Recruiting Class of 2017 May Be Mike Anderson’s Best Yet

 

 

Turning around the fortunes of the Arkansas Razorbacks’ basketball program would be no easy task for Mike Anderson when he was brought home roughly six years ago. The problems within the program went beyond wins and losses, and the layers of those problems went deeper than most fans realized. No sugar-coating it, there was a pronounced, negative culture inside the doors of a once-proud and storied basketball program.

You hear the term “dumpster fire” a lot to describe dysfunction in sports, and if you were paying attention, that’s effectively where things had gotten at the University of Arkansas within the men’s basketball program. So, Mike Anderson inherited a program in need of an overhaul, not just a few fixes and tweaks.

Recruiting, they say, is the lifeblood of all teams, whether it’s basketball or any other sport. And that was one of the biggest challenges for Mike Anderson when he returned to Fayetteville: Not only fix recruiting, but start by convincing in-state kids that things were going to be different around here, for the better. The program had not been relevant in over a decade by the time CMA arrived, and the top prospects inside the state’s borders and beyond were not yet on this earth to witness or experience the last time the Hogs terrorized opponents with their 40 Minutes of Hell and their 3 Final Fours in a 6-year span through the mid-1990s.

After coming home in 2011, Mike Anderson began a 4-year track-record of ups and downs in recruiting. Those recruiting hits and misses have been well-documented, and we’ll save those details for another day. The point is, convincing the in-state kids to stay home has not been as easy as fans think it should be, BUT … beginning with the Class of 2017, it looks like CMA has gotten his selling points across and the best players from Arkansas are buying in and pledging to play their college basketball in a Razorbacks uniform.

And the timing couldn’t be better. A national study released a few months ago indicated that Arkansas ranked 6th nationally for the most Top 100 basketball players per 1 million residents over the 5-year span of 2011-2015. Two players from greater Little Rock — Archie Goodwin (Class of 2012) and Bobby Portis (Class of 2013) — were NBA 1st round draft picks. It doesn’t seem possible that the state could improve on those numbers over the next 5-year span (2016-2020), but it will!

Arkansas has become a hoops hotbed. Today we look at three players from the in-state Class of 2017, the trio that CMA and the Razorbacks plucked for their ’17 recruiting haul — three kids who are truly among the best in the nation. I believe this class will prove to be CMA’s best when compared to his first 4 classes.  A combination of size, length, athleticism, skill, basketball IQ, and talent among the trio place them above the other classes. Not only that, but there are plenty more in-state kids in the 2017 class with Division 1 talent and opportunities. The Hogs have one more scholarship to give for ’17, and since they’ll have to wait till the spring signing period (mid-April) to sign a player to fill that spot, they’ve got several months to evaluate prospects.  We’ll look at more of the 2017 class later, but today, here’s a look at the 3 in-state gems at the top of the heap who have already signed on with the Hogs …

Daniel Gafford, 6-10 PF / C, El Dorado / Team Portis Wings Elite, composite national ranking of No. 36, a 4-Daniel Gaffordstar prospect, signed with the Razorbacks in November. I’ve been watching Daniel play for 3 years now, and in mid-July 2015 I wrote on a sports blog that the Hogs should offer him a scholarship. Less than 24 hours later, the Hogs did offer Daniel a scholarship, and a few weeks later (on Aug. 1, 2015), he committed to the Hogs. Gafford is a plus-athlete, agile, and has a healthy 7-2 wing span. I’ve said it a million times: Dan is constantly on a pogo stick to gobble up rebounds, block shots, and dunk everything he can. His combination of height, length, and athleticism set him apart. plus he’s got a high motor and is active/aggressive around the basket at both ends of the floor. He has a frame that should add weight / strength without compromising quickness, agility, flexibility, or athleticism.

Daniel was recently named the Arvest Player of the Month at the Downtown Tip Off Club awards luncheon on December 21st. At the time of this writing, Dan had 6 triple-doubles (points, rebounds, and blocks) in the first 10 games for El Dorado HS (9-1), and he and his Wildcats have played a tough schedule, including against loaded teams like Little Rock Parkview and Little Rock Mills. Which makes Gafford’s numbers even more impressive: He’s averaging 20.2 points, 19.4 rebounds, and 8.9 blocks. His national prospect rankings and early production/dominance as a senior should put him in the conversation for an invitation to the 2017 McDonald’s All American game.

Daniel had a solid if inconsistent showing at the prestigious NBPA Top 100 camp in mid-June, took part in the prestigious Nike Basketball Academy in LA in late July, and continued to earn praise from multiple national recruiting analysts at different times in the spring and summer … his composite national recruiting rankings have been consistently in the Top 30-40 range for over a year, and he recently moved into the ESPN Top 50 at No. 48 for the Class of 2017 … his areas to improve are on offense, but he’s got all the tools to be a good, adequate offensive player … for one, he does a nice job of keeping the ball high and elevates quickly while getting into his shot, and secondly, when he does attempt a shot, he’s got a nice touch and form … still needs work on being a more-aggressive post presence to demand the ball, needs to take more mid-range face-up looks to make defenses respect him … style-wise, reminds me some of Marcus Camby, and there is an Alonzo Mourning nastiness to his shot-blocking game … prior to committing to the Hogs last year, Gafford had received offers from Kansas, Virginia, Florida, Vanderbilt, and Virginia Tech, among others.

Projection: As of now, I think Gafford is a Day 1 starter at Arkansas in place of Moses Kingsley, who’s a senior this season. I won’t make specific predictions beyond that, but I do believe Daniel will be a productive, impact player as a freshman. I also think he’ll complement senior frontliners Trey Thompson, Dustin Thomas, and Arlando Cook. Comparisons to Hog great Bobby Portis are inevitable because of the similarities of size and credentials/potential coming out of HS – and Gafford is a huge Bobby Portis fan, so much so he now wears No. 10 — but where Portis made an immediate impact as a freshman on offense, I believe Gafford can potentially give equitable value on defense and on the boards.

Khalil Garland, 6-5 combo guard, LR Parkview / Team Penny, ESPN national ranking of No. 55, a 4-star prospect, signed with the Razorbacks in November. Khalil recently moved up to No. 55 in the ESPN Top 100 for 2017 … after de-committing from Memphis in May, reports got out he was interested in the Hogs and after visiting Fayetteville in June, he committed in mid-July.

Khalil Garland Mike Anderson recruitProbably the best compliment I can give Khalil is that “he plays with his hair on fire at both ends of the floor”, always seems to be in the middle of the action, and that speaks to his high BBall IQ and determination as a player. It’s why I gave him the nickname “501 Boss”. He’s a jack-of-all-trades in that he can play all 3 backcourt positions – the 1, 2, and 3 – at both ends of the court. His handles and ability to facilitate for others looks to be approaching what we saw with Ky Madden, except Khalil has plus-athleticism, is a better talent, and is a better all-around player. Offensively, he gets gets his own as a slasher who can get into the paint and play above the rim, and he’s one of the best open-court players in the country. The added bonus of expanding his mid-range and 3-point game has been evident early in his senior season, and it’s paying dividends. He scored 36 points a few weeks ago against a guard-deep and talented El Dorado squad, and he leads a loaded Parkview team in scoring, assists, and steals.

Khalil is averaging 18.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 3.0 steals for Parkview (7-2). He’s the top guard in the state and one of the best in the country … he had a very productive AAU run in 2016 on a loaded Team Penny team, was one of only 3 players who averaged double-figures in scoring and the other 2 were 5-star recruits … Khalil participated in the prestigious Nike Basketball Academy in late July are one of only 60 high school players invited from around the country … just to give you an idea of how coveted Khalil was, he had offers from Oregon, Pitt, Baylor, Texas A&M, Florida, Memphis, LSU, Cal, Bama, Georgia Tech, Mississippi State, UALR, and Creighton prior to committing to the Hogs.

Projection: The Hogs have the deepest backcourt of the CMA era in 2016-17, but guards Dusty Hannahs and Manny Watkins are seniors. I see Khalil being a versatile, important part of the backcourt group right away because of the fact he can play all 3 backcourt positions, plus he brings more length and athleticism to the table than any of the current backcourt Hogs outside of maybe freshman C.J. Jones. And if he continues to improve his mid-range and 3-point shooting, it’s going to be impossible to keep Khalil “501 Boss” Garland out of the top 5-6 rotation. I think he plays a big role in what the 2017-18 Hogs accomplish.

Darious Hall, 6-6 SF / wing, LR Mills / Team Magic Elite, ESPN 4-star, signed with the Razorbacks in November. Darious is no secret in Arkansas, but he is way underrated nationally. He continues to remind me of MichaelDarious Hall Qualls, another under-valued gem coming out of high school in Louisiana. Like MQ, Hall has a 7-foot wingspan at a similar height of 6-5/6-6, and both players always seem to be on a slash-and-crash trajectory toward the rim. Qualls has more explosive hops, but Darious is a better handler and is stronger at the same stage. Just to give you an idea of his strength and athleticism, Hall brought down not one, but two basketball goals playing AAU ball over the summer.

But the athleticism and physical attributes only tell part of the story with Hall. He’s a leader on the floor, even though he is not a point guard. He has a high Bball IQ that shows up with or without the basketball in his hands, and that’s not something I take lightly when evaluating a player. Very similar to Gafford and Garland, Hall does not get outworked at either end of the floor, and when you combine that with the physical gifts, skill and talent, he too can take over games. Like he did against El Dorado at a recent holiday event in Conway. Hall battled gallantly against the taller Gafford, who fouled out midway through the 4th quarter, and Hall finished with 26 points and 15 rebounds to lead his Mills squad (9-1) to a 77-64 victory, handing El Dorado its first loss of the season.

Darious Hall is averaging 18.8 points, 12.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 2.9 steals for Mills. He was highly productive in the summer, too, playing for Team Magic Elite out of Memphis on the Adidas Gauntlet circuit. He traded blows evenly with 2017 Top 100 SF Amir Simms, and he effectively shut down 2018′s No. 2 player, Romeo Langford, holding him to 10 points on 30% FG shooting. Darious was offered by the Hogs in the spring and committed the next day. He was also being recruited by Alabama and Little Rock, among others.

Projection: Arkansas currently does not have a true small forward / wing player on its 2016-17 roster, so it seems likely Darious Hall comes in and finds the floor early. C.J. Jones is more of a shooting guard, and though Adrio Bailey is playing some at the 3, he seems more suited for that undersized combo-4 spot that Alandise Harris played. I have no doubt that Hall is one of the most under-valued talents in the nation, and I envision him coming in and working hard from Day 1 to earn his minutes on the floor. I would not be one bit surprised to see Hall work his way into the Top 8 in the rotation by the time SEC play rolls around in 2017-18, if not sooner.

When I look at the tangible things with this new trio of Hogs — height, length, athleticism, skill, talent, and high Bball IQ — it still doesn’t say enough about what they bring to the table. There’s a good bit of “dog” in the way each of these guys play. They take pride in doing the little things, being leaders, and battling for everything because accolades don’t win games, players making plays do.

These ’17 Arkansas kids may not be as flashy as some who have recently come through on their way to Kentucky’s NBADL team, but they are the best group I’ve seen assembled in one class under CMA’s watch. Good enough to help take the Hogs to future Dances in March, and good enough to give Hog fans hope that those future Dances won’t end until April.

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Kevin McPherson is a former sportswriter and editor at both the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat, as well as a former contributor to newspapers in Northwest Arkansas — covering Arkansas Razorbacks basketball, high school football and basketball, and basketball recruiting. He’s entering his 13th year as a mortgage banker with Bank of England, but he still covers Razorback basketball and recruiting as well as high school sports. You can join him live every Monday and Thursday at 1:30 CST on The Hog Call, KREB 1190 The Fan in Northwest Arkansas by clicking here: http://1190thefan.com/listen-live/ You can also follow him live on Twitter @ARHoopScoop.

 

 

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