Connor Vanover always stood tall above the rest
Arkansas center Connor Vanover (left) talks with coach Eric Musselman during the Razorbacks' Red-White Game on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE Connor Vanover stands out in the crowd because, well, he stands tall.
Vanover, a 7-3 forward from Little Rock, has always been a head above everyone else.
"I was always on the tall side," he said. "But I wasn’t extremely tall until seventh grade."
Vanover was about 6-4 in the sixth grade when he started working with former Arkansas Baptist and Benton Harmony Grove basketball coach Jeff Hogue.
"First of all, wow, a 6-4 sixth grader," Hogue said. "He had a soft feathery touch. You could just tell that he had a gift that you needed to hone."
While Hogue worked with Vanover to develop his shot, Vanover's body continued to grow.
"He was about 6-6 in the spring of seventh grade and from then until the fall of his eighth-grade year he went from 6-6 to 7 feet," Hogue said. "Watching that was pretty freaky."
So while his classmates were trying to find 'X' in eighth-grade Algebra class, Vanover was just trying to get into class. He had to make sure he remembered to duck to get through the door frame or be left with a nasty bump on his forehead.
After his growth spurt, and after his older brother, Brandon, transferred to Arkansas Baptist High School, Connor decided to follow his brother and play for Hogue.
Because he had a June birthday, Vanover took what Arkansas coach Eric Musselman would call a "development year" and he repeated the seventh grade at Arkansas Baptist.
Vanover was required to sit out a full year since he was repeating seventh grade, so Hogue decided to test Vanover by practicing him with the high school team.
"He asked if he could come to high school practice. I said, 'Sure we can always use size and get better,'" Hogue said. "We can get better with guys like that in practice. I knew they were going to be a big part of the future."
"I kind of wanted to from the beginning, but (Hogue) just kind of pushed me into it," Vanover said. "I was kind of hesitant about it, playing against guys that were that much older than me, but it was a good experience to practice with the high schoolers as a seventh grader just to kind of see how it was."
Vanover was preparing for his first season under Hogue when he received the news the coach he had transferred to play under would not be coaching him.
"I was just super shocked whenever they fired Coach Hogue," Vanover said. "I was like, 'What in the world am I going to do now?'"
Arkansas Baptist hired Bentonville assistant coach Brian Ross, an Arkansas Baptist graduate. He immediately went to work with Vanover.
"Then Coach Ross comes in the next day and gives us a nice speech and he just starts working with us from right there," Vanover said. "I think that connection from the beginning is what kind of set the tone for the rest of our years."
"When I first saw Connor, I couldn't believe how tall he actually was," Ross said. "You hear stories about a 7-1 eighth grader, but it's hard to believe it until you actually see him."
Vanover had the height, now he needed to add size to hold his own on the interior.
The solution? Eat, a lot. Vanover was eating so much he had to ask the school to get special permission so he could eat in class.
"I would have breakfast and then I’d have a snack. Lunch and then another snack. Then I’d go to practice and then dinner after that, so I was eating like four or five meals a day," he said.
The meals would include anything from peanut butter sandwiches to nuts to protein shakes. Vanover said at night his father would make a protein shake with any kind of protein he could find.
"Those shakes were probably over 1,000 calories apiece, and they were just super thick," Vanover said. "They were the worst thing to drink."
All of those calories started to add up.
"I’ve heard people say that like 4,000 calories is a lot of calories," Vanover said. "I’ve heard that 7,000 is a lot. I was probably eating 5,000, 6,000 (calories) at least. I’m pretty sure at one point it was like close to 10,000."
Vanover started to add weight, moving from around 170 pounds his freshman year to roughly 220 pounds before his senior year. The size helped him hold his own down low.
"I don't think people realize he could be a dominant low-post force, too," Hogue said. "Even though what he's good at right now, and where he fits at Arkansas is pick-and-pop and shooting the 3 trailing, but he's really good in the low post."
Vanover was every coach's dream during his time in high school.
"To be honest, it wasn't fair in a lot of ways," Ross said. "He was so much bigger and more skilled than everyone, and we had a really good team around him with great shooters. It made coaching incredibly easy because all you had to do was throw it to him in certain spots and he was either going to be able to score or he was going to make the right read and pass it to the open guy."
Despite the praise from his coach, Vanover still remembers not performing well in his first game as a freshman against future Arkansas guard Jimmy Whitt.
"We played against Jimmy up in Bentonville," Vanover said. "I mean, that was probably the craziest first game I ever had. Well, I didn’t do very good, but I mean, we played against an out-of-state team and we played right before Jayson Tatum against Malik Monk. I mean, that’s kind of a crazy first game to be a part of and that kind of set the tone for how I knew the rest of my high school career would go."
When asked if he ever brought that game up to Whitt, Vanover said he tries to steer clear of that conversation.
"I don’t really like bringing it up because he had like 25 (points) in the first half and like 40 in the whole game or something. He just completely destroyed us," Vanover said. "But after the first quarter we scored more points than them."
Vanover was dominant for Arkansas Baptist, leading the team to state championships in his sophomore and junior seasons. Following his junior season, Vanover left Little Rock, the only place he had lived, and moved to the suburbs of Las Vegas to play at Findlay Prep, a preparatory school and basketball power that has produced 17 NBA players, according to the Washington Post.
"A lot of it had to do with the competition. I really liked staying home and being around people I knew," Vanover said. "But the competition we played against wasn’t really the best."
Vanover also said it's hard for college coaches to see the skillset he has if he is a 7-footer playing against 6-6 players. The competition level increased as Vanover played against top competition in those games, as well as in practice.
There were nine future Division I players on Findlay Prep's roster, including Razorbacks forward Reggie Chaney, San Diego State forward Nathan Mensah and former Oregon standout Bol Bol, who now plays for the Denver Nuggets in the NBA.
"I mean, our team was stacked," Vanover said. "Going up against those guys every day, I kind of learned about myself by learning from these other guys. What they did to get to this position and what their plans were. It's just kind of learning off of them to kind of shape myself."
Vanover committed to Memphis before his senior season, but when Tigers coach Tubby Smith was fired Vanover had to look elsewhere.
"I was kind of stressing about it, but it didn’t take very long. California came through and showed a lot of interest, saying that they really needed a big guy," Vanover said. "They promised me that I would play right away, which was a big thing that I wanted to get some exposure early on as I still developed."
Vanover heard from Arkansas early on during his recruiting process, but he never heard from the Razorbacks' coaching staff when he was looking for a place to land after Smith's firing.
"They said I was always welcome, but they never really kept in touch with me after (reaching out in ninth grade)," Vanover said. "It was always an option just kind of in the corner, but I never really talked to them."
Vanover played off and on his first season at Cal. He was in the starting lineup during summer workouts before he rolled his ankle and sat out a month.
He worked his way back into the starting lineup just in time for conference play, but then he broke his nose and suffered a concussion after colliding with another player's shoulder diving for a loose ball.
Vanover ended the season with a flurry, scoring 24 points and shooting 5-of-6 beyond the arc in a 64-59 victory over Stanford in Cal's next-to-last game of the season.
After an 8-23 year, Cal fired coach Wyking Jones and Vanover was once again searching for a basketball home.
"I kind of wanted to see what (new coach Mark Fox) wanted to say first before I just put my name out in the portal," he said. "But I knew it was the best for me to at least look to see if there was a better place for me. I just wanted to choose a coach for my own instead of having another coach come in that was chosen for me."
Being from Arkansas, Vanover had it in the back of his mind to try to return to the state, but he didn't think it was possible until Mike Anderson was fired last March.
"I mean, I was thinking everywhere else except for Arkansas at the time, because I didn’t think it was possible until they hired Musselman," Vanover said.
He narrowed his transfer options to Maryland, Vanderbilt and Arkansas. In the end, it was Musselman's preparation that caused Vanover to commit to the Razorbacks during his visit.
"They were just extremely in-depth with everything they did," Vanover said. "You know, not even being there that long and they just had so much information about me - how they could get me better, things that I could work on, things for next year. It just blew me away how detailed and planned they were for me."
Vanover also credited Musselman's NBA experience in helping him to decide to commit to Arkansas.
"He can help develop me to go to the next level," Vanover said. "I mean, he has an NBA philosophy the way he runs things. It’s very similar to the next level, and I believe that in the system, me, along with a lot of other people, can thrive."
"I really think (Musselman's) NBA experience is going to be so big for Connor," Ross said. "He's seen big guys that have Connor's capabilities at the next level. He's seen how the best coaches in the world have used those guys, and I'm sure he's going to be creative and come up with the best ways to use Connor in the same way next year."
Musselman has said that he is taking the extra time afforded to him by the coronavirus to find new ways to get Vanover involved in the offense.
“We want to try to improve in all facets,” Musselman said. “And obviously as we look to the future, like the way we played pick-and-roll with Connor Vanover is going to have to change. We’re not going to switch pick-and-rolls like we did with Adrio (Bailey), where he ends up being our 5 man then ends up guarding a guard.
“We’re going to have to study, and that’s our project right now, studying NBA 7-footers and how teams, particularly the Milwaukee Bucks, and how they trap their pick-and-rolls."
Vanover isn't the first Razorback commit in his family. His mother, Robyn Irwin Vanover, played basketball for the Razorbacks from 1986-89. She was named a team captain for the 1988-89 season and holds the school record for blocks in a game with nine against Southwest Missouri State.
Because Vanover did not secure a waiver from the NCAA last summer he had to sit out the Razorbacks' 2019-20 season. He redshirted along with two other transfers - JD Notae and Abayomi Iyiola. They used that time to work on their individual game and get to know each other.
"We stayed home whenever (the team) traveled," Vanover said. "(We did) extra lifts focused on getting (us) stronger and better instead of doing more team stuff. I think doing that with those guys was what helped me really go along through it."
The sit-outs would also scrimmage after practice, making sure to get game-like reps. They received grades from assistant coach Chris Crutchfield afterward.
"Almost after every practice we would go and play 3-on-3," Vanover said. "It would be usually me, JD and Baybe against Ethan (Henderson), Ty (Stevens), Emeka (Obukwelu) and Jamario (Bell) came in that group. They graded us on how we did, so it kind of kept us in check."
Vanover thinks with the new transfers and the incoming freshmen the Razorbacks will be a team to watch for in 2020-21.
"I’m super excited. We’re going to have a fun time and it’s going to be a really good season, I hope," he said. "I wish I was up there right now with the guys trying to get better."
With the Razorbacks' practice facility shut down, Vanover is working out at home and getting shots up at a church gym in Little Rock.
"I don't think people really realize what guys like (Vanover) have to do, the kind of time," Hogue said. "You know everybody wants to be like them, but to do what it takes, first of all, most people don't have that kind of talent or genetics, and second of all, most people don't want to work that hard."
It was his hard work and determination that helped Vanover play for the school he grew up watching.
"Being able to be back home and to rep my team, it’s just a great feeling to have Arkansas across my chest," he said.
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