He showed glimpses of his potential late last season, aiding Marshawn Powell and BJ Young as they carried a majority of the offensive load. But now that they're gone, no one has embraced their new role more than Michael Qualls.
Averaging just shy of five points and four rebounds per game in just 15 minutes in a bench role his freshman season, he captivated the attention of Hog fans last season with his freakish athleticism and his ability to spontaneously make a highlight reel play out of thin air. He's simply never thought he couldn't put someone on a poster.
But he took advantage of his playing time more than anyone last season, and it ultimately led to an increased role as the season progressed. As a result, Qualls was inserted into the starting lineup in several key conference games. Following an 11-rebound effort against Tennessee, and 11-point performance in the upset of No. 2 Florida, we all knew at that point this kid was going to be something special.
Through the first three games of this season, Qualls has been a standout performer and a very pleasant surprise to all. His production has been superb, he's filling up the stat sheet, and as he told me in a preseason interview, he's being more vocal and becoming the type of player that guys look to for guidance without hesitation.
Sitting at 16.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and three assists per game, Qualls has been nothing short of consistent so far, and a leader on both ends of the floor (taking nothing away from Alandise Harris' production off the bench). He understands the importance of being consistent:
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>When you're consistent you grow</p>— Mike Qualls (@Mr_WALKONAIR) <a href="https://twitter.com/Mr_WALKONAIR/statuses/402850939507204096">November 19, 2013</a></blockquote>
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While his numbers thus far are stellar, it's the things that don't show up in a box score that impress most. As SMU head coach Larry Brown said Monday in his post-game presser, Qualls is one of those guys that doesn't have to have the ball to make an impact in a ball game, he just goes out and plays. And it's true. Scoring isn't the only way Qualls can get it going.
At 6-foot-6 (and with possibly the longest arms I've ever seen on someone his size), his versatility allows him to make plays anywhere on the floor. Defensively, his length gives him an advantage when assigned to a guard, and it also allows him to matchup with forwards and centers. He can guard any position on the floor.
Case in point, down the stretch of the Louisiana game, Anderson assigned Qualls to cover Elfrid Payton, who had been torching Arkansas all night. Qualls' length bothered Payton and disrupted the flow of the Ragin' Cajun offense, leading to the deciding 17-3 run in the final minutes of the contest. But prior to the Payton assignment, Qualls had been playing the bottom of the 2-3 zone and sizing up with the ULaLa bigs. He's a glue guy.
In my interview with Qualls, he was adamant about improving his game, becoming a leader, and helping this team reach new heights. So far, he's shooting 53 percent from the field, 40 percent from deep, is the team's second leading scorer and rebounder, and is tied for the team lead in blocks and assists. How's that for leadership?
To me, Qualls is Arkansas' most well-rounded player. The same case could be made for Alandise Harris or Coty Clarke, but I feel that if a team took away an aspect of Qualls' game for a stretch, he'll still find a way to impact the outcome. Offensively, he's producing while still developing (isn't that scary?). Defensively, he does things you can't teach, and finally, he's got all the intangibles. You can't teach hustle, heart, and the ability to motivate yourself.
"He's my kind of guy."