Adrio Bailey ready to assume bigger role

By: Jimmy Carter
Published: Monday, October 9, 2017
Adrio Bailey takes part in practice Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, during Arkansas men's baskebtall media day at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Adrio Bailey takes part in practice Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, during Arkansas men's baskebtall media day at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

— Adrio Bailey sprinted down the Bud Walton Arena court in a 3-on-2 transition drill, leapt high and authoritatively slammed home an alley-oop from transfer point guard Jalen Harris.

Minutes later, in another fullcourt drill, the sophomore forward caught a pass as he slid to the baseline and rose up without hesitation, firing and swishing an 18-foot jumper.

The first scene wasn’t a surprise. Bailey has been a high-flyer throwing down massive dunks since his high school days in Campti, La. His athleticism was on display last year in his limited playing time as a freshman.

But the shooting? That’s new.

“He’s really improved on his shot,” assistant coach Melvin Watkins said. “And I think he’s now confident and he’s shooting it in practice.”

That’s a substantial development for a player who could have something of a breakout sophomore season in the cards.

“He is playing fantastic right now,” coach Mike Anderson said.

Last season, Bailey only took 9 jumpers and made just 3, according to Synergy Sports tracking data. He only knocked down 6 of 19 free throw attempts. As a post player in high school, Bailey rarely operated outside the paint, which meant his shot had a long way to go when he arrived on campus in Fayetteville.

But a year later, his form is more fluid and natural, without a hitch. This isn’t to suggest he’s turned himself into a stretch big over the course of six months, but the improvement is a reflection of the time he's spent in the gym honing his game this offseason.

“The next step would be shooting in games and we’re not there yet, but he’s shooting it a lot better,” Watkins said.

Arkansas coaches would be thrilled if Bailey is able to occasionally knock down jumpers once the real games roll around, but truth be told, that’d be a bonus.

They aren't counting on Bailey to become a double-double machine or morph into a stretch 4, but they are going to rely on him to impact the game with his athleticism on both ends of the court, using his length and hops to finish around the basket, clean the glass, wreak havoc in pressure situations and protect the rim.

For Arkansas to have the kind of season it needs, Bailey will have to assume a more featured role at a position where help is needed.

“The thing to me is just our forwards have to continue to develop,” coach Mike Anderson said. “And those guys have.”

The Hogs must have better play from its 4s. For the past 2 years, the position has been the team’s weak link.

Last year’s starter, Dustin Thomas, saved his best for (almost) last, contributing a season-high 13 points in the opening-round NCAA Tournament win over Seton Hall. The Razorbacks don’t advance without his performance.

He didn’t replicate the performance in the second round, but Bailey picked up the slack in spot minutes, providing a spark at the 4 with his energy and athleticism off the bench as Arkansas went toe to toe with eventual champ North Carolina.

The performances were impressive and necessary. Their role in the Razorbacks piecing together two of their better games in a high-stakes environment can’t be understated or overlooked.

But they were also something of anomalies. Most of the year, Arkansas won at a high level in spite of its play at the 4.

Thomas and Arlando Cook, who is currently suspended after his second run-in with the law in a year, had their moments in their first year in Fayetteville, but neither could consistently put together solid performances. Bailey was largely relegated to spot minutes and didn’t always provide a Carolina-esque boost when called upon.

The position was once again a weak point. Arkansas was better than in 2015-16, but the difference was of course the better talent elsewhere on the roster.

Moses Kingsley was one of the better players in the SEC each of the last 2 years, producing at a rate that helped mask some of the deficiencies of his frontcourt partners. Trey Thompson was arguably the most effective player next to Kingsley despite being a natural 5 in build and play style.

But Kingsley has graduated and there’s no guarantee Thompson will be able to play alongside his apparent replacement, highly touted freshman Daniel Gafford. Neither Thompson or Gafford have proven to this point they can stretch the floor like Kingsley, so spacing with that frontcourt could be dicey.

In any case, Arkansas needs better play from its nominal 4s, of which Thomas and Bailey are the only 2 with the team early in camp. The Razorbacks didn’t require much scoring from that bunch a year ago, but a different roster makeup this season could necessitate more of a punch from the position.

Whether that’s realistic or not remains to be seen.

Thomas was Anderson’s most-trusted player at the 4. The distinction should be viewed in relative terms, but he started 27 games and was the only 4 who was a mainstay in the rotation all season.

Thomas’ most memorable outing of the year was the performance against Seton Hall in the tourney, a timely effort that showcased what he could bring to the table. The only problem is that was one of the few times he actually brought it. Often, he struggled against size.

While assuming a 21-year-old can’t improve his game is ludicrous, it is fair to wonder if a player who hasn’t been a reliably solid contributor in 3 Division I seasons can finally turn into one as a fifth-year senior.

“He’s got to be able to help our basketball team,” Anderson said.

Thomas and Thompson may begin the season as the starting frontcourt given Anderson’s tendency to lean toward seniors early. They displayed a good chemistry when on the court together last year as Arkansas blitzed opponents by 11.6 points per 100 possessions when they shared the floor.

Thomas has good court vision and can bring some modicum of playmaking to the table. He has a respectable jumper when he’s on-balance, evidenced by the Seton Hall performance.

But he has a tendency to throw up leg-kicky mid-range shots when contested: he made just 10 of 32 jumpers last season, per Synergy, all but 5 of which were of the mid-range variety. The small sample size of his jump shooting (less than 100 shots in 3 years) is as telling as the 28.4 percent he shoots on them, including 22.8 percent of his 3-pointers, while hitting a mediocre 63.1 percent of his foul shots.

It stands to reason Thomas is the odds-on favorite to open the year as a starter, but he isn’t the only option with DI experience anymore.

Bailey has the most potential of any 4 on the roster. He isn’t big, standing just 6-foot-6 and listed at just 204 pounds, but his athleticism makes up for what he lacks in height and then some. Besides, how many teams in today’s basketball really play 2 bruisers who both post up on a regular basis?

He had specific areas he wanted to work on heading into the offseason.

“Definitely ballhandling and my shot,” Bailey said in March. “By me being out on the wing, I have to become a threat with dribbling and shooting. So I’ve developed that a little bit more than I had before.”

The shot looks better. If Bailey can be a player who operates functionally on the perimeter as well as on the baseline in the dunker spot, his value skyrockets. He already possesses the kind of versatility Anderson covets on the defensive end.

His real value is using his athleticism and motor to impact the game in ways the other 4s on the roster simply can’t, finishing above the rim and attacking the offensive glass on one end and being a springy, multi-positional defender who can protect the rim on the other.

His line against North Carolina wasn’t huge — 4 points and 3 steals in a season-high 19 minutes — but he helped change the game with his energy and activity. Eight months later, he’s not only more skilled but more chiseled physically and in better shape to play with a high motor more consistently.

“The guy that’s just really right now just cleaning the glass is Adrio Bailey,” Anderson said.

Freshmen Darious Hall and Gabe Osabuohien might play some at the 4, especially Hall if the Razorbacks want to go the small-ball route that was so effective for them during stretches last year.

But Thomas and Bailey are the odds-on favorites to begin the season as the tandem at the 4, particularly if Cook’s legal situation lingers. Arkansas needs Bailey to step up as a sophomore. He trended the right direction over the summer and early in practice.

“Oh, he’s really…” Watkins started before trailing off when asked about Bailey’s improvement.

He paused while deciding what area of improvement to point out first. There were a number of options.

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