Hogs’ Highly Regarded Trio of 2017 In-State Signees Headed To The Hill



For all the ups and downs in recent years with in-state basketball recruiting and the Arkansas Razorbacks, coach Mike Anderson and his Hogs hit the trifecta with their 2017 class. In less than a week from now — on May 28th — the top trio of high school basketball players in Arkansas will move to Fayetteville and officially become part of the Hogs’ hoops family.

Daniel Gafford of El Dorado, Khalil Garland of Little Rock Parkview, and Darious Hall of Little Rock Mills are all rated 4-star recruits by ESPN, which ranks Arkansas’s 2017 class as the 19th-best in the country. Each player brings a plus-combination of size, length, and athleticism relative to what Arkansas has put on the court at their respective positions in recent years. Factor in their high basketball IQs and skills that you’d expect from top-shelf recruits, and it looks like the backyard talent-mining that Anderson has done has paid off with a gold strike.

But how high-major-ready will they be come November? How much distinction and gap will there be between their high school achievement/accolades and being prepared in the short-order of six months from now to perform at the highest level of college basketball? Factoring in first-time-away-from-home, system-learning, speed-of-game, and strength-physicality hurdles for freshman, it’s guess-work from this vantage point. But in college basketball, it’s not unusual for rookies to step in and contribute, sometimes star, while having major impacts.

Those are the typical questions and generalizations that come with the territory of being a freshman. But this group won’t let all the unknowns stand in the way of their belief in themselves and each other.

“I work out seven days a week, early every morning,” explained Hall. “I’ve got a goal in mind, to be SEC Freshman of the Year. So, I wake up every morning with that on my mind, and I go out and grind, every morning.

“It’s going to be very exciting (the trio of Hall, Gafford, and Garland). I’ve been waiting on it, and I think we bring a lot to the Arkansas Razorbacks … so we’ve just got to get up there, continue to work, and dominate.”

Garland expressed confidence, too, in himself and his choice to become a Razorback.

“I look forward to it, because I’m trying to take my game to the next level, and I think I can do that at Arkansas,” Garland said. “I’m someone who’s going to go out and grind every day, and play defense first.”

As for Gafford, he’s looking forward to new opportunities.

“It’s exciting … starting a new chapter in my life inside & outside of basketball,” Gafford said. “We (the trio of Hall, Gafford, and Garland) are going to bring that excitement everyone has for the Hill.”

This is the kind of belief in self, or alpha-confidence — the kids call it “swag” — that Anderson will welcome with open arms from these freshmen as he looks to move his program up another notch (or more) in 2017-18. At some point, all three are expected to be difference-makers for a program trending up. Again, the questions are how much impact and how soon.

At Arkansas, it’s been a mixed bag under Anderson regarding freshman playing and having impact. Five-star Bobby Portis started every game in his two-year Arkansas career and was highly decorated with SEC and national honors along the way. BJ Young also was a productive force as a freshman. Anton Beard worked his way into the Hogs’ starting lineup roughly two-thirds into his freshman season and earned SEC All Freshman Team honors. On the flip-side, it took time for the likes of Rashad MaddenMichael Qualls, and Moses Kingsley to develop, earn trust and playing time, and ultimately excel.

And then when you look at the freshmen from Arkansas’s 2016 class — Adrio Bailey, Brachen Hazen, and C.J. Jones — they were used sparingly on a team top-heavy with capable juniors and seniors. So, in a sense, the current freshman class and last season’s rookies come into the 2017-18 season battling for roles and playing time with six experienced seniors showing the way.

The key for these freshmen will be blending with and complementing their veteran corps of NCAA-tournament-tested teammates. This will be crucial to helping the Hogs return to the Dance. If Anderson looks forward to bringing in a talented and confident group of freshmen as stated earlier, he also must take comfort knowing that Arkansas doesn’t go into next season needing the freshmen to be saviors when looking at how the Hogs finished 2016-17 combined with what they have coming back.

It was clear the Hogs finished strong in their ’16-17 campaign, going 9-3 down the stretch en route to 26 wins, a third-place finish in the SEC, a second-place finish in the SEC tournament, and a razor-thin loss to eventual NCAA champ North Carolina in the third round of the NCAAT.

On top of that, the Hogs’ top underclassmen who declared for the NBA draft not so long ago — fringe All SEC-type guards Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford — both withdrew their names recently to rejoin the Hogs for their upcoming senior seasons. Seniors-to be Anton Beard and Trey Thompson both have a chance to go out as 3-time NCAAT participants, and two more seniors (Dustin Thomas and Arlando Cook) plus the three sophomores (Jones, Bailey, and Hazen) are all looking to get back to the Dance.

So if it seems the basketball stars are starting to align for Hawgball based on what is coming back, the influx of what is arguably Anderson’s best recruiting class to date at Arkansas might kick the Fastest 40 into a gear fans haven’t seen since the mid-90s.

For starters, Gafford shows more promise than most big men signed at Arkansas, save for Corliss Williamson and Bobby Portis.  At 6-11, Gafford’s combination of 7-2 wingspan, elite athleticism, soft-but-strong hands, and instincts to rebound, block shots, and dunk everything that dares come into his zip code made him one of the best high-school players in the country last season. His 17.4 points, 16.1 rebounds, 7.7 blocks, 2.5 steals, and 70% field-goal shooting looked great on paper, but seeing the way he controlled both ends of the floor was at times breath-taking.

Ranked the composite national No. 36 prospect for the Class of 2017, Gafford was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in Arkansas as well as @ARHoopScoop Player of the Year in Arkansas. When he committed to the Hogs in August 2015, he had offers from Kansas, Virginia, Florida, Vanderbilt, and Virginia Tech, among others. Gafford signed with Arkansas in November early signing period.

With the departure of graduated senior center Moses Kingsley, and with senior-to-be Trey Thompson being the only big taller than 6-8 who can play the 5 on the roster, Gafford comes in with high expectations to play heavy minutes, and produce, as a freshman.

Garland — ranked No. 55 in the nation for the Class of 2017 according to ESPN — is a combo guard who brings a combination of size, athleticism, skill, and versatility that surpasses every guard who has played for Anderson as head coach at Arkansas. His versatility — the ability to play the 1, 2, and 3 — reminds of former Hog Rashad Madden (although Madden played mostly at the 1, some at the 2), but think more along the lines of former Hog Ron Huery‘s athleticism at the 3. Garland was the best guard in the state in 2016-17. His year started with a stellar 2016 spring/summer playing for nationally ranked Team Penny 17U in the Nike EYBL when Garland was the team’s 3rd-leading scorer, and it continued as the leader of the Little Rock Parkview Patriots. Garland had a season-high 36 points against El Dorado, including a highlight-reel dunk over POY Daniel Gafford. He was named @ARHoopScoop All Arkansas First Team. Garland also recently medaled in the Arkansas high school state track meet in the 100, the long jump, and the triple jump.

What stands out most about Garland is that his play-making and finishing ability in the open-court is elite. He’s a ferocious slasher with plus-athleticism and a high basketball IQ, and he raised his 3-point shooting up to over 45% this high-school season. After a brief commitment to Memphis, Garland signed with the Razorbacks in the November early signing period. He had offers from Oregon, Pitt, Baylor, Texas A&M, Florida, Memphis, LSU, Cal, Alabama, Georgia Tech, Mississippi State, UALR, and Creighton.

The return of seniors Macon, Barford, and Beard give the Hogs a trio of likely backcourt starters, at least to begin the season. But because of Garland’s size, athleticism, and versatility, he will have opportunities to play big minutes with a significant role, especially on the defensive end once he learns Anderson’s system. And because he can play the 3, combined with the Hogs not having options at the position the past two seasons, Garland will have a chance to have an impact there.

Hall was offered by the Hogs in March of 2016 and committed the day after his offer. No player has flown under the national radar in the 2017 class like Hall has. Rated a 4-star recruit by ESPN, Hall should be a composite national Top 100 player, because he proved it over and over in a great year of hoops. He was the leader and best player for the Team Magic Elite (Memphis) 17U squad on the 2016 spring/summer Adidas Gauntlet circuit, holding his own against the likes of ’17 4-star Amir Simms and ’18 5-star Romeo Langford. And he carried that over as the best player and leader of the Little Rock Mills Comets, who went 31-2 and won the 5A state title. Hall garnered 5A title-game MVP honors after finishing with 24 points and 13 rebounds. He was named @ARHoopScoop All Arkansas First Team.

At 6-6 with a 7-0 wingspan, Hall has guard skills, a high basketball IQ, he’s a leader, he attacks the rim and glass with relentless effort, and he too has improved his perimeter shooting. Defensively, he effectively guarded all five spots on the floor in high school. He’s the Hogs’ only true small forward/wing since Michael Qualls, and there are similarities in their games. Hall was the unquestioned best forward in the state of Arkansas in ’16-17, and he signed with the Razorbacks in the November early signing period. He was also being recruited by Alabama and Little Rock, among others.

Again, Arkansas has not had a player with size, length, athleticism, and ball skill to be a good fit at the 3 since Qualls, but Hall is about to change that. I would not rule out Hall, or Garland, or both earning major playing time at the 3.

(Editor’s note: Gafford told us a few days ago that he had suffered a “slight tear” to the meniscus in his knee, but that his doctor advised he would only need “rest” to heal, not surgery. Asked by reporters today about his knowledge of Gafford’s injury, Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said: “I don’t know what took place, but we’ll see once he gets up here … we’ll get our medical people to take a look at it and see where he’s at.”)

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Hogs’ freshman to transfer: According to a source who spoke on this roughly a week ago, Arkansas freshman forward Brachen Hazen had asked for and was in the process of being granted a release to transfer. Today while speaking with reporters at his annual charity golf event in Northwest Arkansas, Razorbacks head coach Mike Anderson confirmed that Hazen has in fact been released to seek his desired transfer.

The 6-foot-8 Hazen, who committed to Arkansas in the spring of 2016 after being committed to Central Florida, played only 42 minutes in 14 games for the Razorbacks in 2016-17, scoring 3 points to go along with 12 rebounds and 2 assists.

Anderson had this to say about Hazen’s decision to transfer: “You don’t want to lose a guy, especially a guy like Brachen. His upside and potential are big.”

The addition of New Mexico point guard transfer Jalen Harris a few weeks ago was presumably the final piece of Arkansas’s 2017 class, because at the time it filled the Hogs’ maximum of 13 scholarships. But this late decision to leave by Hazen puts the Hogs back at one more scholarship to give in the ’17 class with their options narrowing to fill that spot with a quality prospect. Anderson and the Hogs can opt to save the scholarship for the 2018 class, but Harris will sit out ’17-18 per NCAA Division 1 transfer rules and the Hogs recently lost walk-on point guard R.J. Glasper, who transferred to Arkansas Tech. That means Arkansas would compete with only 11 players next season at the current personnel numbers.

Anderson reminded reporters today that he is always recruiting, but he indicated he was not inclined to reach just to fill an open scholarship. Arkansas has a few viable options on the table right now to finish the ’17 class, and we’ll see if any of those or if some new names surface in the next few weeks.

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Four Arkansans invited to the prestigious Pangos All American Camp: We found out just a few days ago that 2018 Hog commits and Arkansas Hawks 17U ballers Reggie PerryEthan Henderson, and Isaiah Joe, plus 2020 shooting guard Moses Moody of Little Rock Parkview and Team Superstar South 15U, had all been invited to participate in the 15th annual Pangos All American Camp, which runs June 2-4 in the Long Beach, CA, area.

The top 120 prospects in the nation are invited to the Pangos event every year, and for Arkansas to send four players to the camp is just the latest signal that the state is talent-rich with hoopers.

“It’s an honor to be invited to such a prestigious camp,” said Perry, the 6-10 combo forward who leads the Hawks in scoring, rebounding, and blocks. “I’ve been working hard these past couple years trying to be the best but it doesn’t stop here. I gotta continue to work so I can continue to get invited to stuff like this.”

Perry received more good news on Monday when Rivals.com updated its Top 150 for the Class of 2018, and in doing so bumped Perry up from a 4-star to a 5-star prospect (and up from the No. 25 prospect in the country to No. 23).

“It’s a blessing to become a 5-star, that’s one of my goals,” Perry said. “I’m just continuing to work to move up in the rankings.”

Henderson, the 6-8 power forward from Little Rock Parkview who 247Sports.com ranks as the composite national No. 81 prospect (a 4-star) for the Class of 2018, also looks forward to taking part in the Pangos camp.

“It’s a great opportunity to show my talent on a national level,” Henderson said. “I feel with a couple of my teammates there with me, I can help them with their experience at the camp.”

Joe, a 6-4 shooting guard from Fort Smith Northside and an ESPN 4-star prospect for the Class of 2018, has raised his game more than any Arkansas hooper in the past year. He’s the Hawks’ second-leading scorer, plus he’s rated as the top shooter (30-of-60 for 50% from 3) on the Adidas Gauntlet circuit, according to Synergy Sports’ advanced statistics.

“I think it’s going to be a great experience being able to compete with the best in the nation and to be able to showcase my skills,” Joe said. “I’m really honored to be a part of this elite group of players.”

Moody, a 6-4 shooting guard and ranked among the Top 30 prospects in the country for the Class of 2020 according to Coast2CoastPreps.com, will likely be one of only 10 (or fewer) sophomores-to-be invited to the camp. Moody is drawing recruiting interest from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Indiana, Purdue, Virginia, TCU, and more.

“It’s a tremendous blessing,” Moody said of his invitation to Pangos camp. “I’ve just got to go out there and show all I can show.”

Among the Pangos All American Camp alumni over the years are college and pro stars such asJames Harden, Anthony Davis, John Wall, Bradley Beal, Ben Simmons, Demar Derozan, Derrick Favors, Aaron Gordon, Harrison Barnes, Zach Levine, Brandon Jennings, Stanley Johnson, and Emmanuel Mudiay.

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Updates: Here’s a look at the latest in Arkansas-related basketball and recruiting news …

Ian Steere (6-9 PF/C, High Point, NC, Team Charlotte 17U, composite national Top 175 prospect for the Class of 2018) … Steere, who was offered by the Hogs on May 1 and said he was “very interested in Arkansas”, told me he’s working out details with assistant coach Scotty Thurman for a visit to Fayetteville “sometime in June”. Steere has been one of the hottest names in recruiting with offers from the Hogs, Kansas, Florida State, Clemson, Missouri, Connecticut, Georgia, Texas Tech, Tennessee, Creighton, St. Joe’s, and others. Steere is averaging 10.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks through two sessions of Under Armour Association grassroots circuit play, and he’s shooting 60.6% from the field and has a Top 5 in offensive rating on the UAA circuit.

Darius Bazley (6-8 combo forward, Cincinnati, OH, ranked by ESPN as national No. 47 / 4-star prospect for the Class of 2018) … we have confirmed that the Hogs have contacted and are recruiting Bazley, but have not yet offered. Thurman is the lead recruiter for Bazley, who recently decommitted from Ohio State and has new offers from Xavier, Florida, Purdue, and Maryland.

Josh LeBlanc (6-7 combo forward, New Orleans, LA, Louisana Elite 17U, composite national Top 120 / 4-star) … Got to watch LeBlanc, who got a Hog offer on May 1, play recently in the Memphis in May Invitational. We saw him at Real Deal in the Rock in early April, too, and he is a very impressive player in terms of his athleticism, explosiveness, skill, size, length, and effort! Thurman is his lead recruiter, and the Hogs are working to get LeBlanc to Fayetteville for a visit. His offers include the Hogs, LSU, Minnesota, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, TCU, Iowa State, Georgetown, St. John’s, Texas Tech, and Houston, among others.

Christian Lorng (6-10 PF/C, Louisville Magic 17U, Class of 2018) … we reported in this space a couple of weeks ago that Lorngs’ high-school coach, Dave Meddings, commented on Twitter that Arkansas coaches had inquired about the athletic and powerful big man. We were able to confirm that the Hogs are in fact recruiting and building a relationship with Lorng, who had 17 points and 7 rebounds against the Arkansas Hawks 17U in DFW back in April with Anderson and associate head coach Melvin Watkins both looking on. Lorng, who has reported offers from Tennessee, Creighton, and Houston, was an unofficial visitor to the Vols in Knoxville in early January when the Hogs came into town and left with an SEC road win. He is averaging 10.3 points and 7.9 rebounds though 8 games / 2 sessions of the Adidas Gauntlet.

Mladen Armus, (6-9 PF, Southwest Christian Academy, Little Rock by way of Serbia, Class of 2017) … Armus, who had been evaluated for months by the Razorbacks, signed last week with NCAA Division 1 East Tennessee State, which won the Southern Conference in ’16-17 before losing to Florida in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Armus, who was MVP of SCA’s National Association of Christian Athletes national title-game win, ended up turning down a few high-major offers to sign with ETSU. He chose what he believed was the best place for him, and that is refreshing in an era where so many prospects are seeking/valuing exposure over best fit for playing time and development. Armus’ teammate at SCA, Gabe Osabuohien, will likely commit this week and sign a financial-aid agreement. The 6-7 combo forward from Toronto recetly visited the University of Illinois-Chicago and Murray State.

Mylik Wilson (6-3 shooting guard, Rayville, LA, Wings Elite 16U, Class of 2019) … Wilson, who had a 40-point game (he shot 11-of-13 from 3) while averaging 25.7 points to lead his team to 5-1 at the Nike EYBL 16U event in Indianapolis a few weeks ago, has been invited to participate in the prestigious Nike Elite 100 camp in June. Wings Elite 16U head coach Charles Baker has confirmed that Arkansas has inquired about Wilson, as well as Wings Elite 16U baller Collin Moore, a 6-4 wing from North Little Rock who was named to the @ARHoopScoop All Arkansas Sophomore Team for ’16-17.

Chris Moore, Gerald Doakes, Davonte Davis, and Caleb London (Wings Elite 15U ballers, Class of 2020) … SMU extended scholarship offers to this quartet of Wings Elite 15U teammates last week. Moore, a 6-5 forward from West Memphis, also holds offers from TCU, Memphis, Southern Miss, and Abilene Christian. Doakes, a 6-2 shooting guard from Jacksonville Lighthouse, also has offers from Texas A&M, TCU, Southern Miss, and Abilene Christian. Davis, a 6-2 point guard at Jacksonville Lighthouse, also has offers from Southern Miss and Abilene Christian. SMU was the first offer for London, a 6-4 wing from Memphis. Arkansas is showing interest in Moore, Doakes, and London.

Shawn Fudge (6-3 wing, North Little Rock, Arkansas Hawks 16U, Class of 2019) … In addition to his Hawks’ 16U teammate — 2020 point guard Khalen “KK” Robinson who is drawing recruiting interest from Arkansas and Indiana — Fudge has also received interest from the Hogs, according to Hawks chairman Bill Ingram. Both Hawks have played at a high level in the team’s two most-recent events — Adidas Gauntlet in Atlanta and the Memphis in May Invitational.

Cam Johnson (6-4 wing, Little Rock Central, Class of 2017) … Johnson, one of the best prospects in Arkansas and named to @ARHoopScoop All Arkansas Second Team for ’16-17, signed to play at Tyler (TX) Junior College on May 11. Johnson is quick, strong, and explosive with the ability to score at all 3 levels. He had been recruited by Missouri and others, and he’ll be a high-major recruit in two years.

Tremont Robinson (6-0 combo guard, Maumelle, Class of 2017) … Robinson, nicknamed “The Show” for his ability to entertain while he gets buckets and impacts games, signed with Northwestern Mississippi Community College last week. Robinson, named to @ARHoopScoop All Arkansas Second Team for ’16-17, is another Arkansas prospect with future NCAA Division 1 potential.

Tyree Appleby (6-0 point guard, Jacksonville, Class of 2017) … Appleby, also an @ARHoopScoop All Arkansas Second Team selection for ’16-17, signed in early May with MCAA Division 1 Cleveland State. Appleby took MVP honors at the Metro Classic All-Star game after scoring 32 points, including eight 3-pointers that all came in the second half.

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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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