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Four-star basketball recruit Che Evans believes he will visit Arkansas soon. Evans, a class of 2020 star from Philadelphia, has the Hogs in his Top 7 and is looking forward to an upcoming Fayetteville trip to check out the Razorback program.
Whether it be Evans or someone else, the next high school basketball recruit to visit Arkansas in the Eric Musselman era will also be the first. Until now, the visitors have been transfers leaving other programs.
Indeed, at least eight transfers visited the UA campus from late April through early June. Four of them committed — and have stayed committed — to the Razorbacks. They include Arkansan Connor Vanover, a 7’3” “stretch center” who as an undergrad will likely sit out a year; JD Notae, a 6’2” offensive spark plug and a versatile forward in 6’7” Jeantal Cylla, a graduate transfer.
Then there’s Jimmy Whitt, the most recent incoming Razorback transfer this year. The 6’5” Whitt returns to the Hogs after already playing in the program for a season. In 2015-16, Whitt averaged 6.1 points and 1.7 rebounds in 17.2 minutes per game under former Hogs coach Mike Anderson.
Whitt had trouble shooting from the outside and then lacked the strength to the drive to the hole. With guards Dusty Hannahs, Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon set to burst onto the scene in 2016-17 and grab big minutes, Whitt transferred to SMU.
There, he spent three years bulking up, developing his all-around game and becoming a more effective scorer. Last season, as a point guard, Whitt averaged 12.3 points per game along with team-highs in rebounds per game (6.4) and assists per game (4).
That rebounding is especially important.
Though Whitt’s butter from mid-range, he still struggles shooting from distance. He shot less than 29% from beyond the arc during both of his SMU seasons. But he brings a lot of other positives to the table, including stellar defense and rebounding.
Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman’s system depends on strong rebounding, especially on the defensive glass. Next season, Arkansas will be undersized unless it signs a big man like Kerry Blackshear, Jr., ranked by ESPN as the nation’s No. 1 grad transfer prospect. Aside from Vanover, no Arkansas player stands over 6’9”. The 6’8” Reggie Chaney and 6’8” Gabe Osabuohien will play inside a lot, but neither averaged over 3.5 rebounds last year.
In this context, it’s easy to see why Musselman wants a backcourt filled with bigger guards who can crash the boards. Typically, though, Musselman also wants his players to shoot well from the perimeter. It’s likely Whitt and the Razorback staff will work to revamp his shot mechanics this offseason.
There’s little question that Whitt is drawn to the opportunity to improve his game under an experienced former NBA head coach like Musselman. Not only does Whitt know exactly what it’s like to live and play in Fayetteville, but he also heard about how Musselman treats his players from an insider. Whitt’s older brother, Marcus Whitt, served as a graduate assistant for Musselman at Nevada.
Whitt, along with the three other incoming Hog transfers, is part of the spinning carousel of personnel that has become college basketball. Transfers are on the rise at all levels.
“It’s the nature of our society,” Musselman said earlier this year as Nevada’s coach. “My son played on about 15 different AAU teams. Guys are unhappy with their roles. They go to a new AAU team. Guys are playing at three, four different high schools now.”
At the college level, the number of Division-I transfers on rosters has grown from 10 percent in 2010 to 13 percent in 2018, according to the NCAA. And nobody used them more than Musselman in his four years in Nevada. Heading into the 2017-18 season, for instance, 10 of Nevada’s 13 scholarship players were transfers.
One reason some coaches prefer transfers is they can see exactly what they will get. The transfer has already competed against major college talent, so everything is on tape. A large percentage of high school players, meanwhile, don’t pan out for multiple reasons.
Musselman, who coached pro basketball for decades, likens the dynamic to the NBA. “We looked at high school guys kind of as draft picks and transfers as like an NBA free agent, as we tried to put the pieces together,” he told the Ames Tribune.
Musselman also loves the fact undergrad transfers must sit out a season, so he and his staff get a year to develop them before they can play. They hone players’ skills and strengthen their bodies. Sometimes, as may be the case with Whitt, that could entail restructuring shot mechanics. In general, transfers are more motivated to work hard during these “development years.” Many transfers know if they can’t make it work this time around, their pro basketball dreams could end.
With transfers, Musselman turned Nevada into a mid-major power, going so far as the Sweet 16 one year. Nevada, however, never achieved Gonzaga-like status. It didn’t become a destination for multiple blue-chip players out of high school. That’s one reason it never made a deep run to the Final Four.
This is the level Hog fans ultimately want to see Musselman achieve at Arkansas. To do that, he needs major talent. He will need to get blue-chip talent from the high school ranks, develop them in what may be only one season before they go pro, and blend their abilities with those of transfers’.
Signing smooth scoring prodigies, like the class of 2020’s Che Evans, would be a good start.
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