Arkansas' Qualls elevating to elite level in SEC
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Michael Qualls pinches his right thumb and index finger together after every 3-pointer he makes, holding up his other three fingers on the way back down the court.
The act is easy to miss from a player who has packed a career's worth of highlight-worthy dunks into his short time at Arkansas, and that's just fine with Qualls.
He's used to being overlooked.
What hasn't been missed so far this season for the No. 19 Razorbacks (13-3, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) is his emergence. The high-flyer who has grown into a consistent wingman for Arkansas and All-SEC forward Bobby Portis.
Qualls is the SEC's fifth-leading scorer, averaging 15.8 points. His progress hasn't come quickly or without difficulties. It has, however, come with a heightened sense of appreciation.
''I've been in cars where we got shot at, I've been outside where bullets are flying all the time,'' said Qualls, who is from Shreveport, Louisiana. ''When I came up here it was a totally different change of culture. Up here, you're safe. People can leave their car doors unlocked. I'm not used to that type of stuff. Everything I have here is strictly a blessing.''
Qualls sprouted from 5-foot-7 to 6-4 between seventh and eighth grade. He was lightly recruited out of high school, partly because of his awkwardness from his growth spurt. Once he moved to more of a wing position, however, his explosiveness began to show. Arkansas coach Mike Anderson and others took notice.
''All of a sudden, wham!'' Northwestern State coach Mike McDonathy said after the Demons played in Fayetteville earlier this season. ''''He kind of blew up after his junior year going into his senior year (of high school).''
Qualls eventually signed with Arkansas. His early months in Fayetteville were marked by thoughts of his newborn son at home and the death of his best friend and teammate Robert ''Jarod'' Farmer in a downtown Shreveport brawl.
Qualls was raised by his father and grandmother. He has since learned to thrive in his role as a father for 2-year-old Michael Qualls, Jr.
However, he still carries the pain of Farmer's death. It's why he holds up his former teammate's No. 3 after every made 3-pointer, both to honor his friend and remind himself of how far he's come with the help of his friends and family.
''I do this for them,'' Qualls said. ''I do everything I do for them.''
As Qualls adjusted to life away from home, his basketball game began to flourish. After averaging 4.5 points in limited action as a freshman, the 6-6 guard played his way into an integral role for the Razorbacks last season while averaging 11.6 points.
He also began to make regular appearances on national highlight shows thanks to dunking. None was more emphatic than his two-hand putback follow with 0.2 seconds remaining that gave Arkansas an overtime win over Kentucky.
Qualls says his vertical jump hasn't been tested since he leaped 39 inches in high school, and with no time to warm up or stretch.
''This has been the first time I've had a guy where I knew I could just throw it up and he can go get it from anywhere,'' Arkansas sophomore Anthlon Bell said. ''So it's a good thing to have, especially for broken plays. With his athletic ability, he can turn broken plays into spectacular plays.''
As good as Qualls was last season, he was inconsistent, often failing to force himself into the flow of a game if he didn't have an early dunk or 3-pointer.
He's trying to stay engaged this season, even if that means forcing a drive into the heart of a defense. The work has paid off - Qualls has scored in double figures in all but two games and is averaging career highs in almost every statistical category.
''I think Mike's better,'' Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. ''But I still think there's another level he can go to.''