Is Arkansas becoming a basketball state? Kel’el Ware, former high school stars stealing spotlight from football

Last week’s Arkansas prep basketball headlines more than a trend
Jun 26, 2024; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Kel'el Ware arrives before the first round of the 2024 NBA Draft at Barclays Center.
Jun 26, 2024; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Kel'el Ware arrives before the first round of the 2024 NBA Draft at Barclays Center. / Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Last week might have illustrated just how big Arkansas high school basketball has become.

For the third time in the past four years, a former Arkansas prep player was selected in the first round of the NBA Draft, another was signed to an NBA free agent deal and two high-profile current players announced they are transferring to elite prep schools.

With the calendar turning to July and high school football hype set to begin, basketball stole the headlines last week and might have been even bigger news than the fact that four-star Little Rock Parkview defensive back Omarion Robinson is set to make his commitment this weekend along with teammate Monterio Elston.

It is a turn of events that is more than just a rare occurrence — it’s a trend. In the past 12 years, it’s apparent that while football is still huge in Arkansas, the Natural State basketball pipeline might be making more of a splash than football with nine Arkansas natives playing in the NBA.

Last Thursday, North Little Rock alum Kel’el Ware shocked some by being selected No. 15 in the 2024 NBA Draft by the Miami Heat. Former Little Rock Central star Bryson Warren was also signed by the Heat after leaving high school to play in the Overtime Elite league and the NBA G-League last year.

Ware joins former NLR stars Moses Moody, who finished his prep career at Montverde (Fla.) Academy, and teammate Nick Smith Jr. as first-round picks. Golden State picked Moody, who played at Arkansas for a season, in 2021, and Charlotte nabbed Smith, also a Razorback for one season, last year.

The Arkansas NBA transactions came just a few weeks after former El Dorado High School star Daniel Gafford, a University of Arkansas alum, had his breakthrough season end in the NBA Finals as his Dallas Mavericks fell to the Boston Celtics.

Former Springdale Har-Ber star Courtland Muldrew, a four-star recruit from the class of 2025, is transferring to Oak Hill (Va.) Academy, a prep school which is known for producing NBA players. Class of 2026 four-star player Jacob Lanier announced he’s leaving Maumelle High School for prestigious Compass (Ariz.) Prep.

Losing both of those players from the Arkansas high school scene hurts but also shows how good they are that two prestigious out-of-state programs want their services. It needs to be noted that Little Rock Christian four-star class of 2026 standout JJ Andrews would have his pick of options, too, but he elected to stay home. There are others as well.

As I watched the draft and saw these headlines while on vacation on beautiful Dauphin Island, Ala., I couldn’t help but think about how much prep basketball has grown since I came to Arkansas in 1998. The Arkansas prep football spotlight always shown brighter. In the mid-2000s, Arkansas was in the Top 10 in the nation per capita in producing Division I football prospects.

But in recent years, that number has dropped. In the 2023 class, only five of the 247Sports Arkansas Top 10 players signed with Power 5 schools.

Last year, there was plenty of talent at the top of the Top 25 but four were FCS recruits and one was NCAA Division II. Those players might be steals for those programs, but still, they didn’t sign with NCAA FBS schools. Also, of the FBS programs that players inked with, only 12 signed with schools from Power 5 conferences.

The 2025 class is similar, but the Top 10 is solid with eight players committed to or receiving Power 5 scholarship offers. Four of them are listed by 247Sports as composite four-star recruits. Marion offensive lineman Carius Curne just committed to LSU. Bauxite safety Marcus Wimberly is a University of Oklahoma commit. The aforementioned Robinson was highly sought after and will announce his pick from Oregon, Oklahoma, LSU and Arkansas.

“It looks like more of the top athletes are playing basketball instead of football,” said Best of Arkansas Sports managing editor Andrew Hutchinson. “That may be why you are seeing more Division I basketball players because they are not playing football.”

Hutchinson said he isn’t sure why the sudden popularity in basketball. He isn’t sure if football prices some kids out with more expensive programs and basketball is the easier sport to enter.

My theory in central Arkansas is that after Little Rock Central won back-to-back football titles in 2003-04, the football landscape in the Little Rock School District was barren. Basketball thrived at Little Rock Hall and Parkview but the football talent was across the river in North Little Rock.

Brad Bolding was fired from the North Little Rock program in 2015, but in 2017 he became the Parkview head coach and now has the Patriots rolling as they have won two consecutive Class 5A state titles and look primed for a three-peat.

In five of the past six classes, Arkansas has had at least one prep basketball player included in the ESPN Top 100.

In 2020, four Arkansans were ranked in the Top 100, including Moody and Fort Smith Northside’s Jaylin Williams, who is now also playing in the NBA with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

In 2022, there were also four players included. Smith was No. 3 and Ware 8. Both were McDonald’s All-Americans that winter. Magnolia’s Derrian Ford was 76 and Morrilton’s Joseph Pinion was 97.

In the 2025 class, Springdale’s Isaiah Sealy is No. 55 and Benton’s Terrion Burgess 92.

In the 2026 class, Andrews is ranked No. 15 and Lanier 53. Both have a chance to ink with a major program.

Plus, there are more players coming in the middle school ranks.

“The younger players see the guys ahead of them and have someone to look up to,” Hutchinson said. “Especially the guys that play at Arkansas. The younger players have a few more years to watch them here.”

Hutchinson and I agree that because of the popularity of prep football in the South, football will always be important in Arkansas. There will always be good teams, some of which will earn national accolades, such as Parkview, which is loaded with Division I prospects and has a chance to be ranked nationally this season.

But basketball is hotter than ever and the impact homegrown players are making on the national prep scene, college and the NBA is putting Arkansas on the basketball map.  

--Nate Olson | | @ndosports

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Nate Olson


Nate Olson has covered prep and college sports in Arkansas since 1998. He has managed several newspapers and magazines in The Natural State and has won numerous awards for his work. Nate, who also has six years of public relations experience, has appeared statewide on radio and television throughout his career, and currently co-hosts a high school football postgame radio show.