Kel’el Ware’s NBA Draft Rise Makes All-Arkansan Game of Hogs vs non-Hogs Imaginable

Kel'el Ware, Daniel Gafford, Ronnie Brewer, Arkansas basketball, NBA Draft
photo credit: Indiana Athletics / Dallas Mavericks / Arkansas Athletics

For the first time since before former head coach Eric Musselman took the helm, Arkansas basketball is unlikely to have any players taken in the an NBA Draft, snapping a five-year streak.

The Razorbacks have had seven players selected in that time-span, ranging from Daniel Gafford, who went at No. 38 in the 2019 NBA Draft, to the one-and-done trio in 2023. That doesn’t even include three additional players who signed undrafted free agent contracts shortly after the NBA draft – Mason Jones, Stanley Umude and Ricky Council IV – and have made it into the big leagues.

However, the state of Arkansas will still be represented in tonight’s 2024 NBA Draft in a way that it hasn’t been in nearly three decades. Kel’el Ware, graduate of North Little Rock High School, has quickly risen up draft boards after an impressive sophomore season at Indiana in 2023-24.

The 7-foot center is projected anywhere from the mid-20s – like on mock drafts released by CBS Sports (21), Yahoo Sports (23) and ESPN (26) – all the way up to No. 12 overall by fantasy basketball analyst Josh Lloyd on the Locked on Fantasy Basketball podcast.

Ware bouncing all the way into the lottery might be a surprise for some, but this upcoming NBA draft class is widely viewed as one of the more unpredictable ones in recent memory thanks in large part due to the lack of stand-out stars at the top. The overall depth of the class could easily end up being on par with other recent classes, but the top is a far cry from Brandon Miller and Scoot Henderson fighting for No. 2 overall in Victor Wembanyama’s shadow last summer.

NBA Draft Stock Rising for Kel’el Ware

Kel’el Ware was a projected lottery pick in the 2023 NBA Draft after he headed to Oregon as the No. 8 overall rated freshman in the Class of 2022 two seasons ago. However, the Arkansas native had a disappointing season for the Ducks in which he averaged roughly 16 minutes per game and made only four starts.

Some scouts speculated that motor and willingness to put in the work necessary could be Ware’s biggest downfall despite his unique size and skillset. Regardless, the down freshman season left Ware plummeting on draft boards with a difficult decision to make last summer.

His decision ultimately took him through the transfer portal all the way to Bloomington, Ind., where he would join Mike Woodson’s Indiana Hoosiers as a sophomore. Under the leadership of the former NBA player and head coach, Ware quickly blossomed into more of the prospect he was expected to be from Day 1.

At Indiana, Ware started all 30 games and averaged 16 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks while shooting nearly 43% from long range on relatively low volume (1.3 attempts per game).

NBA teams have long been on the hunt for players capable of defending and shooting at a high level to surround their stars, but the demand for 3&D big men has arguably never been greater than it is right now.

The newly crowned NBA Champion Boston Celtics acquired perhaps the best example of this archetype in Kristaps Porzingis last summer, while other teams field their 3&D big men as more of role players rather than fringe-All-Stars like Naz Reid in Minnesota and Brook Lopez in Milwaukee.

Non-Razorback Arkansan Big Men a Modern Rarity

The Razorbacks have more players currently in the NBA than they’ve ever had at any point in the program’s history – and there are even a few notable non-Razorback Arkansans in the league such as Austin Reaves, Malik Monk and Mike Conley. In the 21st century, though, there has been only one big man born in Arkansas and got drafted into the NBA despite not playing for the Hogs.

That big man was Jahlil Okafor, who was born in Fort Smith, but spent a lot of his youth in Oklahoma and Chicago. After an impressive freshman season at Duke that ended in a national championship run, Okafor was selected third overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2015 NBA Draft. He finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting, averaging 17.5 points and 7.0 rebounds on decent efficiency, but that was easily the pinnacle of his NBA career.

He spent five more seasons in the league, though he never averaged more than 12 points per game or 4.8 rebounds per game for a season. He last played for the Detroit Pistons in 2021.

Bryant Reeves of Fort Smith was the next most recent player to fit this mold, being drafted No. 6 overall by the Vancouver Grizzlies in the 1995 NBA Draft.

Before him, a handful of all-time greats such as Hall of Famer Nat Clifton and College Basketball Hall of Famer Paul Silas followed a similar path to the NBA that did not lead them through Fayetteville. Joe Barry Carroll and Jim “Bad News” Barnes (from Pine Bluff and Tuckerman, respectively) even went No. 1 overall in their respective drafts.

However, the only big men related to Arkansas in the modern NBA are all former Razorbacks – and all-time great Hogs at that. Bobby Portis, Daniel Gafford and Jaylin Williams would headline the frontcourt of a team composed solely of Razorbacks currently in the NBA.

Even when backing up a step further to the entire 21st century, there are very few – if any – big men of note that hail from Arkansas but did not attend the UA. Kel’el Ware has a golden opportunity to headline a potential lineup of non-Razorback Arkansans after the year 2000.

For fun, let’s dig a little deeper into that potential lineup and see what it would look like if matched up against a team of only former Razorbacks from the state of Arkansas during the same time frame.

Hypothetical All-Arkansas Matchup

Best 21st Century Non-Razorbacks from Arkansas

Starting with the non-Razorback lineup, the backcourt is relatively easy to choose: it would be comprised of all three active Arkansans in the league.

Mike Conley is the ideal veteran presence to handle the point guard duties on such a roster. He’s been in the league for 17 seasons with career averages of 14.4 points, 5.7 assists and 1.4 steals. Conley is also the owner of one of the most insane stats you’ll ever see. The Fayetteville native has more career All-Star appearances (1) than technical fouls (0).

The wings would be filled out by Austin Reaves (Newark) and Malik Monk (Lepanto). Both players have shown an ability to light it up on the offensive side of the ball in their young careers. Monk just recently signed a 4-year, $78 million contract extension after a career year with the Kings, while Reaves made a name for himself with stellar play on Team USA at the 2022 FIBA World Cup alongside Bobby Portis, who we will get to soon.

From here, things get tricky for the non-Razorbacks. James Anderson from El Dorado was awarded the Big 12 Player of the Year award in 2009-10, but he stands at only 6-foot-6. Since the 21st century Razorback team has a bit more size than this in their frontcourt, it may also make since to start former NBA Slam Dunk champion Jeremy Evans (Crossett), who stands at 6-foot-9, in this lineup, though he would likely be best served coming off the bench.

Most likely, we would slot in Kel’el Ware to take over the starting power forward duties thanks to his ability to stretch the floor offensively. His athleticism would also help him defend the perimeter, though he’d likely be matched up against another combo forward/center from the native Razorback squad.

Jahlil Okafor rounds out the lineup despite his struggles in the NBA. His size and post up ability gives this team another scoring option in the post, and at the very least a big body to contend for rebounds defensively – though this side of the ball was never his strong suit.

For the sake of this thought experiment, we’ll only be extending the bench to nine players. The non-Razorback bench would be made up of Anderson or Evans, along with Little Rock natives Archie Goodwin and Quincy Lewis and Malvern native Fred Jones, another former NBA Slam Dunk Contest winner.

Goodwin had an impressive lone season at Kentucky, averaging 14.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists on his way to being named to the SEC All-Freshman team. His NBA career wasn’t quite as productive, though. He provided a scoring punch off the bench at times through three seasons for the Phoenix Suns before spending his final season playing 15 total games in New Orleans and Brooklyn.

Lewis spent four years at Minnesota, earning All-Big Ten honors as a senior before spending only four seasons in the NBA, as well. His best season came in 2001-02 when he averaged 4.0 points, 1.2 rebounds and 1.0 assists across 36 games for the Utah Jazz.

This team has a few great scoring options in the starting five, but they lack size in the backcourt with likely two of Conley, Reaves, and Monk having to match up with someone bigger and stronger on both sides of the ball.

Best 21st Century Razorbacks from Arkansas

Now for the fan-favorite hometown Hogs. This team has several more options to choose from, but we’re going to limit this to only players that started their NBA career in 2000 or later (sorry, Sir Sid and Corliss Williamson).

After the non-Razorback squad basically only had smaller guards available as their best players, this Razorback team has the opposite problem. The best option to start as a pseudo point guard for this team is sharp-shooting wing Isaiah Joe.

The Fort Smith Northside product obviously provides high-level shooting, but he also gives the Hogs a potential size advantage at this position defensively going against Conley – so long as the team as a whole can share the ball-handling responsibilities.

Speaking of ball-handling, the starting shooting guard for this roster is none other than “ISO” Joe Johnson. He can create for others, but earned the nickname for his ability to get a bucket on virtually anyone in isolation situations while making it look effortless. Former NBA superstar Carmelo Anthony recently said that the Little Rock Central product was the most underrated 1-on-1 player of his generation.

Incredibly, at nearly 43 years old, he’s still cooking to this day – as you can see in the clips at the end of this video:

On the wing next to Johnson is one of the most Arkansas basketball players of all time (and my personal favorite), Ronnie Brewer Jr. At 6-foot-7, the Fayetteville native would bring a high level of defense, experience and some shooting and ball handling ability to supplement Joe and Johnson at the guard positions. He’s also capable of guarding either guard or forward position, which favors this Razorback team as they face off against the duo of Reaves and Monk.

The frontcourt is where Arkansas should have an advantage in this matchup despite the twin tower look the non-Razorbacks would deploy with Ware and Okafor. There’s really no other option other than to pair Bobby Portis (Little Rock Hall) at the four and Daniel Gafford (El Dorado) at the five in this hypothetical team.

Portis can stretch the floor from the perimeter, testing Ware’s ability to defend away from the rim while also holding a heavy experience advantage over the soon-to-be rookie. Gafford has a chance to dominate the glass inside considering Okafor was never a prolific rebounder – though he’ll need to be sure to not let the former Blue Devil use his strength advantage to get into his groove in the post offensively.

Arkansas Basketball Punch off the Bench

The bench for this group would consist of Sonny Weems (West Memphis), Jaylin Williams (Fort Smith Northside), Nick Smith Jr. (North Little Rock) and Daryl Macon (Little Rock).

Weems provides yet another athletic wing with great length and experience – and in this specific matchup could soak up some minutes as a small-ball four.

Williams provides relief for both Portis and Gafford as a solid connector piece, capable of passing, shooting, defending and, most importantly, drawing charges to get the young Ware in foul trouble early in the matchup.

Smith and Macon would each provide more of a true point guard look for a team starting a sharp-shooter at the one spot, though bringing them off the bench for more of a scoring punch rather than starting them could make sense when considering how big and versatile the starting five is with Joe at the one.

Also, shoutout to honorable mention Dusty Hannahs who could’ve easily made the Razorback roster, but limiting the teams to nine players meant that Macon got the nod largely due to total NBA games played as well as his ability to provide more lead ball-handling to the team.

Realistically, this Natural State Showdown shouldn’t be too close. Give me the Pro Hogs winning five out of seven in a seven-game series – assuming that the trio of Conley, Reaves and Monk give the Hogs more than they can handle for at least one game.

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