FAYETTEVILLE - Since Monday night’s Arkansas Razorbacks basketball postseason banquet was Mike Anderson’s first media availability since Arkansas lost its first round NCAA Tournament loss to Butler on March 16 in Detroit, the Arkansas coach was asked both about Daniel Gafford returning to the Razorbacks, and freshman and sophomore guards Darius Hall and C.J. Jones leaving the Razorbacks.
Gafford, the 6-11 shot-blocking, court-running All-SEC Freshman team center from El Dorado, is considered a strong NBA draft prospect but announced he’s returning for a sophomore season.
“Obviously he's a first-round draft choice, we know that,” Anderson said, noting former Razorback Bobby Portis of Little Rock was in a similar position after his freshman year and returned to be the SEC Player of the Year enhancing his stock to be drafted by the Chicago Bulls. “He wants to be a great player. I think it was the same thing with Bobby.
"That's a testament to the kid and his family. He wants to get better and he understands he's got to improve. He came to that realization, and I'm happy he did. Now he can build on that and obviously be a cornerstone for our basketball team. We have some tremendous young talent coming in here and he'll be the focal point of what we're doing.”
Graduating senior guards Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon, both 1,000 Razorbacks scorers in only two Razorbacks seasons as junior college transfers, and both pondering whether to turn pro this time last year but opting to return, both said Gafford “made a great decision.”
“He enjoys being in college and he’ll have a great season next year,” Barford said. “It will be a plus for him.”
Gafford has dreamed of the NBA but growing up in El Dorado dreamed first of being a Razorback.
“I couldn’t give it up,” Gafford said. “It was a fun year and I wanted to have one more year here before I left, so I decided to come back and decided to try to have another great year. At one point in time, I was 100 percent ready to go to the draft, but then I wanted to come back because that was my game plan all along, to get at least two years at this school. We’re like one big happy family, so I didn’t want to take one part out of the family yet.”
Gafford calling his freshman year “great” is no overstatement given he became the first Razorbacks freshman simultaneously surpassing 400 points, 200 rebounds and 70 blocked shots with 400, 200 and 70.
However for the team and himself, he knows he must strive to be even better.
“I have to work on a lot of stuff,” Gafford said. “I have to work on getting bigger. I have to work on my base in the low post. I have to work on my outside game more. I’m working on my3-point shot too. I want to be one of those bigs that can expand their range.”
As for Hall and Jones announcing intentions to transfer, Anderson, who did grant them releases, was asked if he was surprised, particularly by Little Rock Mills grad Hall who played every game and improved throughout the season.
“I was surprised but nothing surprises me now,” Anderson said. “Everybody's not going to be happy. But at the same time, I want guys that are committed to being Razorbacks. So that being said, we've got a tremendous recruiting class coming in to go along with the pieces that we have here. It's like a fresh beginning. I'm all about guys that want to be here.”
He also is about his graduates furthering their careers and is enthused that Barford and Macon are among the graduating senior invitees set to play in the thoroughly NBA scouted Portsmouth Invitational Tournament in Portsmouth, Va.
“I think they're leaving tomorrow (Tuesday), Anderson said. “They've got their names out there. Now this gives them an opportunity to go out and solidify their names even more when you bring in 64 of the top seniors. They'll play in front of NBA scouts and executives, foreign scouts. So it's an opportunity for them to go out and showcase the players they've become.”
Barford and Macon both seem excited.
“ A lot of big-name players are there,” Barford said. “I think there will be great competition.”
Is it difficult trying to show out to scouts playing all-star games in a team sport?
“ I’ve played in a lot of all-star games and know how it goes,” Barford said. “I just try to stay within myself. Just play our games like we did doing the season.”
Macon called it a “ great opportunity to showcase our talents and get our names out there one last time. We’re just chasing a dream and we work hard and I think everything is going to fall into place.”
At the banquet, Anderson and his staff announced team awards including the Academic Award to freshman forward Gabe Osabuohien; the Razorback Performance Award in the weight room jointly to sophomore forward Adrio Bailey and walk-on guard Jonathan Holmes; the Razorback Service Award for community service to already graduated forward and Forrest City High alum Trey Thompson; the Free Throw Award to Macon, 36 of 37 free throws in overtimes; the Iron Man Award for taking charges to Osabuohien; the Hog Award for intangibles to graduating senior guard and North Little Rock High alum Anton Beard; the Razorback Leadership Award jointly to 4-year lettermen Beard and Thompson; Assists Award to Macon; Defensive Player of the Year and Chairman of the Boards awards to Gafford; the Offensive Player of the Year jointly to All-SEC guards Barford and Macon; and the ignominious Apple Turnover Award to Barford for committing the most turnovers.