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Calipari heavily hints at Wagner’s arrival as he ties up that bag


DJ Wagner, John Calipari, Arkansas basketball, Kentucky basketball, transfer portal
photo credit: Kentucky Athletics

The Arkansas basketball program appears much closer to securing its eighth commitment in the form of former Kentucky guard DJ Wagner, given John Calipari’s comments Tuesday night in Little Rock during a statewide tour.

Calipari may not publicly directly reference Wagner, the rising second-year guard who entered the transfer portal last month, but he did drop a few hints that Wagner would be the next Razorback after his visit last weekend.

Not long after an audience member shouted a question about Wagner that Calipari refused to answer, he spoke about how much it means to him that fathers he coached decades ago now trust their sons to play for him too, as Anthony Kristenson reported for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

“Billy Richmond’s father played for me. Adou Thiero’s father played for me,” he said. “Another man’s father played for me.” It’s almost certain that Calipari is referring to DJ Wagner here, as his father, Milt, played in Memphis in 2001-2002.

In another part, he referred to freshmen from last year’s Kentucky team who transferred to Arkansas to continue playing for him. He mentioned Zvonimir Ivisic, Adou Thiero and “hopefully someone else who did this,” another likely reference to Wagner.

What DJ Wagner brings

The 6-foot-1 guard was ranked No. 4 in the class of 2023 by ESPN, but struggled to find consistency during his freshman season with the Wildcats. He had a pair of scoring bursts, averaged 3.3 assists and excelled defensively in a backcourt loaded with talent, including two potential lottery picks in Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham.

With five scholarships remaining, Calipari would still be in the midst of his attempts to build a full basketball roster in previous seasons. However, he could be nearing the end of his efforts to build a roster for this offseason in light of the recent changes in the college basketball landscape.

The addition of the alternate routes to the NBA, the transfer portal and NIL deals have turned the sport upside down. Whether or not these changes improved the quality of the game is still up for debate, but either way they don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

Furthermore, John Calipari’s desire to be at the forefront of important trends shows no sign of waning either.

Yes, there have been a lot of changes in recent years that have left many coaches wanting to pull their hair out. Every summer there are an increasing number of talented players available on the portal and seemingly ungodly amounts of NLI money are thrown at some of them. The attrition of the roster inevitably means that a few players end up playing far fewer roles than they envisioned, given their background at a previous college or coming out of high school.

When those high expectations aren’t met for some players, it’s now easier than ever for them to change their minds and (sometimes back in) the transfer portal to look for a better opportunity for himself.

Coaches are not powerless in all this. A simple solution is to eliminate the potential problem of playing time complaints by hiring fewer scholarship players to begin with.

Calipari dipped his toes into these waters last year when he signed Zvonimir Ivisic midway through the season. This wouldn’t have been possible if Calipari had kept an open spot available from the start of the season.

Calipari goes one step further

With the situation that John Calipari now finds himself in at Arkansas, starting from scratch with only one walk-on available to him the moment he stepped onto campus, it’s a real possibility that he takes this new trend one step further.

Last week, Calipari mentioned on the Ways to Win podcast with Craig Robinson that he has “maybe no more than eight or nine guys” on the roster.

He doubled that on Tuesday in Little Rock, as you can hear here:

While it seems excessive to have only eight players, it is certainly possible that Calipari starts the season with just nine to 10 players despite having 13 scholarships available.

As CBS’s Matt Norlander said when discussing this possibility on his own podcast, “11 is the new 13 for a lot of coaches.”

Going into a season with eleven or fewer players limits a coach’s options, but that’s kind of the point here. There are a lot of potential complaints about playing time, as reported NIL deals for certain star transfers are skyrocketing year over year and incoming five-star freshmen are likely looking to better position themselves. Reducing the number of minutes available generally means a bigger piece of the pie for everyone, with theoretically less dissatisfaction that comes with it.

Keeping that NIL pie big is critical, which explains why Calipari made a point of meeting key members of the Stephens family, one of the most generous Razorback boosters of the past decades and a reason alongside John Tyson why Calipari came to Arkansas in the first place:

Expect the Stephens and Tysons to continue to play a vital role in keeping Arkansas at the head of the pack in the NIL world. Keeping Calipari in good standing appears to be essential for the financial health of the Arkansas basketball program in the years to come.

When it comes to a shorter rotation, having 2-3 players at the end of the bench is much more manageable than 5-6 players who don’t play as much as they want.

Even beyond the immediate relief of fewer game-time disputes, this could potentially deter certain players from entering the transfer portal after the season. Several former Razorbacks have followed this path recently, including prized freshmen like Layden Blocker and Derrian Ford.

If a player is hesitant to leave, but knows that Calipari is more likely to have 10 players on his roster than 13, then theoretically it would be a much easier minutes battle on the shortened roster that the player in question is already familiar with. the atmosphere, practices, system, city, etc., compared to a new team that may be full of other new faces.

Calipari also noted that if he ends up with a relatively shortened roster, he plans to bring in some experienced graduate assistants who will help keep practices competitive with enough bodies to utilize his core rotation.

“I want these (graduate assistants) to have played in Europe or just finished playing and still be able to play,” he said. “We can use them in practice. The women’s programs have five guys who they call “managers” but against whom they scrimmage. Maybe I’ll do it this way. We have some walk-ons, we have some (graduate assistants), we have eight or nine guys and that’s it. And if there is a tenth man, he knows he is the tenth man.”

As Calipari put it during the Ways to Win podcast interview, if there are too many guys on the bench who aren’t happy with playing time, “they’re going to leave anyway. Why would I develop a child for someone else?”

2024-25 Arkansas Basketball Roster with Wagner

Below is a brief overview of the Razorback roster if DJ Wagner becomes the eighth commitment:

Incoming freshmen:

  • Johnuel “Boogie” Fland
  • Carter Knox
  • Billy Richmond

Incoming transfers:

  • Zvonimir Ivisic
  • Adou Thiero
  • DJ Wagner (hypothetical)

Incoming transfers whose names are still in the NBA draft:

  • Johnell Davis
  • Jonas Aidoo

In terms of on-court construction, the Hogs would be looking at three guards, three versatile wings and two big men in this scenario.

Calipari has already assembled a relatively well-rounded roster, but the biggest remaining needs likely include another big forward to play primarily at the power forward spot, and perhaps another big man with a big body to back up Aidoo in the event of a confrontation a physical opponent.

Filling all of these needs would put the Hogs at 10 scholarship players, and given Calipari’s aforementioned comments, would this likely spell the end of Calipari’s recruiting cycle in his first year at Arkansas? Having only 9 or 10 players on scholarship would also allow for some more flexibility in the current roster.

Perhaps Calipari has his eyes on another foreign player who could join the roster like Ivisic later in the season. Or perhaps Lawson Blake will be rewarded for his loyalty by getting one of the last scholarship spots for next season. Neither are guarantees, but both become possibilities if Calipari actually carries a sub-11-man roster into SEC play.

Options to fill out the Arkansas roster

While John Calipari is working quietly much more often than Razorback fans have come to expect after Musselman’s previous seasons, there are a few names currently associated with the Razorbacks that would fill many of those needs.

Illinois’ Coleman Hawkins might be the best fit for the current roster, given his combination of size and offensive prowess. He averaged 12.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game last season on 37% shooting from long range, but he’s also 6-foot-4 and could potentially spend time playing both the four and the five in certain configurations.

JT Toppin is another intriguing name who could fill a forward position. He had a standout freshman season at New Mexico, winning Co-Freshman of the Year honors in the Mountain West Conference. At 6-foot-1, he would offer a great combination of length, rebounding and offensive versatility. Toppin also had by far the highest offensive rebound rate of the three forwards listed here.

Miami’s Wooga Poplar would be another good option, although the chances of him joining the roster have diminished now that DJ Wagner has committed. He’s a 6-foot-1 guard/wing who averaged 13.1 points and 4.8 rebounds last season.

Getting Poplar committed instead of Hawkins or Toppin could force the Hogs into more small-ball lineups next season with more of Thiero (6-foot-1) at the four in addition to three guards — which probably isn’t a problem, depending on how Cal wants to use this already extremely talented roster.


More coverage of DJ Wagner, Arkansas basketball and the BoAS transfer portal…