By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — Eric Musselman has coached two conference players of the year in his first five seasons heading up NCAA Division 1 programs, and he sees a path to notching a third in year six.
Musselman was head coach at Nevada when wing Caleb Martin won Mountain West Conference Player of the Year honors in 2017-18, and last season — his first at Arkansas — Musselman helped mold guard Mason Jones into the league’s most prolific scorer in decades as the since-departed junior earned ’19-20 Co-SEC Player of the Year recognition.
If the Head Hog is to make it 3 out of 6 seasons mentoring his league’s best player, it’s most likely to be Razorbacks’ backcourt centerpiece Isaiah Joe. The 6-foot-5 Fort Smith native joined Musselman for a zoom meeting with the media on Monday roughly 48 hours after Joe announced he was withdrawing from the 2020 NBA Draft to return to school for his junior season.
Image courtesy of Arkansas Razorbacks basketball
“I certainly feel like he has got to be mentioned as a preseason-type player of the year,” Musselman said. “You look at what he’s done, his freshman and sophomore seasons, he’s had two great years as a really young player. There’s going to be other players in our league going into their junior and senior year. Obviously, he’s going into his junior year, and I think he’s been a guy who’s proven he’s an all-league first-team guy even his first two years in college.
“He does a lot of intangible things. Obviously, everybody talks about the shooting and how he spaces the floor. For us, speed and space is a term that we’ve used with our team from an offensive standpoint, and he’s really going to help in that speed and space game. I think there’s no doubt he’s worthy and should be a guy talked about when you talk about the top players in our league. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”
Speed and space indeed. Musselman has often referenced his preference to see his offense pass the ball 200 times per game. Reason being that a defense works much harder trying to stay in position when they are chasing passes versus chasing dribble-drives, which opens up more clean-look opportunities for the offense at all three levels (outside the arc, in the mid-range, and in the paint).
Because Joe economizes dribbling and is a smart, willing passer, he is tailor-made for an offense that looks to space the floor while creating fast-paced tempo via brisk ball movement. His ability to get his shot off quickly and accurately — he was 44.7% from 3 last season shooting from NBA 3-point range — is another asset because he forces defenders to stick to him far out on the floor keeping them out of position to sag off to help-defend, which creates more spacing on the court and thus more scoring opportunities for teammates.
Simply put, Joe is what is known in the modern game as a gravity floor-spacer.
Numerically speaking, Joe’s true value gauge as a sophomore was baked into the nine SEC games in which he was healthy when he put up 20.4 points per game (includes 36-of-94 shooting from 3 for 38.3% and 42-of-43 shooting from the free-throw line for 97.7%) as the Hogs won 6 of 9 games. In the middle of putting up those All SEC first-team-esque numbers, Joe struggled with a right knee injury as he played hurt through five games (averaging 9.2 points on 27% from 3) and missed six more to rehabilitate from a procedure to his injured knee as the Razorbacks slipped up with a 3-8 record during that stretch.
“I would say overall I’ve had a pretty successful college career,” Joe said. “In so many of those healthy games the team had a good record and was rolling during that time. Having those games I think I’ve set myself up to have a big season and be able to put my name higher in the draft and things of that sort. Right now the main focus is getting to play some games and having a good season.”
Despite playing injured and missing games, Joe led the SEC in made three-pointers (94), he was 7th in the league in scoring (16.9 points per game), and he was third in free throw shooting efficiency (81-of-91 for 89.0%). He also led Arkansas in drawing charges for the second consecutive season and has totaled 45 in 60 career games. In ’18-19, he earned SEC All Freshman recognition as he was the first Hog rookie to start every game since former SEC Player of the Year Bobby Portis while averaging 13.9 points and setting the school record for made three-pointers in a season (113 at a 41.4% clip).
Joe was a preseason All SEC pick as a sophomore and through the mid-point of the season he was named 1 of 10 finalists for the postseason Jerry West Award — which honors the top shooting guard in the nation — before his knee injury derailed him for the aforementioned 11 consecutive games.
The SEC’s best three-point shooter and arguably the best in the nation, Joe’s ability to create shots often goes under-appreciated as he was in the 97th and 89th percentile in converting shots off the bounce covering his first two seasons, respectively, at Arkansas. His two-point takes and makes as well as his free throw shooting volume and efficiency all improved as a sophomore when compared to his freshman campaign — in 8 fewer games, so that illustrates his development in several aspects of his offensive arsenal.
As Joe joins teammates in Musselman’s Razorback training camp this week — it’s his first week of camp but week three for teammates — he must not only provide veteran leadership, but he must also establish on-court feel and chemistry with 10 newcomers as he figures out the best way he can contribute to winning while advancing his own game.
A script for Joe earning SEC Player of the Year honors in ’20-21 would look much different than his teammate’s from a season ago who earned a piece of the award despite Arkansas finishing league play in 11th place with a 7-11 record. Jones was a scoring juggernaut, racking up nine 30-point games (including two of 40 or more points) on his way to leading the SEC in scoring (22.0 points per game) while also leading the Razorbacks in rebounding, assists, and steals. Jones was a ball-dominant offensive force whose ability to knock down three’s was a set-up complement to his brilliant downhill dribble-drives into the paint where he adeptly finished plays either with a bucket or free throws, defying conventional wisdom that a below-the-rim backcourt scorer can’t consistently excel inside.
Joe won’t rise to the top of the league that way, but his aforementioned strengths coupled with a mostly new roster that has upgrades in size (height and length), overall perimeter skill (includes bigs who can shoot and pass well facing up), overall talent, and depth gives Arkansas a legitimate chance to challenge for a Top 5 finish in the SEC as well as national rankings. If Joe proves to be the front man on a team that lives up to those preseason expectations — Arkansas continues to pop up in way-too-early national Top 25 rankings — he has a great shot at being in the conversation for league player of the year when March rolls around.
But whether or not he hoists individual hardware by the end of the season, if Joe manages to lead and produce in a way that impacts a successful Arkansas season while he reaches some of the personal development goals that he touched on Monday it strengthens his case as a potential first-round selection in the 2021 NBA Draft. And once he gets his shot at the big leagues, Joe sees the evolution of the game that embraces spacing with more and more focus on perimeter shooting skill as being right in his wheelhouse.
“I feel that how the (NBA) game is played my game translates to the league a lot,” said Joe, whose return to Arkansas capped off months of interviews with most of the NBA’s teams while he was in the draft pool. “I got a lot of that information from some teams that were able to contact me and give me that information. So, my game does translate. I think the biggest part of my game now is showing them that I can get bigger, become more of a playmaker, and increase my three-point percentage.
“Once I show them (NBA teams) that I can be the best shooter on the court at all times, I feel that space will really help my game.”