FAYETTEVILLE — Three weeks ago, it appeared Arkansas’ 2020-21 basketball roster was set following shooting guard Isaiah Joe’s announcement that he would return to school for his junior year.
On Monday, the Fort Smith native changed course, re-entering this year’s NBA Draft. He indicated his decision was influenced by college conferences recently calling off seasons in major sports because of covid-19.
Earlier this month, I attempted to project the Razorbacks’ rotation with Joe in the fold, breaking down roles into four tiers – star, potential starter/key rotation player, bench contributor, spot minutes. With Joe now pursuing a pro career, this needs to be revisited.
Below is my original analysis from Aug. 3. Under each player, I have added a “What’s changed” section to reflect Joe’s departure.
A go-to player who could turn in an All-SEC type season.
Isaiah Joe | 6-5, 180
Stats (2019-20): 16.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.7 apg
Initial analysis: Joe is one of the premier 3-point shooters in the country and the definition of a team-first guy. He became Arkansas’ go-to option on the offensive end the moment he pulled his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft. While many say he experienced a bit of a down year in 2019-20 in terms of perimeter shooting, he missed six games and still knocked down 94 3s, which led the SEC. He was hampered by a knee injury as well, which impacted his balance and effectiveness. I believe he is still underrated as a defender, too. Joe has solid defensive anticipation and is not afraid in the least to sacrifice his body for the team.
Barring injury, I cannot envision any scenario in which he is not in the starting lineup. Landing in Eric Musselman’s doghouse seems wholly unrealistic based on everything we know about Joe.
What’s changed: Joe has re-entered the draft. Arkansas takes a hit in terms of leadership and potential explosiveness offensively. However, thanks to the roster makeover in the last year-plus, the Razorbacks seem to be built to absorb this blow. His decision provides an opportunity for additional playing time for a handful of players and vaults others into more-prominent roles.
POTENTIAL STARTERS/KEY ROTATION PLAYERS
It would not surprise me to see these players start and play an integral role in team success. They have a great chance to play meaningful minutes.
Desi Sills | 6-1, 202
Stats (2019-20): 10.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.2 apg
Initial analysis: Had Isaiah Joe opted to keep his name in this year’s draft, Sills would have been the Razorbacks’ most experienced returning player by a long shot. He is, in my opinion, a pretty safe bet to be in the starting lineup and on the floor late in games. He’s been there and done that in the SEC for two seasons, and it appeared Sills bought into Musselman’s system as a sophomore, bringing great energy and toughness to the lineup.
He does, though, have to become more consistent offensively. In each of his two seasons at Arkansas, Sills has closed the season very well — especially from the perimeter — after slow starts. Tracking his workouts on social media, Sills has trained since the end of last season to be a player that the Razorbacks cannot afford to take off the floor.
I view Sills as a starter from the outset, but a case could be made for bringing him off the bench. Over 34 career games he did not start, Sills has shot nearly 50 percent from the floor and 44 percent beyond the arc. Last season, he put up better than 14 points on 55.6 percent from 3 over eight games in a non-starting role. He would be able to provide experience for and lead the second unit should the staff instead decide to run with another guard to begin games.
What’s changed: Sills has more experience playing under Musselman than anyone on the roster, and it’s not close. As a junior, he will be looked to for leadership on and away from the floor. His voice will be respected even more now. Joe exiting the program locks Sills into the starting lineup, in my opinion. He is expected to pick up some of the slack offensively and be the heart and soul of this group.
Vance Jackson | 6-9, 238
Stats (2019-20): 11.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.3 apg
Initial analysis: Early reports from Arkansas’ first few weeks of practices indicate Jackson has been remarkably efficient from 3-point range. Musselman estimated the New Mexico transfer knocked down 70 of 79 triples in one of the team’s workouts. I am high on Jackson, a seasoned addition who on top of providing perimeter shooting is likely to bring rebounding, grown-man toughness and flair. Truth be told, I believe he can join Joe as one of the team’s stars. He is an immediate impact guy to me, and consistent play from him makes the Razorbacks a dangerous team.
In learning more about Jackson after he committed on April 1, one of the knocks on him was that he could disappear for stretches and not truly impact games. I think Musselman can push the right buttons and keep him engaged on both ends of the floor.
Will Webber of the Santa Fe New Mexican told me earlier in the year that Jackson might be a diva in the eyes of some, but he has the skillset to play for a check somewhere.
What’s changed: More shots have opened up for a dangerous perimeter shooter. I envision his role on the offensive end being much more prominent. As I wrote above, I’m a big believer in Jackson and think he will become one of the team’s most productive players. He can be a star.
Justin Smith | 6-7, 230
Stats (2019-20): 10.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 0.9 apg
Initial analysis: Smith brings experience to the table having played significant, meaningful minutes in another power conference, and elite athleticism (48-inch vertical at the NBA combine). He led Indiana in minutes played in 2019-20 and, according to one Hoosiers beat writer, the team will likely miss him most on the defensive end. Also, he is effective in transition, described as flashy thanks to his bounce.
One downside to Smith’s game is that he has been pretty ineffective as a jumpshooter throughout his career. He has shot 25 percent from 3 and is probably best suited 12 feet and in. But, word is Smith has already improved his touch a bit in just a short time on campus. If he gradually grows in that area, it is going to be awfully hard to take him off the floor.
What’s changed: I don’t believe Joe leaving impacts Smith too much. His energy and athleticism is going to ensure playing time. If you’ve been paying attention to the videos coming out of Arkansas’ practices, he brings an abundance of both to the table. And he’s a solid defender. Barring something unforeseen, he’s locked into a key role.
JD Notae | 6-1, 195
Stats (2018-19): 15.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.4 apg
Initial analysis: Coming off of a redshirt season the coaching staff was encouraged by, Notae will be battling for a starting job in the coming months. As of now, he is sidelined with a left wrist injury. He was wearing a cast but appears to have transitioned to a brace and should return to practice in a couple of weeks, which is a positive. If all goes well in recovery, I think he becomes a key piece of this team. Coaches saw an uptick in Notae’s strength, 3-point stroke and confidence during last season. They expect him to be a major part of the team’s success.
At Jacksonville, Notae ranked in the top 5 in usage rate in Atlantic Sun play both seasons. Surrounded by a more talented cast of players, I don’t believe he’ll feel the need to hunt his shot as much, and we’ll get a sense for what he brings to the table as a playmaker. According to KenPom, he has a top 5 assist rate in 2018-19 with the Dolphins and finished with five-plus assists nine times.
What’s changed: Notae is practicing on a limited basis following his wrist injury and will soon start really making a push for significant playing time. You have to wonder if other guards have elevated in the eyes of the staff in Notae’s time away from the floor. I still believe steady run, and perhaps a starting role, is in Notae’s future.
Jalen Tate | 6-6, 175
Stats (2019-20): 13.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.6 apg
Initial analysis: You know what you’re going to get with Tate: A very, very solid defender. He made a name for himself on the defensive end of the floor at Northern Kentucky. And according to HoopLens analytics, he was efficient at the rim with the Norse. That sounds like a great combination.
Tate is a candidate to not only start but finish games for the Razorbacks. Don Owen, a sports writer for the Northern Kentucky Tribune, told me after Tate committed to Arkansas that he is “very good in late-game situations.” Another plus is Tate is a high fouls-drawn player, and Musselman is all about free throws attempted.
What’s changed: Joe leaving opened up a slot in the starting lineup and Tate remains a viable candidate there. If Musselman wanted to add a defense-first component to that group, he fits. He has some Jimmy Whitt-like qualities. Tate isn’t known as a scorer, but he showed he was capable at Northern Kentucky. But how quickly he transitions to higher-level basketball will determine his role. I see him getting a decent amount of minutes each night. You can’t discount his experience.
Connor Vanover | 7-3, 247
Stats (2018-19): 7.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 0.2 apg
Initial analysis: Exactly how Musselman and his staff will operate with Vanover on the floor this season is undoubtedly one of the more interesting questions to ponder as the season approaches. At 7-3 and nearly 250 pounds with a soft touch from the perimeter, he is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. He is also effective as a passer from the pinch post.
The question is how much run will Vanover be able to provide? And what about Arkansas’ course of action defensively when he is in the lineup? One of the coaching staff’s projects this summer was coming up with a definable way to play pick-and-rolls with Vanover on the floor. I can certainly see him getting starting nods on a regular basis, but he might have to work his way into being among the five who close games.
What’s changed: I think Vanover will now have even more of a green light. Arkansas will still want to get out and run when he’s in the lineup, and he can be deadly in transition as the trailer.
Moses Moody | 6-6, 205
Stats (high school): 11.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.8 apg
Initial analysis: Moody is ready to not only play right away but be a key figure on this team from the get-go. His jumper is smooth as silk, he possesses solid length and has a maturity about him not often found in true freshmen. Moody can become a team leader in his first year on campus.
Couple that with a knack for finishing around the rim and an underrated ability to rebound on both ends, he is in a great position to play meaningful minutes and have a significant role. As of now, I envision him starting the season opener, but it will hinge on how quickly he acclimates to college basketball. I think Moody has star potential.
What’s changed: I envision Moody assuming a good deal of what Joe brought to the table, and that can vault him into star status. Based on what we’ve seen in practice videos, Moody is not shying away from competition and has already made a splash. He’s not a typical freshman. I see him as one of the team’s go-to guys offensively from the jump.
These players could start games this season, but I believe they will likely they come off the bench. It would not come as a shock to see them find the rotation, but they will have to compete to earn minutes due to depth.
Jaylin Williams | 6-10, 245
Stats (high school): 18.7 ppg, 12.2 rpg, 2.7 apg
Initial analysis: Williams is one of the new faces I’m most excited by. The Williams family, according to Fort Smith Northside basketball coach Eric Burnett, has been told Jaylin could grow a few more inches and reach 7-1. That, plus what we already know about him (can stretch the floor and shoot the 3, great vision for a big, mobile, high IQ), could put him on the radar of NBA teams before too long.
Given the experience of the frontcourt players who figure to be slotted ahead of him, it will probably be tough for him to work his way in the starting lineup early on, but his presence will be needed, for sure. With time, I think the 5 spot can be his, and opponents will have their hands full.
What’s changed: I still believe Williams is in line to receive quality minutes as a freshman. He will need some time to grow accustomed to squaring off with college bigs, but I have no doubts he’ll get there sooner rather than later. Williams is another forward on the roster who can and will provide a lift from the perimeter.
These players may have an uphill battle to crack the rotation.
KK Robinson | 6-0, 175
Stats (high school): 10.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 7.5 apg
Initial analysis: I am eager to see where Robinson stands the closer we get to the season. He has tremendous potential. Arkansas’ staff likes his competitiveness, selfless nature and the pressure he can put on ballhandlers. Speed with the ball in his hands is a plus, too, and he operates well in the open floor off the bounce and with advance passes.
Robinson is a point guard who is a facilitator (7.5 assists per game at Oak Hill last season). I think he could provide some perimeter scoring as well, but like Davis, there are a lot of bodies ahead of him.
What’s changed: Well, Arkansas is down one key guard, leaving the door open for one of the other freshmen in the backcourt to jump in. I think Robinson is most ready to do so. I like him as a floor general, I’m high on his defensive potential, and his jumper can be a weapon. I see him as a bench contributor who could shoot into the starting lineup if more-seasoned guards don’t bring it.
Davonte Davis | 6-4, 180
Stats (high school): 21 ppg, 10 rpg, 8 apg
Initial analysis: You simply can’t teach some of the things Davis brings to the table. He’s shifty, crafty, quick, and I don’t think there’s any doubt he will become a tremendous playmaker for the Razorbacks. However, there are four experienced guards on the roster who are essentially locks for playing time, plus Moody, so how much run he gets will likely depend on progress made this preseason and how he latches on to what is being thrown at him.
Davis needs to find more consistency with his jumper. If he can do that, and hone his decision making and handle, I could see him making a good impression as a freshman.
What’s changed: The opportunity for an expanded role is there for the young guards. I just think Robinson may be a step ahead of Davis at this point. Doesn’t mean that can’t change, but I still envision spot minutes for Davis. I’ll be curious to hear what kind of impression he has made on Musselman and the staff in the first few weeks of practice.
Ethan Henderson | 6-8, 210
Stats: 1.6 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 0.8 bpg
Initial analysis: Outside of Joe and Sills, Henderson is Arkansas’ most experienced returning player. He played really well — probably the best ball of his career – toward the end of the last season, averaging 3.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks over 20-plus minutes per game in March. It would benefit Arkansas greatly if he were able to channel that run and provide more quality depth, but he had a difficult time getting on the floor last season with a very short bench.
What’s changed: With the depth at forward, I still believe it will be a challenge for Henderson to get on the floor and play much of a role. Perhaps he can make a jump this preseason, but that is yet to be seen.