In light of Kansas adding top prospect Andrew Wiggins yesterday, that is now, at least, a pair of noteworthy additions for the Jayhawks in the past month. This is a column I wrote for my blog the day Hunter Mickelson announced his decision to transfer to play for Bill Self and Kansas.
I can remember watching Mickelson play in the state finals with Jonesboro-Westside back in 2011 in Hot Springs, Ark. Then-Arkansas head coach John Pelphrey was in attendance. Hunter had a very solid game, shooting 10-18 from the floor, scoring 24 points and grabbing 10 boards. He was a kid that was head-and-shoulders taller than nearly everyone he faced at the high school level, but wasn't the bulkiest kid. He was going to be the next big thing to come out of high school in Arkansas. With Mickelson's team losing to the 3 Lee brothers and Clarkesville in the final moments of the game, Jonesboro Westside looked to Hunter on the final play. Mickelson caught the ball and proceeded to take a fadeaway jumper from just inside the 3-point line over a pair of defenders. Clarkesville won the state title and Mickelson had to live with the final shot of his high school career, an air ball.
Mickelson was very highly touted coming out of high school, playing for Ron Crawford and the Arkansas Wings Elite team, and was ranked among the top 100 prospects in the country. He led his Jonesboro Westside squad to a 30-4 record, also. Hunter was another gem in a dynamite recruiting class put together by John Pelphrey that included BJ Young, Ky Madden, Devonta Abron (who transferred to TCU after his freshman season) and Aaron Ross (who never made it to campus because of academics). The recruiting class was ranked ninth best in 2011 and was sure to get Arkansas back to prominence. Now, all that remains from the class of 2011 is Ky Madden (who will be a key piece for Arkansas next season). The class certainly brought some exciting moments, but no postseason appearances to this point.
Arkansas fans saw Mickelson staying in state to play for the Razorbacks as a big positive. Scouts and fans alike thought he could come to Fayetteville and make an immediately impact and return Arkansas to the NCAA Tournament, a feat unseen since the days of Sonny Weems and Darian Townes. But maybe there was too much expectation for Mickelson to be the next big thing to come out of Arkansas, and too much hype. Then John Pelphrey was fired.
This is where we must give Hunter credit. He signed on with Arkansas with the notion that he would play under John Pelphrey. With Pelphrey, Mickelson was sure to flourish into the go-to big man for Arkansas and be a constant on the low block. But when Pelphrey was ousted, Mickelson stayed on, remaining loyal to his commitment to Arkansas. Shortly after, Mike Anderson was named the new head coach. Mickelson knew from that point on that he wasn't the best fit for this style of play, but he did what he could to make it work.
In his freshman year, after putting on 40 pounds between the end of his senior year of high school and freshman year at Arkansas, Mickelson started five games, averaging just over 17 minutes per ball game. Although his numbers his freshman season weren't spectacular (5 points and nearly 4 rebounds per game), Mickelson was second in the SEC in blocks with 72, behind only Anthony Davis. In my mind, I will always remember Mickelson at Arkansas for this dunk vs Vanderbilt (this may very well be the highlight of his time at Arkansas), not his shot blocking ability.
And after his freshman year, Arkansans had reason to believe that Mickelson would only improve between seasons one and two. Fans thought with a healthy Marshawn Powell, the addition of Coty Clarke, and an improved Mickelson, Arkansas could be a force to reckon with in year 2 of Mike Anderson's regime.
Then, during his sophomore year, I believe something snapped with Mickelson. Mickelson did not seem to be the same player he was his freshman season. Even in his first year on campus, Mickelson wasn't the most physical body, but in his second go-around at Arkansas he was much less effective on the floor. Mickelson is a finesse player* and people didn't like it. Mickelson shot just 20 free throws in his sophomore campaign. The bigger number was his blocks (39 blocks in 2012-13 compared to 72 in 2011-12). Mickelson was much less physical in year 2, much to the dismay of Hog fans after a positive freshman year.
*Proof: In two seasons, Mickelson shot just 51 free throws. The slow-footed, non-athletic Devonta Abron shot 89 free throws in just one year with the Hogs.
Mickelson, to his credit, is blessed with an above average jumper for a big man, which is an attractive asset for a big in a system like Kansas'. He could step out, shoot the ball and keep defenders honest. Maybe it was the fact he knew he could shoot the ball well that kept him from being a banger. In a guard oriented offense, Mickelson was often the odd man out at Arkansas.
If you ask any Arkansas fan, "what is your opinion of Hunter Mickelson," they will more than likely tell you he was soft and/or clumsy. The verdict on Mickelson is that he was a shot-blocker that didn't block shots well, and a rebounding big man that underachieved on the glass. Mickelson, no doubt, had a lot to live up to coming out of high school, and when he didn't meet expectations, he became a target of much criticism.
Mickelson isn't a banger, and he probably never will be. Hog fans will remember him as a soft big man, one that shied away from physical play and being a tweener, stuck somewhere between a 3 and 4-man that played in a system which didn't maximize his potential. He just didn't fit the system. Certainly, we wish him the best of luck as he continues his basketball career at Kansas, and thank him for his dunk vs Vanderbilt in his freshman year, having the best game of his career vs Robert Morris his sophomore year, and trying to make his situation work despite the circumstances.