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.
8 things I like and don't like, featuring C.J. Jones' deep range
Arkansas guard C.J. Jones hits a 3-pointer against Minnesota Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017, during the first half in Bud Walton Arena.
C.J. Jones bombing from deep
FAYETTEVILLE The corner 3-pointer is arguably the best shot in the NBA because the 3-point line is closer to the basket in the corners than at any other place on the court at that level.
Teams know this and work to generate as many open corner 3s as they can within the flow of their offenses. The logic is sound: players are more accurate the closer they are and feel more comfortable shooting from shorter distances.
Not C.J. Jones.
The sophomore guard consistently parks it four or five feet behind the arc, by design. Some players will do this and then move toward the line as they hop into their gather, but Jones actually prefers shooting it from 23 to 25 feet, insisting he's more comfortable from farther out.
It's a small but important habit. In a game where a few inches make a big difference, a few extra feet of space represents a massive edge.
The results have been hard to argue with. After a 2 of 10 start through four games, Jones is a blistering 18 of 34 from 3-point range the last five games while averaging 15.2 points off the bench.
He'll be hard-pressed to shoot 53 percent from deep all season, but his production and the nearly seven attempts a game in the stretch are both encouraging. His bigger role against North Carolina after Daryl Macon's ankle injury served to spark him. Since, he's played with confidence and his teammates have looked for him. His off-ball movement has been solid as he's freed himself for looks.
It's also easier to find someone when they're standing four or five feet off the line, further removed from the fray than usual. It benefits spacing.
Opposing teams know by now Jones is a shooter, which means defenders will be increasingly less likely to stray far from him to help. By stationing himself a few feet off the line, Jones is using his gravity to open up the floor for others while making himself more available. If defenders do help, they have farther to travel and farther to get back should the ball be swung to him. If they don't, more of the floor is open for his teammates.
His value is quantifiable. Arkansas is averaging 119.4 points with him on the court, according to HoopLens.com, while his plus-25.7 net rating is second on the team to freshman center Daniel Gafford among regular rotation players.
So keep letting them fly from way out there, C.J. It's fun to watch and has contributed to a lights-out offense with the sharpshooter on the floor.
Maximizing the effectiveness of ball screens
Daryl Macon is a marked man.
The senior guard is one of the best scorers in the SEC and was one of its most efficient players as a junior last year. He can score from all three levels, capable of slithering into off-dribble 3-pointers, hitting tough mid-rangers or getting to the rim.
Opposing teams don't want the ball in his hands, which is why more coaches have taken an aggressive approach to defending Macon this year.
Often, when Macon uses a ball screen, the screener's man will hedge or show, moving laterally along with Macon while the guard defending him goes over the screen and chases from behind, essentially forming a double-team.
The goal is to make Macon give up the ball. Early on, he seemed taken aback by the strategy, often just backing up toward halfcourt and re-setting. The defense can live with that, too. No advantage is gained.
But he's making teams pay now as he grows more comfortable, creating open looks by firing pocket passes to the rolling or popping screener.
That's a big-time feed and an important development for Macon, who tied his career-high with eight assists against the Golden Gophers.
Arkansas runs a motion offense, but, like most teams, will use ball screens to put its guards in position to get downhill and make plays. But the Razorbacks tended to struggle in two key areas when they ran pick-and-rolls early in the year.
Spacing can be an issue at times. A pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop is most effective with the defense spread out. The initial ball screen forces reactionary help rotations that, with a properly spaced floor, can lead to open shots or driving lanes.
Too often, Arkansas' ballhandler would get a ball screen with a cluttered floor, encountering, say, a non-screening big and his defender at the elbow or coming off a screen to find a teammate planted in the area on the perimeter, his man digging down to gum up the action. Poor spacing mucked up what could have led to an open shot.
The other issue was a failure to make use of the screening big, whether he rolled or popped. Some of this is on the bigs for tending to try to slip the screen, rolling before contact is made, leaving the ballhandler without a tangible advantage. But Arkansas' guards also often just didn't get the ball to the big, plowing head-first into the lane with tunnel vision.
The first six games, the screening big finished just seven possessions. The next two games, they finished six. Against Minnesota alone, the number jumped to seven.
The needle is moving the right way, largely thanks to Macon's willingness to playmake. If teams continue to hedge against him, he has shown the capability to make them pay.
The cost of chasing blocks
Daniel Gafford has five multi-block games already this year, including Saturday's six-swat owning of the Golden Gophers.
He ranks eighth in the SEC in blocks per game (1.9), fifth in blocks per 40 minutes (4.0) and fourth in block percentage (10.8). The last two figures indicate his numbers should get even better as he continues to gain experience and learn how to avoid foul trouble.
Arkansas' defense goes to another level with the 6-foot-11 freshman on the court. The Razorbacks allow just 89.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, a number that would be tied for 13th in the nation on a team level this season. His length and athleticism make him a deterrent at the rim and his ability to rebound out of his area can help the Hogs limit teams to one shot.
But it's tough to rebound on plays when you contest shots and Gafford's teammates have to be cognizant of that fact. When he's cleaning up your mistakes by rotating to protect the rim, you have to be there for him on the glass should the offensive player get a shot off.
Defenses have to be able to help the helper. At times, that's been an issue.
Arlando Cook has to recognize Gafford is going for the contest and it's his responsibility to man the defensive glass on the weakside. This is also where guards chipping in becomes important. It's their job to converge on the paint, get into the legs of opposing bigs and contribute to securing a rebound. Barford is late in doing so.
Arkansas ranks No. 194 in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom, claiming 70.6 percent of opponent misses. That's actually on pace to be the best mark of Anderson's tenure at Arkansas and a major step up from last year's 65.8 rate, which ranked 333rd out of 351 teams.
But that doesn't mean it isn't still somewhat of an issue. Sure, the Hogs are willing to sacrifice a bit on the defensive glass to play smaller, more versatile players and extend their pressure, banking on the extra turnovers forced and energy expended will tilt the possession game in their favor.
But protecting the defensive glass has been an issue at times. North Carolina gobbled up almost 35 percent of its misses in Portland. Minnesota rebounded almost 39 percent of its errant shots, but couldn't make the Hogs pay.
To be clear, the occasional rebounding issues aren't solely the result of going for shot blocks. Box outs need to occur more frequently rather than simply trying to out-leap opponents. Guards have to do a more consistent job. Little stuff like Trey Thompson preferring to tip the ball to himself rather than grab it with two hands has cost possessions when the ball caroms out of bounds.
Defensive rebounding is a team effort and an important part of Arkansas' offense. If the Hogs grab a defensive board, they're off to the races and can take advantage of their athleticism in the open court.
The Razorbacks' work on the defensive glass has been improved as a whole so far this year, but it could always be better.
The rise of Sharkansas
There was no warning for it.
Out of the blue, about 80 students showed up to the Minnesota game decked out in shark costumes, packing the portion of the student section behind one of the basketball goals in Bud Walton Arena.
They were impossible to miss, in person or on TV, looking like a bunch of Katy Perry concert extras who'd wandered in after a rough Friday evening. The idea started with a few students and quickly spread to dozens who wound up purchasing the costume off Amazon for $36 a pop.
I'm all for the Sharkansas movement.
Naysayers point to Ole Miss' Landshark initiative, which predates Sharkansas by a few years, insinuating having a similar concept is some unholy copycat sham. To those people: it's OK to have fun! Really!
The costumes contributed to what was a great atmosphere Saturday.
Sharkansas is unique and humorous. Most importantly, it is the result of students showing up and actively supporting a basketball team that is potentially pretty salty.
And isn't that's what is most important? Hopefully Sharkansas is here to stay and becomes a thing.
A telltale sign of good offense
Arkansas' 91-65 loss to Houston was a showcase for isolation, stagnant basketball.
The tenets of Anderson's motion offense were almost nonexistent and largely ineffective as Houston, like North Carolina, had success taking Arkansas out of its offense by extending its defense, pressuring the Razorback guards by getting up into their bodies and playing physically on the perimeter. Arkansas' guards reacted by trying to attack the pressure one-on-one, iso'ing and pounding the rock.
Needless to say, it didn't work. Macon, Barford and Anton Beard are each talented and capable scorers, but iso ball generally isn't a recipe for sustainable success, especially when it results in forced 2-point jumpers.
To its credit, Arkansas did bounce back in impressive fashion in wins over Colorado State and Minnesota, posting a gaudy 124.3 offensive rating against the Rams and bettering it with a 126.7 against the Golden Gophers. For the season, Arkansas' adjusted 116.8 mark ranks 28th in the nation, according to KenPom.
When the Razorbacks are at their offensive best, they're often operating in transition or semi-transition, taking advantage of unset defenses by pushing the pace and generating open looks in early offense.
In the halfcourt, off-ball movement is the sign of whether players are engaged in running motion the way it needs to be in order for it to be successful.
Sometimes that means guards screening for each other to confuse the defense. Other times, it's backdoor cuts or dribble handoffs to get open.
There are always going to be plenty of curls off pindown screens, too. The off-ball action is a regular occurrence designed to free up guards and put them in a position to attack.
If the Hogs are in a funk, players tend to halfheartedly go through the motions, which means they struggle to free themselves up. When they're in-tune and giving effort, the result can be pretty basketball.
Barford is a master at using pindowns to free himself, getting low around the screen and attacking near the foul line on the catch.
The screen gives him a step or two on his defender and it's light's out. He gets the ball going downhill where his upper body strength and explosiveness allow him to finish through, over or around contact depending on what the situation calls for. He is shooting an outstanding 14 of 19 after coming off screens, good for an obscene 1.583 points per possession, ranking him in the 96th percentile in the nation.
He is the best on the team at using these pindowns to free himself, but the Hogs as a whole are good, ranking in the 84th percentile nationally as a team.
When players are flying into pindowns, curling off them and ready to attack, it's a sign Arkansas' offense is in-sync and operating as intended. When that's the case, the Hogs are generally hard to stop.
Daniel Gafford's rapidly expanding repertoire
Daniel Gafford caught the ball on the right baseline about 18 feet from the basket, faced up, ripped through and drove baseline with a hard dribble.
That was all he needed, using it to set up a hard spin to the left and stretching his go-go-gadget right arm out to finish at the rim with touch.
Goodness. The play looked effortless, but in reality was a high degree of difficulty move. It was also further evidence of Gafford's quickly improving offensive bag of tricks.
The lanky freshman arrived on campus full of potential but still relatively raw from a skill standpoint. Months later, his offensive game was still very much a work in progress in preseason practices, even as his elite athleticism and length made it apparent he would be a difference maker.
Those attributes made Gafford somewhat of a sure thing, all but guaranteeing he would be able to impact immediately, which he has. But his rapid offensive development makes him an entirely different beast.
He displayed quite a bit Saturday, scoring 16 points and making all eight of his shots. Three were dunks, impressive finishes that have been essentially unmatched at getting the Bud Walton Arena crowd fired up.
But more impressive were his finishes around the hoop, like the clip above. As he's grown more comfortable, he is playing with more assertiveness.
He doesn't get in a hurry and sets up the righty finish by faking toward the middle before turning back baseline to set up a strong score over his left shoulder. The most impressive part was the physical bump he used to create space, an encouraging aggression we're starting to see more often.
He is playing like he is the best player on the court and knows it.
Gafford has made 12 of 19 shots on post-ups and is averaging an absurd 1.316 points per possession on such plays, according to Synergy, a rate that puts him in the 89th percentile nationally and second in the SEC only to Texas A&M's Tyler Davis.
To put it in perspective, Moses Kingsley averaged 0.856 ppp last year, ranking in the 35th percentile nationally and placing 31st in the SEC, easily last among high-usage post-up players.
Gafford's potential is so high and he is already evolving into so much more than a finisher who uses his athleticism as a roller or in the dunker spot. Opposing teams will start to double more frequently, but he's shown an advanced ability to remain calm and read the floor out of traps, burning defenses with dishes for layups.
Less than 10 percent of his possessions end in turnovers, an impressive rate for such a young player and one that easily is better than teammates Trey Thompson, Adrio Bailey and Dustin Thomas.
He knocked down an elbow jumper against Minnesota, just his second make in six attempts so far this year. That is the part of his offensive game that needs the most work, but his 62.5 percent foul shooting has been a pleasant surprise. Adding lift to his shot and honing it with repetition will be key to making it more consistent.
There's little reason to think that part of his game won't continue to develop along with everything else. He is way ahead of schedule and still has so much room to grow, a scary thought for opponents.
He made his debut at No. 39 in ESPN's updated Top 100 draft prospect rankings Tuesday. Frankly, I'm surprised it took this long.
He'll keep moving up the list if he keeps progressing at this rate.
Dustin Thomas, now with shooting
Dustin Thomas made just 17 of 63 jump shots during his freshman and sophomore years at Colorado. Not so great.
But the 6-foot-8 forward spent his transfer year at Arkansas re-tooling his jumper, a process I wrote about in-depth last summer. The mission: to be on balance more often, with less of the exaggerated leg kick that had made accuracy an issue to that point. His shot in practice was impressive, complete with good form and results to go with it.
But it didn't consistently carry over onto the court last year. Aside from the timely, crucial 13-point performance against Seton Hall in the NCAA Tournament, Thomas struggled with his shot, hitting just 10 of 32 jumpers.
That brought his three-year total to 27 of 95, an ugly 28.4 percent. That made it tough to put much stock in offseason whispers about Thomas' much-improved jumper. It felt like deja vu. Everyone knows the old 'fool me once...' axiom.
But Thomas is shooting it better than he ever has early this year.
He got off to a slow start after being suspended for the first three games, returning and hitting just one of his four jumpers in Portland. But he's been great since, canning 5 of 8 2-point jumpers in the three games since, taking and making shots with confidence.
He doesn't appear comfortable as a 3-point shooter, but has been a threat out to 18 or so feet, so long as his form is good.
He still has lapses where he reverts to old habits, like an airmailed fadeaway against Colorado State. But those have been less frequent lately.
Arkansas' doesn't have a true floor-spacing big on its roster, but Thomas is its best option. Anderson has stressed the importance of opening the lane for the Razorbacks' guards to have room. After he hit an early jumper Saturday, Minnesota defenders started closing out hard.
If he can continue to hit that mid-range shot with some regularity as a safety valve, it will help the offense.
My first day at the University of Arkansas in August 2008 was a blur.
The morning began a bit ominously when I was pulled over and given a speeding ticket on the trip to Fayetteville. I suppose I may have been a little overly excited. When I finally did arrive on campus, I spent the morning moving into my Maple Hill West dorm room with my best friend from Tulsa, then took a long detour to Walmart, because, duh, you have to stop at Walmart to stock up.
After that, I went to Razorback football practice.
I was covering it for the UA student paper, The Traveler, despite having been on campus a grand total of six hours. I'd made it a point to reach out to the staff over the summer and express my interest in writing. Turns out, my move-in date was before any of them got back in town, so they let me take a crack at covering a fall practice.
It was a whole new world. I quickly got reprimanded for walking down the sideline between the two practice fields because I didn't know any better. I'd made up my mind that I was going to be bold and observant and didn't know media had to stay put in one of the end zones. I'd never written an article of any kind before, much less covered a major college practice.
The article I wrote from that practice was, predictably, terrible. What appeared in The Traveler looked nothing like what I submitted.
But I was a quick learner and had a great desire to improve. Being a sports writer had long been my dream. Once I learned to read as a kid, my dad always left the Tulsa World's sports page for me before he left for work in the morning. I'd tear through it cover to cover at breakfast.
It's been almost a decade since I moved in that August day and the whole sports writing thing has worked out better than I could have imagined.
In college, I got to cover Bobby Petrino's tenure and all that came with it, from a trip to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl to the aftermath of the motorcycle wreck. Never a dull moment. Mike Anderson's memorable return to Fayetteville was an experience, too.
After graduating, I moved to Texas and spent a year covering Longview, one of the greatest high school football programs in the state. It was an unforgettable experience, one I'll always cherish. They're in the state semifinals this year after winning three playoff games to get there.
In the summer of 2013, I moved back to Northwest Arkansas and spent the next three years covering high school sports. I mainly covered Springdale, but made countless friendships all over the area through the job. I had a blast.
Late in the spring of 2016, I was offered a job to move to Auburn and cover the Tigers, but wound up staying and taking this gig writing about the Razorbacks for WholeHog. For the last 17 months, I've attempted to immerse myself in the beat and loved every second of it. My goal was to compliment the rest of our staff by producing thought-out analytical content, particularly focusing on basketball, a sport I'm passionate about.
Building relationships with readers, colleagues, players and coaches has been a blast. The job has been extremely rewarding.
But there are crossroads and new opportunities in life. A few days after spending Thanksgiving in Portland covering the incredible Phil Knight Invitational, I accepted a position working in Walmart's corporate office.
My last day with the paper and this site is Friday. While I love this job, the decision was a no-brainer for me and my long-term best interests.
I want to thank those who've made an impact on my career and work life, so buckle up (or scroll down).
— To my parents, first and foremost, for always supporting me, being there for me and taking an interest in what I do. I love you both.
— To Gerald Jordan and Bret Schulte, for being exceptional professors and making a massive impact on my life during and after my time at the UA. You're both unique and incredible.
— To Zach Turner, Mille Alderman, Bailey McBride, Nick (and Nicky) DeMoss and Brady Tackett, my gang at The Traveler, I couldn't have imagined a better group of friends to spend countless, ungodly hours in Kimpel with. This makes me the last of the bunch to wise up and venture into the corporate world. I guess I was always the slow one. #TravKeg2k18 has to happen!
— To Matt Jones, for doing so much for me, from meeting me at Starbucks on my freshman orientation trip to give me advice to helping me in so many different ways along the way and allowing me to explore my writing voice, I owe you a lot.
— To Bart Pohlman, for not firing me after I turned in that first article. It would've been an easy choice to make, but I'm grateful you sat down and worked with me.
— To Chip Souza, for being an amazing boss who always encouraged me to do what was best for me, even if it wasn't in your best interests. My trips to Springdale to print stuff out in your office were always done more so I could catch up with you.
— To Robbie Neiswanger, for letting me freelance for you while I was in college. You're a great journalist and were a great role model for me as a new person on a major collegiate beat. I guess we're enemies now!
— To Jack Stallard, for hiring me straight out of college to move to Texas and cover great high school football. You helped me in a bind and I'm forever grateful.
— To Gabe Brooks and Hayden Henry, my East Texas guys, I had a ton of fun working with both of you. Hayden, you do a great job covering the Lobos now. Gabe, glad we've remained tight these last few years and even though I won't be up for the 2 a.m. NBA texts anymore, I promise I'll reply early the next morning.
— To Kurt Voigt, for being like a big brother to me and letting me keep my foot in the UA door by running quotes and freelancing for you for a few years. Hopefully my fantasy football dominance won't get me barred from future Thrones watch parties.
— To Trent Shadid, for being a great friend and putting up with my whining, whether it's about the Thunder or other topics. We both started on this beat at the same time and you're my guy even though you're a knucklehead foreigner. Our hour-long pool games are the stuff of legends.
— To Jason Kersey, for always giving great advice about everything, having superb taste in TV shows and introducing me to Buster, the coolest dog ever. You're an amazing journalist and I truly admire your work.
— To Scottie Bordelon, for being a great friend and one of the few media members around here who's as into basketball as I am. You have a really bright future in front of you.
— To John Nabors, Eric Bolin and Andrew Hutchinson, for your friendship. You made coming to work every day fun and getting to know you outside of work has been great, too.
— To Clay Henry and Dudley Dawson, for accepting me into the Hawgs Illustrated family. This dates back to when I was still in college, but working with you guys full-time the last year and a half has been a great experience.
— To Blake Sutton, for everything you've helped me with the last few months. You were a great addition to the WholeHog team.
— To Bob Holt and Tom Murphy, for putting up with me on long road trips. I admire how hard you guys work on a daily basis.
— To Vernon Tarver, Andy Shupe and Tony Reyes, my NWADG guys, for making trips to Springdale and covering high school sports fun.
— To all the high school coaches and players I've had the pleasure of covering. There are too many to name everyone, but special thanks to coaches like John King, Billy Goffney, Karen Brundrett, Jeff Traylor, Amanda Williford, Heather Hunsucker, Ashlee Kemp, Brad Stamps, Shohn Doty, Zak Clark, Ronnie Waid, Matt Hervey, Greg White, Jeremy Price, Kyle Adams, Kyle Pennington, Andre Goldberg, Jason McMahan, Alan Barton, Vic Rimmer, Ray Meyer, Sandy Wright, Bryant Davis, Jacob Gill, Dennis DeBusk and DJ Beeler. You were all great to work with and get to know and each of you made an impact on my life.
— To the college coaches and players I was fortunate enough to get to know on a personal level, I enjoyed our conversations and you were a great help to me.
— To Arkansas' media relations department, especially Dave Beall, Patrick Pearson, Brent Hull and Brandon Langlois, it was great getting to know you and I appreciate all you did to help me do my job as best I could. The shoe and suit tips from Dave and Pat are much-appreciated.
If you're still reading, that's impressive and I appreciate it.
I won't be covering games or press conferences anymore, but I'll still be watching. I may even choose to write about basketball from time to time, whether here or elsewhere.
It's been a great ride and I'm so thankful to all of you who made it special.
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