Cover photo from arkansasrazorbacks.com
In his first full off season with Arkansas, Coach Musselman pulled off a complete overhaul of the roster. He’s brought in four highly ranked freshmen, led by projected lottery pick, Moses Moody. Muss also has three incoming grad transfers in Jalen Tate (Nothern Kentucky), Vance Jackson (New Mexico), and Justin Smith (Indiana).
With all of these new faces, let’s not be quick to forget the three sit-one transfers that joined the Hogs last summer. Abayomi Iyiola (Stetson), JD Notae (Jacksonville), and the most popular amongst fans, Connor Vanover (California).
Connor Vanover Popularity
Vanover has been popular amongst Arkansas basketball fans since his High School days where he played for Arkansas Baptist Prep for three seasons. He led the Eagles to an overall record of 82-21 through three seasons, including back to back 4A state championships in 2016 and 2017.
However, it was neither of these stats that caught the attention of so many. Connor’s stature, appearance, and skill set are what sets him apart for fans. He stands at a towering 7’3 (7’2 in high school) and can often be seen sporting a man bun. Talk about a memorable first impression.
More importantly to his place on the team, Vanover possesses the skillset of many modern NBA big men, the skillset that places bigs in the category created for Kristaps Porzingis: Unicorn. Unicorns are seen as players big enough to play the center position on both ends of the court, but that can also shoot effectively from distance. These players have historically been rare, thus earning the mythological nickname. Dirk Nowitzki was one of the first to master this skillset, but Porzingis was the first to earn the nickname for being part of a rare breed. Vanover is the latest in the line of big man to fit this description, though not quite to the level of the afore mentioned NBA stars.
Connor Vanover Breakdown
Living up to the Unicorn name, Vanover spends much of his time outside three point arc. He attempted nearly as many 3P shots per game as he did 2P shots during his first year at Cal, attempting 2.7 and 3.6 shots respectively. He shot 35.5% from distance and 46.8% overall. When he’s not pulling the trigger on his high-release jumper, he’s also capable of finishing in pick and roll scenarios. Rare is the occasion that Connor gets an isolation opportunity in the post.
When playing on the perimeter, Vanover’s catch and shoot ability is taken to the next level by his length. His elite size allows him to fire off shots regardless of how closely he’s being defended. This skillset opens up a new realm of possibilities for the Hogs. With the plethora of shooters and playmakers Musselman has acquired at Arkansas, Vanover has an incredible opportunity to create scoring for both himself and others by opening up the floor and creating space.
See the video below for a single-game snippet of Connor’s offensive arsenal.
Sheer size makes Vanover a threat in the paint defensively. He averaged 1.3 blocks per game in only 17.5 minutes of action during his time at Cal. His per 36 minutes would average out to over 2.6 blocks per game. Not that Vanover will see those kind of minutes with the number of talented forwards on the Razorbacks’ roster next year.
Now we come to the weakest part of Connor’s game: his perimeter defense. Vanover’s size allows him to contest shots inside, but it greatly hinders his agility on the perimeter. Against other big men, he can hold his own, but his inability to stay in front of smaller guards may limit his ability to defend pick and roll situations. This hindrance may limit his availability now that Musselman has four legitimate options at center. Jaylin Williams (6’10), Vance Jackson (6’9), and Justin Smith (6’7), all taller than Arkansas’s starting center last season, Adrio Bailey (6’6), are all more capable of guarding on the perimeter than Vanover is. They’re better athletes and quicker on their feet. They can provide more defensive versatility than Connor. However, this won’t be his downfall. Connor’s unique combination of size and shooting will keep him on the court regardless of defensive abilities.
Vanover’s Hot Streak
California went only 7-21 in games that Vanover played during his freshmen campaign. He averaged subpar stats in only 17.5 minutes per game. The percentages look good, but the overall production wasn’t there. However, if you look at Vanover’s last 11 games with the Golden Bears you would find a different story.
First 17 games
11.0 min | 4.5 pts | 1.8 reb | 0.1 ast | 0.7 blk | 0.2 stl | .436 FG% | .323 3P%
Last 11 games
27.5 min | 12.0 pts | 4.8 reb | 0.4 ast | 2.1 blk | 0.4 stl | .491 FG% | .378 3P%
In his 18th career game, Cal faced Stanford. Vanover came off the bench to play 25 minutes, score 15 points, and shoot 2/6 from distance. This game started an 11 game stretch of great play for Connor. He started the last 9 games and improved all of his averages tremendously. In his second to last game, Vanover faced Stanford again, the same team that started his tremendous streak. He proceeded to set career highs in points (24), blocks (6), and 3PM (5) while shooting 75% from the field and 83% from the three point line.
The easy comparison has already been spoken of in this article: Kristaps Porzingis. The 7’3 NBA Star made it cool for big men to shoot threes. Sure, some did it before him, but his shooting success combined with his stature and unusual height make him unique. All of which he has in common with Connor Vanover. Both players stand at 7 feet 3 inches tall, an ungodly height even for NBA players. They both shoot exactly 35.5% from distance over their careers, a startling similarity. Vanover actually makes 2P shots at a higher rate than Porzingis, 46.9% compared to 43.3%, but this can likely be attributed to the higher level of competition Porzingis faces on a nightly basis. Porzingis has a greater all around skillset, including more mobility, than Vanover does. This has allowed him to succeed in the NBA when healthy.
Vanover has the size and shooting ability of an NBA big, both abilities that Coach Musselman will be thrilled to have in his back pocket, but he has much to improve upon before he’s ready to make the jump to the next level.