Today, SB Nation published a 6,000-word longform story I wrote on Malik Monk. It discusses his recruitment, his summer performances at Peach Jam, his relationship with his brother Marcus and several in the Razorback basketball community, and more. It's also about the development of a "brand" for Monk as he enters his final high school season and prepares for his basketball future. Here are a couple of excerpts that should be of interest to Arkansas fans. You can read the story in its entirety here.
Through his connections from the University of Arkansas and other basketball circles, Marcus provides Malik with outside, top-notch training opportunities in northwest Arkansas. One of Marcus’ friends — Kelly Lambert — is a former strength coach for the Razorbacks and Memphis Grizzlies. He has worked with Malik this summer to help him add muscle to get up to 190 pounds. After the drills, Marcus takes Malik through Scorpion stretches and starts him on balancing exercises while holding weights.
He may be in high school, but at times Malik already trains like a professional. Today, he wears a Chicago Bulls T-shirt, which proves prescient. Later that night, Chicago will draft his friend Bobby Portis with the No. 22 overall pick. Portis, the 2014-15 SEC Player of the Year as a Hog, has been publicly outspoken in recruitment of Malik on behalf of Arkansas. Malik has known Portis for years as a fellow member of the Wings, and he says they talk about twice a week. Portis, in fact, showed up last year with practically the entire Razorback basketball team at two of Malik’s high school games, and even at his draft announcement press conference said he hoped his college success showed more in-state high school stars like Malik they should stay home.
Malik says he didn’t know Bobby had mentioned him by name, on air, until a couple weeks later when he saw something about it on Twitter. He says he appreciated the respect but doesn’t put himself on that level yet. Still, he adds, "We’re both from Arkansas so I understand why he said it."
While balancing on one leg, Malik says that in private Bobby doesn’t try to sway him to Arkansas. "We don’t talk about school, really," he says. The topic of conversation is far more likely to be girls or music. Part of that is because Malik is still only 17 years old, but part of it may also be his upcoming college choice is a decision that will weigh more on the emotions of the fans of those big programs than it will on his own. To be an NBA superstar today means wanting a world stage, like LeBron, and not just that of a single school or city or state.
After the workout, the Monks consider what to do next. Malik has a plane to catch the following morning to attend the Nike Basketball Academy in Santa Monica, California, where he will learn from the likes of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. The brothers are thinking they may be able to squeeze in a 6 p.m. pickup game at the Fayetteville Athletic Club.
They close the doors but will return often in the coming weeks as Marcus’ connections help sharpen Malik’s game at the gym. In addition to the drills, he has organized workouts and pickup games with pro players and former Razorbacks like Ronnie Brewer, Jr. (formerly of the Jazz, Bulls and Rockets), Courtney Fortson (Banvit in Turkey), Ky Madden (Grizzlies summer league) and Marshawn Powell (Treviso Basket in Italy), and current Hogs like Jimmy Whitt and the recently suspended Anton Beard and JaCorey Williams, the kind of competition neither high school nor AAU ball can provide.
Everyone — including Malik — understands any number of factors from injury to hubris to burnout could derail his superstardom dreams. And there’s always the possibility his game will stall far short of superstar status. At this level, nothing is guaranteed. All, the same, Fortson can’t help but gush.
"He’s a guaranteed pro," Fortson says of Malik. Fortson, who played for the Los Angeles Clippers, believes Malik has all the tools to succeed in the NBA, starting with a stable family. "The way Marcus handles him — that’s the biggest key. He lets him be a kid. A lot of high-profile players don’t have that. A lot of them have weight on their shoulders."
And this on the different opportunities presented by Arkansas and Kentucky:
In Malik’s case, the actual college he attends — whether a Grambling State or an Ohio State — likely will not affect his draft stock. Malik believes talent rises to the top and he doesn’t think a player’s NBA draft stock depends on where he plays in college. "If you’re putting up major numbers, somebody’s going to find out," he says. "It don’t matter where you’re at." While observers have griped the "one and done" approach "uses" the players, in Malik’s case this dynamic has the potential to work in reverse — if a brand is established in time.
As Todd Day noted, Malik will end up doing more for whatever school he chooses than vice versa. His significance goes beyond simply winning games or making a deep tourney run. While Malik is a well-rounded, fundamentally sound player, he is best known for YouTube-melting flourishes on passes, forceful drives through the lane and, especially, on dunks of every imaginable variety. On breakaway scoring opportunities, he often goes to the rim so strongly and so high, that he must turn his face away right after a dunk to avoid being hit by the ball at net level.
Were he to attend Arkansas, Malik would likely not only pack arenas with plays headlining SportsCenter, but he could help Arkansas attract future recruits for years afterwards. While he would be the face of the program and an immediate in-state legend, beyond that it is less clear what the program would do for him.
Kentucky presents a different situation. The Wildcats’ basketball fan base is one of the largest in the country, much bigger than Arkansas’. That could translate into more social media followers and potential customers down the line. While the choice of schools for the most elite recruits may not impact draft position, it could affect how quickly their brands emerge in the months after college and in the first years of their NBA careers.
Similarly, more Kentucky games are broadcast nationally than any other programs, and many Kentucky fans believe that exposure helps translate into better endorsements deals when Wildcats turn pro. So does UK coach John Calipari. As he writes in his 2014 book Players First: Coaching From the Inside Out, "I’ve had agents tell me they are able to get better shoe deals for our NBA players," he writes. "The shoe company doesn’t have to invent our players’ brand — or build up their Q score — because they already have one."
Kentucky has developed a relentless recruiting machine, regularly churning out the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class, in part because its coach openly pushes his best players to go pro after their mandated one year in college. Calipari has also perfected the art of turning a player’s NBA dreams into a team-first principle. "I really believe that most kids who play for me in Lexington go higher in the draft than if they played somewhere else — and especially, in the years we prosper as a team."
Malik, in fact, has already played with a couple former Arkansas Wings who have followed Calipari to Lexington. Two summers ago, it was Memphis’ Skal Labissiere, who will play for Kentucky in 2015-16 and already projects to be a top three pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. Before that, when Malik was in junior high, one of the top dogs in the Wings program was Little Rock native Archie Goodwin. In fall 2011, Goodwin famously cited his commitment to Kentucky over Arkansas as a "business decision" in line with his desire to be a "one-and-done." Goodwin was drafted late in the first round after his freshman year and will soon enter his third year with the Phoenix Suns. Malik may well follow a similar track.
Little Rock native Evin Demirel is a freelance writer who has worked for the likes of SLAM, the Daily Beast, the Arkansas Times and Slate. Based in Bentonville, Ark., he has launched BestOfArkansasSports.com to offer the state's only curated newsletter focused on sports. The outlet also offers the area's only regular roundup of sports radio interviews.