FAYETTEVILLE – For the first time since the coronavirus pandemic terminated Arkansas’ 20192-2020 basketball season before its second SEC Tournament game, Isaiah Joe practiced Monday with the Razorbacks knowing he will be a Razorback when the 2020-2021 season tips off.
Since April the superb 3-point shooting guard and former Fort Smith Northside state champion star has had his name in the since postponed NBA draft while keeping an option to return to the University of Arkansas.
Just two days before the final deadline of turn pro or stay in school, Joe announced Saturday he would return to the UA. He held a Zoom press conference Monday explaining why he opted to return to Coach Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks.
“ I mean it’s definitely not an easy decision and not one to be rushed as you’ve seen,” Joe said. “I was just trying to really get a feel for the process and I appreciate all the teams that got in contact with me. I got a lot of good information and at the end of the day I felt like the best decision was to come back to school.”
Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Joe’s NBA interviews were strictly on Zoom and he didn’t get to work out for NBA teams though he was invited to the postponed still to be held Combine which he now will not attend
Joe had participated in Razorbacks summer workouts but since late July just watched as an encourager while weighing his decision.
“Now I feel like I can sit back and focus on one thing and one thing only and that’s this upcoming season,” Joe said. “It’s difficult not knowing if you’re going to go or come back. Making the decision made it really easy. It was a sigh of relief, not just for me but for the fans, the coaching staff and my family.”
Saturday’s announcement formally concluded what he already had imparted to Musselman and the Arkansas staff.
“I told Coach Muss about a week ago so they were pretty informed on the situation,” Joe said. “After weighing the options, the pros and cons of staying and the pros and cons of going, we had a big sit-down with my family and we talked for about three hours trying to get a feel for what we can do. As far as whether I stayed or went, the decision would have been good either way. So right now it’s about getting the best opportunity I can possible.”
Factors from getting another full year closer to his UA degree in finance, playing for a program he loves and the state he loves as one of eight Arkansans all factored, he said.
So did learning from former NBA head coach Musselman and a staff full of assistants and advisers who either coached or played in the NBA and especially another year with the weight program building an increasingly less spindly 6-5 frame in the 160 range reporting as a 2018 UA freshman.
“I think the biggest thing people want to see is me get bigger and bulk up and get stronger,” Joe said. “I’ve been gaining weight consistently over the past couple of years. I really see I’m going to continue to do that. Right now, I’m sitting in the 175-180 range. My goal is be able to sit at around 185 come our first game. At draft time (next June) if I’m in the 190 range, that’d be perfect.”
Whatever his size, Joe knows his 3-point shot (207 of 548 in two Arkansas seasons averaging 13.9 and 16.9 points) is his mealticket.
“At the end of the day, when I go to the next level, they’re going to want me to knock down the shot really consistently,” Joe said.
However Joe is not just a white collar 3-point shooting one-trick pony.
Musselman said Joe’s return also makes Arkansas a better defensive team and that he takes charge setting a defensive theme
Both for former Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson’s 2018-2019 Razorbacks and Musselman’s Hogs last season, Joe epitomized a blue-collar defender leading the team in taking charges. And he was second on last year’s team in steals to turned pro All-SEC Co-Player of the Year guard Mason Jones.
“ When you have a player that’s a, ‘high-take-a-charge guy,’ like Isaiah, well guess what, that means he’s a great off-ball defender,” Musselman said on Monday’s Zoom conference. “He’s in the right spot defensively to be a help guy. Otherwise, those charges turn into blocking calls. I think that’s contagious when a guy does that. He’s willing to err on the side of being an overly help player instead of being a selfish defender where he’s only worried about his man. And that’s why you see such a high volume of taking charges in his short two-year career here. He all of the sudden made us a better help defense team when he made his decision to come back.”
Musselman said with Joe the Razorbacks obviously return a star with potential to be a SEC Player of the Year but stressed he did not re-recruit him.
“I don’t believe in trying to recruit somebody away from what they really want to do,” Musselman said, noting his role is to help his players get as much NBA information as possible so they can better decide for themselves. “I know Isaiah wants to play in the NBA. He’s part of the Arkansas Razorbacks right now, but he has a goal and a dream to play in the NBA. So we want to try to help him work on skill development to put himself in the best position to be as high of a draft pick as he possibly can a year from now.”
Musselman said when Joe approached him last week the coach thought it likely would be to say he was turning pro.
“I think that he went through a period where he had a goal in mind and maybe it kind of seemed like he was going to come back,” Musselman said. “Then with more interviews maybe he was leaning towards taking the NBA route. Then at the the very end, he came back around to thinking that this was going to be the best decision for him. I asked him two or three times, ‘Are you sure” Is this really what you want to do? Are you excited about it?’ And he was excited. He had zero reservation in his voice.”
Photos courtesy of Craven Whitlow, CW3, Sports Action