At first glance, a significant uptick in blocked shots would be the No. 1 benefit from the arrival of the latest four Arkansas basketball transfers. Three of the group of athletic 6’9”-6”10” newcomers ranked in the top 100 in blocks per game in 2021-22, while Jalen Graham was in the Top 70 in 2020-21. This past season, Makhel Mitchell and Trevon Brazile both ranked in the top 40 in shots blocked per minute. On top of that, Brazile was No. 5 nationally in blocks per foul.
Sure, the new sophomore twin transfers from Rhode Island haven’t shown much range from deep and they are poor free throw shooters. Makhi Mitchell made only 52.2% of his free throws last season, while Makhel Mitchell wasn’t much better at 52.5%. Jalen Graham, who comes from Arizona State, chimed in at 52.8% from the line. So, yes, hack-a-twin or hack-a-Graham could be a real thing late in games next season.
But don’t expect the 2022-23 Arkansas basketball squad to rely on making free throws to win games like the 2021-22 team did. That’s because the arrival of Brazile, the Mitchell twins and Graham should generate more turnovers and fast-break points than any previous Eric Musselman-coached Razorback team.
Impact of New Razorback Basketball Transfers
This defense-first quartet won’t just block a handful of shots each game, some of which will lead to points on the other end. More importantly, these quick, rangy defenders will allow returning starter Devo Davis and the highly touted incoming freshmen joining him to do what they do best – ball hawk, disrupt passing lanes, create deflections and simulate NBA Jam going the other way.
The 6’4” incoming Razorback freshman Nick Smith Jr., likely the leading scorer next season, is perfect for this role with his elite quickness and 6’9” wingspan. Derrian Ford isn’t as rangy, but could be just as disruptive with his strength and grit. The 6’6”-6’7” guard/forwards Anthony Black and Barry Dunning should also be very good fits for what Musselman wants to do defensively.
Then there’s Jordan Walsh, a 6’8” human torpedo who looks like he could rival Michael Qualls for the title of Greatest Razorback Dunker of the 21st Century. No Hog has ever attacked the rim like Walsh does in these high school highlights:
The ability to go nearly coast to coast off a blocked shot or steal and convert is a rare one, to say the least. Walsh is also, as Pig Trail Nation’s Mike Irwin points out, an underrated point guard. “I’ve seen him, two or three times, do a half court bounce pass and transition right to somebody under the basket,” Irwin said on a recent “Ask Mike” episode. “There’s no question in my mind, at various times in the game, he ends up with the ball in his hands. He doesn’t have to start looking around going, ‘Where’s my point guard?’ He can just become one.”
Black and Smith can also quickly generate offense for others or themselves on fast breaks. For these reasons, expect the Hogs’ pace next season to be near the nation’s leaders, potentially surpassing the 2021 Arkansas basketball team’s No. 7 finish:
Pace (i.e. Possessions / 40 Minutes)
No. 23 Arkansas (72.2)
No. 7 Arkansas (75.4)
No. 65 (71.4)
Brazile may play more than the Mitchell twins because he’s a better three-point shooter and fouls less often, but the Mitchells and Graham are still a good fit because they don’t need plays to be run for them. They can more easily fit the clean-up role Justin Smith excelled in a couple seasons ago.
As for Graham, whose Arkansas basketball transfer was announced on Thursday, he scores off an assortment of flip shots and hooks that at times evoke Antawn Jamison, as you can see in the tantalizing highlights below. “He gets most of his offense on post-ups and out of weird little push shots, floaters and turnaround mini-hooks with either hand. He’s a tough-shot specialist who can get you a reasonably efficient look on the block pretty regularly,” The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie and CJ Moore wrote.
They added: ““He was the (Sun Devils’) best player during their best run this year, which is why he was rewarded second-team All-Pac-12 honors by the coaches. He’s not a particularly efficient finisher at the rim, and he doesn’t shoot well from the perimeter.”
On Wednesday, college basketball analyst Aaron Torres delivered a breakdown of the Mitchells’ arrival that could also apply to the 6’9″, 220 pound Graham: “This team did not need from the portal a bunch of guys who want the ball and need the ball and have to shoot 15 times a game, and that’s exactly why these two kids [the Mitchell twins] are going to fit perfectly. They can defend the other team’s big guys. They can protect the rim. They can replace each other as needed, and so you start to look at how they fit with all of the other pieces that are already on the roster. It just feels like this only fortifies what Arkansas is going to be going forward.”
The Mold Eric Musselman Had Set
In the past three seasons at Arkansas, Musselman preferred a highly disciplined defensive approach that focused on controlling the boards and minimizing points in the paint. That is, apart from occasional freelancing from Devo Davis and Chris Lykes, he didn’t want his players to gamble much jumping passing lanes and going for steals. That approach also helped his players save their legs when keeping to a 7-8 man rotation.
Expect things to look different in 2022-23, however. To start the year, a 9-10 man rotation is likely. If freshmen like Ford, Dunning and Joseph Pinion progress rapidly, the rotation could stay that deep through the season – a first for a Arkansas basketball team under Musselman. Most of the incoming freshmen are perfectly suited for an aggressive, more gambling style of defense that is closer to the “40 Minutes of Hell” style that Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson perfected.
That style worked best for Richardson, however, when he had back line defenders like Oliver Miller, Lee Wilson and Darnell Robinson who could help erase defensive mistakes on the perimeter. Similarly, the arrival of Trevon Brazile, Makhel Mitchell, Makhi Mitchell and Jalen Graham will allow Walsh, Smith, Black, Davis and Ford to gamble more on the perimeter and make things highly uncomfortable for most opponents.
That more aggressive, ball-hawking defense will help minimize any growing pains the star freshmen have in learning Musselman’s man-to-man principles while also helping boost their confidence with easy transition buckets whenever their half-court offense stalls.
Add Jaylin Williams into the mix, and everything goes to the next level. Now you have five big men who are all athletic and around the same size with Williams as a potential All-American to lead them. With Williams, foul trouble would not be as debilitating and it would be easier to keep two mobile bigs in the game at all times against teams like Duke who could otherwise punish Arkansas with their own length.
“I know for a fact that [Musselman] has been stewing on that since the Duke loss,” Torres said. He had been “looking for anything he can do to address that size deficiency, that athleticism deficiency and that length deficiency down low where basically it was Jaylin Williams and nobody else in the paint.”
Arkansas Basketball Starting Lineups for 2022-23
As for a recap a what’s gone down recently, JD Notae declared for the draft shortly after April Fool’s Day. Forward Jaylin Williams declared on Monday. Tuesday was forward Au’Diese Toney’s turn. Notae and Toney plan to hire agents, meaning their college careers would be over. Williams, who finished his sophomore season as a breakout player, could play another two years with the Razorbacks because he declined to hire representation. Notae and Toney had one more season available thanks to the NCAA’s blanket waiver because of the lost COVID-19 season.
Arkansas’ potential rotation for 2022-23 went from this:
G – JD Notae
G – Nick Smith (No. 6 recruit in the nation)
F – Jordan Walsh (No. 18 recruit in the nation)
F – Au’Diese Toney
F – Jaylin Williams
To the below, if Williams shocked fans and actually left:
G – Devo Davis
G – Anthony Black (No. 22 recruit in the nation)
G – Nick Smith
F – Makhel Mitchell (with Walsh coming off bench as the sixth man)
F – Trevon Brazile
That first team would have almost assuredly been the preseason No. 1 team in the country heading into next year. Even with the losses of Notae and Toney, which were expected, Arkansas was slotted at No. 1 in ESPN’s too-early preseason rankings. That second team, with Walsh projected to enter as a 6th man, is still a Top 20 squad but won’t a national title frontrunner.
Jaylin Williams and the 2022 NBA Draft
I believe the good news for Arkansas basketball fans is Williams is more likely to return than not. No one can know for sure. But between his projected landing area and the skills he could develop to make him sky-rocket up the draft boards in 2023, a return makes sense.
For the record, a return made no sense for Notae or Toney. Fans are the ones who care about building a program and what a team can do the next year and so on. Such things are antiquated. At some point, a young man wants to be finished with school and go make his mark on the world.
What more could Notae have accomplished at the collegiate level? What was Toney going to do at Arkansas next season that he couldn’t do overseas and get paid better money for? A similar kind of logic holds true with Williams. If his main objective is to prepare for the pros, then getting an early start on a pro career makes all the sense in the world. He would be wholly justified in choosing that path, no matter what Joe Blow in Alpena or Will Williams in El Do think.
But this is all pure logic. True fandom isn’t a purely logical exercise and if Williams does end up staying in the NBA Draft, a lot of people are going to be genuinely surprised and hurt by the decision.
More Arkansas Basketball Transfers?
Whether Williams returns or not, Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman will probably keep working the transfer portal. “The Hogs are currently at the NCAA limit of 13 scholarships, but would be one over should Jaylin Williams elect to return for another season in college,” 247Sports’ Curtis Wilkerson writes. “Rest assured, if that is his desire, there will be a spot for the first-team All-SEC performer.”
As what that kind of the player that theoretical next Arkansas basketball transfer would be, an experienced guard who has played in big moments and preferably in the NCAA Tournament is needed, especially with Notae and Toney leaving. A perimeter player in the vein of Jalen Tate or Jimmy Whitt who could a steady guiding hand for the talented freshmen would go a long way on the court and in the locker room.
Some positional flexibility would be nice. Defensively, anyway. Toney was the team’s best defender and could match up with nearly everyone in the sport outside the super-fast guards (Davis usually handled those players and did so well, too, generally). Getting a replacement the caliber of Toney defensively would be a boon for the Hogs. They may need to settle for Graham as the closest approximation.
“Hoop Math lists Graham as Arizona State’s No. 2 player in terms of offensive rebound putbacks (16),” Whole Hog Sports’ Scottie Bordelon wrote. “Perhaps he can help fill the void in that regard left by Au’Diese Toney, who gifted Arkansas easy scores and countless extra possessions in 2021-22.”
“Toney had 30 such scores and Jaylin Williams 16.”
Guys like Curt Lewis from Eastern Kentucky and Noah Carter from Northern Iowa provide the need for size, but it’s unclear how good they are defensively. At a cursory glance, they’re 6-foot-6 (or so) players who hover between 215 and 225 pounds. Anyone who covers Arkansas on the regular and gives more of a scouting report than that without talking to someone who covers those teams on a day-to-day basis is, frankly, making it up.
Even with the arrival of the Mitchell twins and Graham, it’s likely the Arkansas basketball transfer carousel won’t stop spinning. This is college basketball in the new era, after all. Thankfully for those Razorbacks fans who may be starting to feel somewhat concerned, Eric Musselman is one of the best in the nation at playing the transfer portal game. Even if Williams doesn’t return, the floor for Arkansas in 2022-23 should still be somewhat high given Musselman’s mastery of these sort of fast-paced and fluid situations.
In case you’re wondering, here is where Arkansas ranked in terms of block% in Musselman’s first three years:
Block % Year by Year
No. 59: Arkansas (7.2%)
*With the Mitchell twins, Rhode Island was No. 3 (10.7%)
No. 24: Arkansas (8%)
No. 79: Arkansas (6.7%)
Eric Bolin contributed to the updated above column
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