot-7, Sam Hauser, a 6-foot-8 sharp shooter, and collection of younger wings that includes Justin Champagnie and JD Davison.
None of the names on that list appear too threatening to Walsh as a potential go-to backup wing. If Pritchard earns an increased role, Brogdon (6-foot-5) and Walsh (6-foot-7) can coexist at the two and the three. If one of the forwards beats out Pritchard, Walsh showed the ability to contribute as a shooting guard during his impressive summer league run.
Worst-case scenario, Walsh will at least get a shot to prove himself as a backup wing – he’s earned that much with his impressive summer league play. Realistically, his incredible versatility and defense combined with his relatively unexpected offensive outburst in the summer league provide him a prime opportunity to crack the Celtics’ core rotation early in the season. If all goes well, he could be the eighth or ninth guy contributing in the playoffs this season.
Nick Smith Jr. – Charlotte Hornets
Despite struggling with efficiency through most of his six summer league games, Nick Smith Jr. showed exactly why he was still deserving a first-round draft pick despite an overall disappointing, injury-plagued season with Arkansas basketball.
After averaging roughly 10.3 points over his first four summer league games, the former Razorback caught fire in his fifth game with the Hornets. He poured in 33 points on an efficient 13-of-20 (65%) shooting from the field, including 4 of 5 (80%) from long range, and 3 of 4 (75%) from the free throw line.
While this was only one summer league game, Smith’s ball handling, shot making and creativity were on full display during this offensive outburst. He scored a variety of clutch buckets down the stretch – including a few off of impressive dribble moves like the one shown below – despite his team coming up just short in the final moments.
Overall, Smith finished his six-game summer league run averaging 14.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists on 41% shooting overall and 32% shooting from beyond the arc. Whether or not he’s able to continue getting peripheral stats like rebounds and assists could go a long way in his ability to stay on the court for Charlotte this season.
Smith clearly has the repertoire and potential to be a dangerous scoring threat as he continues to develop, but he’ll have to keep honing in his other skills as well, such as rebounding well for his position, making players for others and reading the defense with or without the ball in his hands – all things he did well in the summer league. Smith still needs to work on his on-ball defense – an area in which he continued to struggle some with the Hornets despite always putting forth great effort on both sides of the ball.
Barring any trades, the Hornets’ starting backcourt will consist of LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier. After that, they have nothing but question marks. James Bouknight is the most likely candidate to soak up backcourt minutes off the bench considering his 15.1 minutes per game last season. However, he was quite inefficient during those minutes, averaging 5.6 points on 36% shooting from the field and 30% from long range.
No. 2 overall pick Brandon Miller (6-foot-9 F/G) and another Eric Musselman product from his time at Nevada, Cody Martin, could take some backcourt minutes. However, both are more likely to play the small forward position unless Charlotte opts for a tall-ball lineup. This leaves Bryce McGowens as the other option most likely to challenge Smith for minutes this season.
Of the three Hogs drafted in 2023, Smith could have the toughest battle ahead of him for minutes. Sure, Jordan Walsh is undoubtedly stuck behind a pair of All-Stars and Anthony Black is likely to come off the bench in Orlando’s logjam of tall, athletic guards, but Smith carries the most question marks into a situation that has a lot of youth and question marks on its own.
Best-case scenario, Smith could see himself overcome Bouknight in the rotation to become the third guard on a rebuilding team trending in the right direction. It’s also a real possibility that Smith could fall out of the regular rotation should someone like Martin or Miller soak up too many backcourt minutes or if McGowens proves his worth as a backup guard.
Either way, much like Walsh, Smith has seemingly earned himself a fighting chance to compete for a rotation spot early in the season with this young Hornets team.
Ricky Council IV – Philadelphia 76ers
Arguably the most athletic and creative dunker in Arkansas basketball history, Ricky Council IV developed into a more well-rounded isolation scorer during his time at Arkansas. He was one of the top names left undrafted in the 2023 draft, but his absurd athleticism and impressive scoring numbers with the Hogs led to him quickly signing a two-way contract with the Philadelphia 76ers.
His summer league appearance provided plenty of highlight reel plays including steals, slams and acrobatic finishes. It did not, however, lead to efficient scoring output. Just to hammer home the point further, rookie guards often struggle shooting the ball – especially in summer league with a random assortment of players thrown together a few weeks before hitting the court.
However, Council showed real cause for concern with his outside shooting at Arkansas before hitting only one of his 17 long-range attempts in the summer league, finishing with a 5.9% 3-point percentage. He still managed to score 9.3 points per game to go along with 4.0 rebounds and 1.6 assists.
Council is a stereotypical slashing guard, making the majority of his plays happen at the rim either by using his dribbling ability, cutting off the ball or outrunning opponents on fast breaks. Unfortunately, that brand of basketball is not overly common in today’s NBA – especially not for role players fighting for rotation minutes. Shooting and defense are key, both of which stand room for improvement in Council’s game despite him already being 22 years old by the time this NBA season starts.
There is some good news, though. Philadelphia is in a state of unease and potentially on the verge of rebuilding entirely. James Harden wants out and all reports indicate he will force his way to the Los Angeles Clippers if at all possible.
Other reports have indicated that if Joel Embiid is not content with the returning trade package, he could also ask to be traded from Philly.
Trading two All-Star caliber players for a bevy of draft picks and young players might not seem ideal for a two-way player trying to play his way onto a guaranteed contract, but consider this: entering a rebuilding phase means that Philadelphia will be more focused on stockpiling picks and developing young talent than actually winning now.
This could lead to them being much more likely to try out different players and combinations in real game settings in an attempt to find good young players to build around rather than committing to play experienced players to “win now.” Council could find himself on a young roster in a state of flux looking for able bodies desperate to prove themselves and soak up minutes.
If the 76ers somehow manage to hold on to both Harden and Embiid, Council could find it harder to get consistent playing time ahead of other veteran players like Furkan Korkmaz, Danuel House Jr., Patrick Beverley and others, while also having a coaching staff focused more on winning rather than developing.
If this is the case, Council is likely to spend most of his time in the NBA G-League this season with occasional call ups on nights when some older players might be resting or if an injury occurs.
Arkansas Basketball Gaining Foothold in NBA
The four players joining the NBA in 2023 are tied for the most ever in one offseason for Arkansas basketball, and they’re not alone in their pursuit to gain a foothold in the NBA.
Other former Razorbacks like Patrick Beverley, Bobby Portis and Daniel Gafford came before Eric Musselman’s time at Arkansas, but they’re no less important to building the Arkansas basketball brand.
During his time in Fayetteville, Musselman has now had 12 players spend at least some time on an NBA Summer League or G-League roster. That includes five who’ve spent time on an official NBA roster – not counting the four joining the league this year.
Arkansas continues to attract top-end transfer talent and highly touted high school recruits, including Layden Blocker and Baye Fall who are both set to take the court for the Hogs next season. The Razorback brand has arguably never been stronger than it is right now in terms of recruiting, perhaps topped only by the back-to-back championship game appearances in the mid-90s. That joy ride came to a stop all too soon, but this Muss Bus shows no signs of slowing down.
These most recent Pro Hogs earning consistent burn in the NBA will play a hand in maintaining that momentum.
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