Portis grows up in a hurry for UA

By: Bob Holt
Published: Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Arkansas' Bobby Portis reacts after getting fouled in the second half of Friday night's game against Louisiana-Lafayette at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Photo by Michael Woods
Arkansas' Bobby Portis reacts after getting fouled in the second half of Friday night's game against Louisiana-Lafayette at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE - After California’s experienced big men figuratively kicked some sand in Bobby Portis’ face in the Maui Invitational opener two weeks ago, Arkansas’ 6-10 freshman found himself sitting on the beach.

Instead of relaxing in the Hawaiian paradise and trying to forget that he’d been held to 5 points on 1-of-5 shooting with 1 rebound in 28 minutes in the Bears’ 85-77 victory over the Razorbacks, Portis was feeling as blue as the ocean water.

“After the game, I was kind of down on myself,” Portis said. “I was on the beach, just sitting by myself, and I called Coach. I was like, ‘Coach, can we talk?’ ”

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Portis then left the beach to meet with Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson. He asked Anderson what he was doing wrong, what he needed to do to be more productive.

Often when a player is struggling - especially one as highly touted as Portis - the coach needs to initiate a talk. But Anderson said he wasn’t surprised it was Portis reaching out to him instead.

“That’s why I say this kid doesn’t just want to be good, he wants to be a great player,” Anderson said. “He wants to make sure he’s doing everything possible. He’s a coachable kid. He’s like a sponge.

“Obviously, he wasn’t happy with how he played. So his question to me was, ‘Coach, how can I play better?’ To me, that just tells you what kind of kid he is.”

Anderson’s advice was for Portis to relax and let the game come to him, not to force the issue, and to go get some rebounds, too.

“So I tried to go out there and just be an impact player for our team,” Portis said.

That seems to be working pretty well for the Razorbacks (6-2) and Portis, who in four games since the California loss is averaging 14.8 points and 5.8 rebounds while shooting 62.1 percent from the field (23 of 37) and 92.8 percent from the free-throw line (13 of 14).

Portis has started every game this season and is averaging 11.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.0 blocked shot in 24.5 minutes.

“I think that Hawaii made me a better basketball player, because I was going against people that were bigger and stronger and faster than me,” Portis said. “I just had to adjust.”

Portis had 12 points and seven rebounds in the Razorbacks’ 87-73 victory over Minnesota and a season-high 18 points and seven rebounds in their 91-81 loss to Gonzaga in Maui. He followed that up with 16 points and five rebounds against Southeastern Louisiana and 13 points and four rebounds against Clemson in home victories last week.

Portis, a McDonald’s All-American at Little Rock Hall last season, was named Monday as the SEC Freshman for the Week after averaging 14.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists while shooting 67 percent (10 of 15) from the field against Southeastern Louisiana and Clemson.

“When he had one rebound against California, he took that personally,” Anderson said. “So in his mind, that’s not going to happen again.”

Arkansas senior guard Fred Gulley said Portis showed uncommon maturity in how he handled his initial struggles in Maui.

“I thought the California game was a big learning experience for him,” Gulley said. “He kind of grew up. It was his first time, really, on the big stage. They came out, they were aggressive, they hit us, and that’s something that most freshmen aren’t used to.

“What’s impressed me the most about Bobby is he responded immediately.”

Opposing coaches have been impressed by Portis’ shooting range. While he is 1 of 10 on three-point attempts, he has been hitting mid-range jump shots consistently, often finding open spots in zone defenses.

“He’s got a nice dimension to be able to step out and hit a shot,” Southeastern Louisiana Coach Jim Yarbrough said. “Your big kid maybe wants to hang at home and help a little bit, and that’s an interesting match up to have to go out and get Portis 15, 17 feet from the basket.

“He can certainly shoot that outside shot for a big guy. I’d like to have him. If he gets bored here, he can transfer to Southeastern.”

Clemson Coach Brad Brownell probably wouldn’t mind having Portis, either.

“A very talented inside guy that can do a lot of different things,” Brownell said. “He can spread you out because of the way he can go play out on the court.”

Arkansas senior guard Kikko Haydar said it’s helped the Razorbacks’ offensive flow to have Portis step outside and hit some jump shots.

“He showed he can adjust,” Haydar said. “He started hitting that little short corner jumper instead of going inside every time. Make them stretch the floor and try to guard him. Just playing his game.

“He’s young and he’s going to struggle sometimes, but the way he rebounds from struggling is great to see. I think it shows a lot about him as a player.”

Portis helped Hall win four consecutive state championships.

“I mean, the guy’s only been a part of four state championships,” Anderson said with a laugh. “So that’s a winner’s mentality. He’s going to be a winner in life, and it’s not necessarily just about him, because I think he understands what he brings to this team, how impactful he can be on this team.

“He wants to do everything he can to help our team be the best it can be.”

Sports, Pages 19 on 12/11/2013