FAYETTEVILLE – While addressing recent practices leading into Wednesday night’s basketball season opener at Walton Arena against Mississippi Valley State, Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman Friday of course was asked about his two 2019-2020 season stars turned pro.
Last Wednesday night in the NBA draft Isaiah Joe, the former Fort Smith Northside state champion guard excelling as a 2018-2019 freshman shooting guard for former Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson and last season as a sophomore and SEC 3-point shooting leader for Musselman’s Razorbacks, was selected 49th overall and in the second round by the Philadelphia 76ers.
Though named SEC Co-Player of the Year for 2019-2020, Mason Jones, a sophomore junior college transfer for Anderson’s Razorbacks and leading scorer (22.0 points average) for Musselman’s Razorbacks as a junior, went undrafted but was signed as a free agent by the Houston Rockets.
“First of all, Isaiah getting drafted is awesome,” Musselman said. “It’s an incredible accomplishment for him. It’s awesome for the program.”
Musselman stands elated the Sixers hired Coach Doc Rivers whom Musselman assisted during Rivers’ tenure coaching the Orlando Magic.
“I think he’s in a great situation,” Musselman said. “The Sixers obviously have lacked shooting. Daryl Morey, who’s now running their front office values shooting. Doc Rivers, in my opinion, I don’t know how you could play for a better coach as a rookie. I think he’s a great coach because he’s a great communicator.”
“I told him that it doesn’t matter now if you were drafted or not,” Musselman said. “The bottom line is, you’ve got to go to training camp and you’ve got to produce. Both those guys are going to learn — if they don’t already know — that it’s a business.”
For trying to make it as a free agent, Jones starts business at a “great place,” Musselman said.
“No.1 they have for a long time now valued guys that are fighting to make the league,” Musselman said. “And they’ve really valued players that have gone through the minor league system with them.
Houston’s probably done a better job than any of the G League with their parent team. So I think it’s a good spot for Mason.”
Musselman said he still sorts for a starting five for Wednesday’s opener.
Even junior guard Desi Sills of Jonesboro, recognized Thursday as Preseason Second-Team SEC and one of only two returnees along with junior forward Ethan Henderson, isn’t guaranteed to start. Primarily that’s because Sills mostly played even better his eight games off the bench last season than his 24 starts.
“”I think it’s awesome that he got recognized by our league,” Musselman said. “Anytime a player gets a preseason honor, you want to celebrate it. It’s well deserved. Having said that, there’s no doubt that he was really effective coming off the bench. I thought he got to observe the flow of the game and came in and gave us some instant punch. Having said that, I think he wants to start.”
Sills and freshman guard Davonte “Devo” Davis of Jacksonville preceded Musselman on Thursday’s Zoom press conference.
“To be honest, whether I come off the bench or whether I start, I just want to win,” Sills said. “If I come off the bench, I want to be Sixth Man of the Year and still get all-conference. If I start, I have bigger goals – try to get SEC Player of the Year. But it’s not all about me. It’s all about winning – winning games to get to the NCAA Tournament and try to win the SEC Tournament, as well.”
Sills for last season’s 20-12 Razorbacks that beat Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament’s first round, felt on the verge of playing his first NCAA Tournament.
Then national coronavirus concerns cancelled all spring semester college sports before Arkansas could play its second round SEC Tournament game against South Carolina.
“We had a good opportunity against South Carolina to get in the NCAA tournament,” Sills said. “We have a chip on our shoulder. We haven’t played in eight months so the main goal is to get out there and give it our all versus Mississippi Valley State.”
Davis, 6-3, stunned observers including himself winning the team’s dunk contest before last week’s Red-White intrasquad game.
“I wasn’t going in thinking I was going to win,” Davis said. “I was going in to have fun and enjoy the moment. But I actually pulled out some dunks that I never did before. So that kind of helped and I got the job done.”
Davis knows his quickest route to play is his renowned blue collar hustle, particularly on the boards and fighting for loose balls, which Musselman praised, and his versatility practicing at point guard, off guard and small forward.
However handling the ball in high school vs. handling it for Musselman’s Hogs besets more demanding.
“Obviously, he’s got to continue to improve as a shooter,” Musselman said. “Continue to improve in taking care of the ball. Continue to learn the offense. But great energy, great disposition. When he walks into the gym, the gym lights up with his enthusiasm and his energy. He loves being a Razorback.”
Photos courtesy of Craven Whitlow, CW3, Sports Action