Jimmy Carter is an award-winning reporter covering Arkansas football and basketball for WholeHogSports.com. He was born in Texas and grew up in Tulsa. A graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and U.S. Basketball Writers Association.
Hogs banking on bright futures for freshmen
Arkansas forward Adrio Bailey (2) dunks over Alabama forward Donta Hall Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, during the second half of play in Bud Walton Arena.
FAYETTEVILLE — Three hours before Valentine’s Day 2017, Arkansas freshmen Brachen Hazen and Adrio Bailey debuted a love song on Twitter.
For 71 glorious seconds in a campus dorm room, Hazen strummed a laid-back melody on his acoustic guitar while Bailey unabashedly belted out original lyrics to a song they titled ‘Key To My Heart.’
The humorous video was a hit with Razorback fans, even if it subjected the freshmen to some good-natured ribbing from teammates. “My ears are gushing blood,” tweeted senior guard Manny Watkins in reference to Bailey’s confident but off-key vocals.
“Moses (Kingsley) was a fan, for sure,” Hazen opined after practice a day before Arkansas played North Carolina in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“He is a fan,” Bailey assured.
“I almost blocked them on Twitter,” Kingsley shot back, jokingly.
For Hazen, the video was arguably the most publically visible part of his freshman year. He played a grand total of 43 minutes, all of which came in garbage time with the outcome already decided.
Bailey played a bit role, too, for the most part. He started 2 games in February, but was on the outside of the rotation for much of the year. Until that North Carolina game, that is.
Bailey came off the bench with Arkansas down big in the first half and coach Mike Anderson looking for a spark. The 6-foot-6 freshman delivered, producing 4 points and 3 steals in a career-high 19 minutes, providing an infusion of energy and athleticism for an Arkansas team that had struggled against North Carolina’s length and physicality early in the game.
“I wasn’t surprised at all, because (the freshmen) compete in practice every day,” junior guard Jaylen Barford said. “They’re going to be a big part of this team next year.”
And not because of their musical talents.
Arkansas hasn’t made consecutive tournament appearances since 2008. In order to reverse that trend in 2017-18, the Razorbacks will count on progression and meaningful contributions from freshmen who were afforded the opportunity to take a back seat this season thanks to a glut of upperclassmen.
This is an important summer for Bailey, Hazen and guard C.J. Jones.
“To me, all those young guys just need seasoning,” Anderson said. “They didn’t get as much as I would want this year, but we had some guys playing well. But I love their competitiveness in practice each and every day.”
Each of the 3 face different outlooks heading into their sophomore years.
For Bailey, there are still a pair of upperclassmen — seniors-to-be Dustin Thomas and Arlando Cook — at the position he played as a freshman. He spent most of this season as the third 4 on the roster, fourth if you count Trey Thompson, but his athleticism and length give him a higher ceiling than Thomas and Cook.
But will he remain a 4? That is a big question. He was a tremendous shot blocker in high school, averaging 3.9 rejections per game as a senior. His leaping ability and instincts suggest he has potential as a rim protector at the collegiate level, even though the 1.4 blocks he averaged per 40 minutes as a freshman won’t wow anyone.
At 6-foot-6, he will always be on the shorter end of the spectrum as a 4. But that isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker. Basketball in general is trending toward smaller lineups as more teams embrace the benefits of small-ball.
Anderson’s best teams have played a combo forward-type at the 4. Perhaps that is where Bailey is headed, a role where he can slide seamlessly between playing on the wing alongside 2 bigs or function as a player who guards the opposing team’s 4. That kind of positional versatility is invaluable.
But he will have to develop his perimeter skills for that to be a viable option, a reality that will serve as the driving force behind his summer workouts. The easy, oft-heard comparison for Bailey is former Razorback Michael Qualls. Both are from Louisiana. Both possess great athleticism and length. Qualls, like Bailey, was primarily an energy guy as a freshman.
Bailey routinely hears the comparisons to the recent fan favorite and admits they can grow tiresome. He wants to be his own man. And truth be told, while there are some similarities, there are definite differences in their games.
Qualls possessed better perimeter skills than Bailey, even as a freshman. He then honed those skills to turn into an NBA guard prospect by the end of his junior season. It’ll be a more challenging transition for Bailey. He operated almost entirely as a post player in high school and worked with Arkansas’ bigs, not its guards, in practice this season. He will have to make leaps in several areas.
“Definitely ballhandling and my shot,” Bailey said. “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.”
He wasn’t asked to handle the ball much this season and has work to do to become a threat as a shooter. He and the staff tweaked his shot after he arrived on campus, but it’s still an ongoing process. He made just 6 of 19 free throws and 3 of 9 jumpers this year.
Where Bailey and incoming freshman Darious Hall project to play is a central question in any roster-building exercise for these Razorbacks. Hall, like Bailey, stands around 6-6 and is an exceptional athlete. He has a massive 7-foot wingspan. His perimeter skills are a work in progress, but there is upside there.
Do they project as 4s or will they play mostly on the wing? Are they combo forwards who could provide Arkansas with flexibility? These questions are important to the upcoming season and current roster, but they also shape how the coaching staff recruits moving forward.
There isn’t as much mystery with Jones. The staff knows he has the tools to be an impact wing. A bouncy 6-foot-5 guard with a scorer’s mentality and a smooth, picture-perfect shot, it isn’t a stretch to say he has the best pro potential of any returning player on the roster.
He showed glimpses of his talent last year when he was part of the rotation during the nonconference portion of the schedule. He finished the year averaging 16.2 points per 40 minutes, shooting 50 percent from 3 (on 24 attempts) and flashing his athleticism in the open court.
His height, hops and quick release made defending his jumper a chore for opposing guards. He was able to get his shot off with relative ease even against good contests, finishing with an absurd 70 percent effective field goal percentage on catch-and-shoot jumpers, which placed him in the 96th percentile nationally, according to tracking data from Synergy Sports. The sample size for this and anything from Jones' freshman year aren't great, but the eye test makes it hard not to be excited about what he could become.
Jones' per-40 scoring average jumped to an obscene 27.5 in games where he played at least 15 minutes. The catch: it only happened twice all year. Most of the time, he was relegated to a few minutes here and there with the second unit unless Arkansas had built a big lead. In that sense, his production given his limited minutes was impressive. As a scorer, establishing a rhythm with sporadic playing time can be difficult.
After his lights-out performances in Spain against subpar competition and the instant offense he provided during nonconference play, there was a clamor from some for more Jones during SEC play. He heard the questions from classmates who wanted to see more highlights from a player who’d quickly become something of a fan favorite.
He rarely played once SEC action began as Anderson spread minutes for the 3 guard spots between Barford, Daryl Macon, Anton Beard, Manny Watkins and Dusty Hannahs. Jones didn’t play in half of the Hogs’ 24 games after conference play started and only totaled 29 mop-up minutes in the 12 games he did get on the court.
“It was bothering me at first, but now I’m just like, my time is coming, so I’m not worried about it,” Jones said.
Anderson’s decision to trim the rotation made sense, of course. Arkansas averaged a blistering 129.9 points per 100 possessions with Jones on the court, the best individual mark for the Hogs and one that would rank first nationally on the team level for the season. Sure, he probably could have found a few extra minutes for Jones here and there, but it isn’t like the Razorbacks had a shortage of offense. Arkansas had a borderline elite offensive team, thanks in large part to the play of the older guards in front of Jones.
The other end of the court was what kept Jones from having a spot in the rotation once the competition ramped up. The Razorbacks allowed 106.8 points per 100 while he was on the court, the second-worst defensive rating on the team, ahead of Hannahs. There are a lot of factors which play into that number that are out of Jones’ control, but his deficiencies on the defensive end of the court were apparent.
Maturing physically will help him improve. He is listed at 175 pounds and will benefit from an offseason in the weight room adding strength to his skinny frame. He needs to get better at sitting down in a stance and sliding with ballhandlers.
But the main jump he needs to take on the defensive end is a mental one. Simply put, Anderson and the coaching staff didn’t trust he would make the right rotations, be in the right places, consistently enough to put him on the floor against opposing offenses good enough to exploit any lapses by the defense. This was, statistically, the worst defense of Anderson’s head coaching career, but Jones still couldn’t get on the floor because of his defense.
Jones knows this. Anderson was up front with him about his role.
“I’ve got Dusty and Manny at my position, so I’m just learning from those 2,” Jones said. “But he just told me to be patient and my time will come.”
He’s taken initiative to improve as a defender, approaching assistant T.J. Cleveland during the year to set up one-on-one film sessions before or after every practice. The tape study became a common occurrence, with each meeting typically lasting around 30 minutes as Cleveland went over practice film to point out what Jones missed.
“Rotations, help-ball defense stuff,” Jones said.
Arkansas needs that extra work to pay dividends because it will rely on Jones in a big way next year. Hannahs and Watkins’ graduation frees up 47 minutes of playing time in the backcourt.
Jones has the potential to go from being the sixth guard in a five-guard rotation to a key part of the backcourt. It isn’t a stretch to think he plays more than 20 minutes a night and routinely scores in double-figures. And while it’s unfair to expect him to replace what Hannahs brought to the table offensively, at least as a sophomore, his shooting will be relied on to help fill that void.
“We saw the glimpses in Spain and even this year, so it’s going to be his time with Dusty moving on now,” Anderson said.
Hazen, like Jones, was a spring signee last year. Unlike Jones, he has a less clear path to playing time.
He rarely played this year despite the 4 being Arkansas’ weakest position. That in and of itself isn’t a big issue. Plenty of good college players sit the bench as freshmen. But he will need to make a big jump in order to crack the rotation at what is a crowded position despite the relative lack of production Arkansas had there last year.
Bailey, Thomas and Cook will all be back and Hall joins the mix. Thomas and Cook will graduate after next season, but heralded commit Reggie Perry and uber-athletic Ethan Henderson will join the mix after that. Perry is a Bobby Portis-level recruit and it’s hard to see him not coming in and commanding big playing time from day one.
Hazen needs to continue improving in a few areas this offseason, areas that kept him from cracking the rotation as a freshman.
Physically, he wasn’t ready. He only weighed 189 pounds when he arrived on campus, putting him at a strength disadvantage. He didn’t possess the quickness to guard wings and doing so would’ve taken minutes away from the guards, so playing alongside 2 bigs was out of the question, too.
He’s worked with strength coach Adam Pettway to bulk up to 205, making gains in the weight room and adhering to a flexible diet plan.
“It’s not that bad, honestly,” Hazen said. “For me, (Pettway) just said ‘Eat a lot.’ So that’s the easiest thing. Not a lot of restrictions.”
Despite his lack of weight hindering his ability to hold box outs, he has shown the ability to make an impact on the glass, both in practices and his limited playing time. He has good hops and a nose for the basketball that allows him to track it off the rim and fly through tight spaces to win contested boards.
He competes. He can also shoot the ball, a skill no other 4 on the roster has consistently displayed in games. Hazen hasn’t had that chance yet, but has more potential as a floor spacer than any of the other bigs.
“The way (Dustin Thomas is) playing, that’s what I’m going for: the stretch 4, play the 3 a little bit,” Hazen said. “I definitely see myself stepping out on the wing and hitting a couple open shots, rebounding a lot for the team, getting to the basket.”
Shooting is the great equalizer. A player who can shoot and rebound will have a chance to earn a role. For Hazen, this offseason is about continuing to transform his body while becoming more consistent with his jumper.
“Brachen is going to be that stretch 4 that we need,” Anderson said. “… The game just has to slow down for him and he has to get a little stronger. This summer’s going to be big for him.
Ditto for Bailey and Jones. Arkansas will count on the trio to be contributors as sophomores.
But don’t expect the pressure of larger roles to dissuade Hazen and Bailey from making a follow-up to ‘Key to my Heart.’
“It’s in the making,” Hazen said. “You’ve got to stay tuned.”
“Oh my god, no, no, no, no,” Kingsley groaned in the background.
The public reaction to the original tune won’t put a damper on Bailey’s vocals.
“We got him lessons,” Hazen said.
So when is the sequel coming out?
“It’ll be soon,” Hazen said.
Arkansas fans are hopeful the same timeline applies to Hazen and Bailey (and Jones) making an impact on the court in Bud Walton Arena.
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