LITTLE ROCK — Who’s ready for a third cup of Joe?!
Second-year head coach Eric Musselman will gladly serve it up after effectively winning his first 5-star recruit at Arkansas as he and Hog fans everywhere learned the news on Saturday that Isaiah Joe will be returning for his junior season with the Razorbacks.
“After all things considered, I have decided to play my next season at the University of Arkansas and continue my dream as a Hog!” Joe said in a statement that he released via Twitter. “I appreciate everyone who has been in my corner and supported me throughout my career and during this quarantine. With that being said, there is still a lot to be accomplished and I believe that it all starts here as an Arkansas Razorback!”
Joe’s decision comes just two days prior to the NCAA’s mandated Aug. 3 deadline (Monday) for underclassmen to withdraw from the draft to maintain their college eligibility.
The SEC’s top three-point shooter and arguably the best in the nation, Joe (6-5 shooting guard, Fort Smith native) had not hired an agent, so his path back to Arkansas was an easy one given that he’s been back in Fayetteville since early June going through strength-and-conditioning and shooting work with his teammates. He missed the first two weeks of Musselman’s Arkansas “training camp” while weighing his stay-or-go options, but he’ll soon be green-lighted to rejoin on-court practices with the Hogs.
“We are so excited to have Isaiah back,” said head coach Eric Musselman. “He received incredible feedback from the NBA and got valuable experience with NBA interviews. We know how hard of a decision this was for Isaiah and his family. Zai’s goal is to have a long NBA career and we can’t wait to continue helping him reach his dream.”
In coming back to school, Joe declined to join his former Hog teammate and 2019-20 Co-SEC Player of the Year Mason Jones — he also declared for the draft but hired an agent and stayed in — as Arkansas avoids becoming one of only a few college programs to have multiple underclassmen declare and stay in for the 2020 draft.
Had Joe remained in the draft, he and Jones would have been the first Arkansas underclassmen teammates to come out early for the same draft in five years (former SEC Player of the Year Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls did so in 2015).
Instead, Joe becomes the fourth Arkansas basketball underclasmen since 2016 to declare for the draft before withdrawing to return to the Hogs (Moses Kingsley did the same in 2016, as did both Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford in 2017).
Since entering the draft in April, Joe had interviews with most of the NBA’s teams with several circling back for second interviews. He was among 60 or so draft-eligible players to receive an invitation on Sunday (July 26) to the NBA Draft Combine (which has not been rescheduled), and combine invites are typically in line with expectations of being selected somewhere in the 2-round, 60-player draft (now set for Oct. 16), although not every player who’s invited or takes part in the combine is drafted. He also recently received his second favorable underclassmen advisory committed report regarding his draftability and likely selection-range.
He was projected anywhere from the fringes of the middle of the first round to not being drafted at all when looking at various analyst mock drafts, big boards, and opinions made available for public consumption. But based on the aforementioned data (interviews, combine invite, UAC reports) and feedback from multiple sources, including some NBA scouts who spoke with Hogville.net, Joe’s most likely draft landing spots would have been early-to-mid second round with an outside shot at a late first-round selection. Uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic has cut both ways as the viability of the ’20-21 college season has been in question with the same being true of the NBA’s draft combine; individual workouts, meetings, and medical examinations with NBA teams; and the NBA Summer League and G-League.
Technically, Joe’s withdrawal just ahead of the NCAA’s deadline does not close the door on his 2020 NBA Draft possibilities as the NBA has an August 17 deadline for college underclassmen to declare for the draft. The loophole is obviously an unprecedented one due to the pandemic, but a source said Joe does not have plans to declare for the 2020 draft for a second time.
Joe has been mostly terrific in two seasons at Arkansas. After earning SEC All Freshman honors in ’18-19 when he was the first Hog rookie to start every game since Portis while averaging 13.9 points and setting the school record for made three-pointers (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.
But he was hampered by a mid-season right knee injury and averaged only 9.2 points on 27% 3-point shooting in 5 games playing with the injury, and he missed 6 games mostly while recovering from a surgical procedure to correct the issue with his knee. The Hogs were 3-8 overall during that consecutive 11-game stretch. Parse out the rough patch of injury-plagued games and Arkansas was 6-3 in the 9 SEC games when Joe was playing healthy (3 prior to injury and 6 after procedure) as he averaged 20.4 points while shooting a collective 36-of-94 from 3 (38.3%) and 42-of-43 from the free throw line (97.7%).
Overall, Joe played in 26 games and finished the season as the team’s second-leading scorer at 16.9 points per game (7th in the SEC) and the league’s leader in made triples (94) despite missing those six games due to the injury. He also averaged 4.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.4 steals, and 36.2 minutes. He led the team in charges for a second straight season, and he was 81-of-91 from the free throw line for 89.0% (the efficiency led the team and was top 3 in the SEC). He was once named SEC Player of the Week. Arkansas finished 20-12, but the Hogs were 17-4 with a healthy Joe in the lineup.
Joe returns to Arkansas with 910 career points and 207 career made 3-pointers (7th most in school history) at a 37.1% clip in 60 career games (he started all but once in the games he played in during his first two years as a Hog). Joe is just 90 points away from becoming the 45th Hog to join the 1,000 career point club at Arkansas, and he needs 68 more three-pointers to move into second-place all-time in career makes from distance (former Hog Pat Bradley stits at No. 1 with 366 made three-pointers through four seasons).