Calipari’s First Hog Dealt with Issues That Could Keep Future NBA Lottery Picks Away

By now, the NIL shortages that have been hampering Mike Neighbors’ women’s basketball program at Arkansas are well known.

The lack of cash appears to be a reason for at least some of the massive exodus of talented players from this team this off-season, as a social media post from ex Razorback Taliah Scott indicates.

Restocking the roster in such an NIL-strapped climate isn’t easy, and the constant churn of personnel can lead to constant flux in national title odds as is seen in the detailed guide here. But one way to work around the limitations is to take advantage of governmental red tape restricting the NIL money that international student-athletes can make while in the U.S. with an F-1 visa.

Specifically, a law forbids them from employment outside of on-campus work, and the most common way of earning money through NIL is through active work like posting on social media or shilling for a local company. In the past this has severely capped what foreigners can make because NIL collectives get a lot of money from boosters looking for marketing done on behalf of their companies. It’s possible

While this law may seem unfair to the international student-athletes, it also presents a money-saving strategy for programs to take on quality players who won’t drain their NIL collectives’ funds. That would explain why Neighbors has been on a tear signing Europeans lately, inking new Razorbacks from Spain, Finland and Holland.

Then, on Wednesday, the latest Razorback was announced: Danika Galea from, you guessed it, Europe. In this case, the country of origin is Malta, that little island nation in the Mediterranean Sea that once produced a nearly 7’6″ center who was drafted into the G-League.

In the last week or so, reports have emerged indicating that John Calipari may be taking a similar international tact.

His men’s Arkansas basketball in on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of NIL lucre with a war chest in the range of $5 to $6 million putting it at the top of the sport. To show how much talent that money has already brought in, consider that the two highest paid Razorbacks next season will almost surely be Jonas Aidoo and Johnell Davis.

NBA Lottery and First-Round Talk

Those star transfers, however, aren’t even listed among NBA Draft Room’s four projected NBA Draft first-round picks from the Razorbacks in 2025:

No. 15: Zvonimir Ivisic

No. 16: “Boogie” Fland

No. 21: Karter Knox

No. 30: Adou Thiero

Four Razorbacks going in the first round would break an NBA draft program record, surpassing the Todd Day/Lee Mayberry/Oliver Miller draft in 1992 when Day went as an NBA lottery pick at No. 8 overall.

But so much talent comes at a price. Indeed, according to a report by CBS’ Matt Norlander, Davis, Thiero and Adoo alone have taken up more than $3 million of the Hogs’ NIL budget.

While we can assume Ivisic and the incoming freshmen are getting less than seven digits each, it’s a certainty each will receive a payment in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Simple math would show the pot has shrunk significantly for the rest of the roster yet to be filled out, and that may explain the hold up in announcing DJ Wagner as the next Razorback when it looked inevitable last week.

However, if Calipari goes the route of Neighbors, he may be able to fill his roster out beyond 8 or 9 and create the kind of star-studded depth that would rocket Arkansas into the top 5 in most preseason polls.

According to recent reports, the Arkansas basketball staff is in contact with two teenage basketball stars from Europe who could take his program into the next stratosphere:

Egor Demin: Future NBA Lottery Pick No. 1

This 17-year-old Russian plays in one of the top European organizations in Real Madrid and presents the kind of sophisticated shooting, touch and pacing at 6’9″ that make him a no-brainer NBA prospect. You need only watch about 30 seconds of the below to see that, and for those with any doubts about his explosiveness, make sure to catch the breakaway dunk at :13:

“This kid is one of the elite 2025 guys anywhere in the world,” says college basketball analyst Aaron Torres in a podcast last Friday. “2025 is the year of Cooper Flag, it’s the year of Ace Bailey, who’s going to Rutgers. This kid ain’t far behind.. he’s kind of that new age dude, that’s six-foot eight.”

“But he can handle the ball, he can pass the ball, but he can distribute, but he can hit threes, but he can finish at the rim, but he can break a press by himself like he is very much what basketball has become.”

So, no surprise — Demin is considered a 2025 NBA lottery pick on some of the mock drafts, including ESPN’s.

If Egor Demin does decide to spend a year playing in the U.S. before a likely spot in the NBA lottery, then Calipari will need to beat out of his most trusted former assistants in Orlando Antigua to sign him. After spending the last few years at Kentucky, Antigua now coaches under Brad Underwood at Illinois. The Illini join BYU as the apparent front-runners for Demin at this juncture.

Indeed, there has been a grey zone “Trilly” report that BYU has even offered Demin something in the neighborhood of $2 million in NIL. At first blush, that seems unlikely given the federal restrictions mentioned above. However, international student-athletes are allowed to make NIL money off of passive income, which include activities like licensing out name and likeness to trading cards and merchandise.

It’s conceivable that some booster or boosters could provide an aggressively high guarantee on such a licensing deal before any commissions off sales comes in. Or that the NIL payment could be made before the international player actually receives the student visa. Both of these may be loophole possibilities to exploit.

As far as who’s ponying up the most money for BYU athletics, look no farther than businessman Ryan Smith, the owner of the Utah Jazz. As college basketball analyst Aaron Torres says, Smith is “basically the “Chicken Man of Utah, the John Tyson of Utah.”

Just as is the case with Arkansas, a few millions of dollars in NIL can make a much bigger difference per player in basketball than football. Indeed, both BYU and Arkansas both appear to have brighter prospects in basketball. That’s in contrast to the gridiron where both will enter the 2024 season with some of the smallest odds in their respective conferences to win a title according to the top online sportsbooks in the USA.

Nolan Traore

This nearly 6’5″ Frenchman also needs to wait another year before entering the NBA Draft.

Although he just turned 18, the crafty, steady combo guard already has a lot of Johnell Davis in his game, which explains why he too is a projected NBA lottery pick in some 2025 mock drafts. (He’s at No. 5 in NBA Draft Room.) Certainly, it matters that Traore produces against high-caliber competition, as is evidenced by his showing out in the Nike Hoop Summit and in the recent clip below:

The fact Engin and Traore both have already competed against grown men as professionals makes them more ready to step in and contribute as 18-year-olds than most true freshmen coming out of high school. Sure, SEC players may be more athletic than what they are used to, but the skill level and strength wouldn’t be a surprise. Indeed, they would have already competed against teams with superior strength, size and skill in Europe.

Calipari knows he needs to rely less on true freshmen going forward, but Engin and Nolan Traore would be the exception to that rule because of their pro experience.

Traore has already visited Alabama, Xavier and Gonzaga and the fact he didn’t already commit to an American university may mean he’s set on continuing to play professionally given how well he’s been doing in the last few months.

Going to Australia to join the “Next Stars” program is another possibility, Torres says. At this juncture, it does look like Traore is less likely to land in Fayetteville than Demin.

“It would shock me if he ended playing major college basketball over the next year,” Torres said on Tuesday.

Possible Hang-up for Arkansas Basketball

Red tape sure has the potential to ruin a good time.

The federal law around NIL could be a hang-up to an international star deciding to spend a year stateside. Getting the money to pay the buyout of their professional contract abroad would also be a factor.

Even if the money side of things is good to go, though, there is also the chance that the foreigner wouldn’t meet all the academic requirements for entrance into the university.

While many Europeans do take English in school, some basketball players may not be fluent enough to cut it at an American university. Some of them left school in their home countries in the middle of adolescence so it’s unclear where they would be in fulfilling other requirements for entry.

These are complications that work on two levels – with each specific school and with the NCAA at large. Navigating them correctly often takes time.

All this red tape may be enough to keep prospects like Demin and Traore away from college life altogether. Or it may throw a temporary wrench into things.

For a case in point, look no farther than what happened last season with Zvonimir Ivisic, the first of former Wildcats to join Calipari at Arkansas. The Croatian committed to Kentucky on August 1, 2023.

“Kentucky fans just think, “Okay, great. See you at Day 1 of classes, we’re excited to have you,” says Torres. “And then you find out that there’s issues with the NCAA. First, there’s issues with Kentucky’s own admissions. Then there’s issues with the NCAA after.”

Ivisic didn’t arrive on campus on October, then had to take part-time classes before finally getting ruled eligible in January 2024.

There’s nothing cut and dry about bringing a blue-chip European into the fold in this era, but the teams who can do it well are primed to make big waves come March. And, in the case of projected NBA lottery picks like Egor Demin and Nolan Traore, in June as well.

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Below, Torres talks about the latest with Demin at first and then pivots to Nolan Traore at 8:20:

More from Irwin and Courtney Mims on finances for foreign players at 21:45 here:

Even at age 17, Demin operates like someone who has already been a pro for a few years:

More on Arkansas basketball from BoAS:

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