In terms of basketball talent, Arkansas is in a golden era, producing elite players at a clip not seen in decades. But when it comes to national team recognition, the state is in a bit of a drought. Since 1996, only one native Arkansan has made a U.S. senior national team. In recent years, two of the state’s best young players – Anton Beard and Malik Monk – were in the running to make junior national teams at the U16 and U17 levels but were both cut multiple times. Monk’s most recent exclusion, which occurred last weekend, is the most surprising.
Monk, a consensus Top 15 player in the class of 2016, had a memorable summer torching foes as a headliner with the Arkansas Wings in Nike’s prestigious EYBL circuit (essentially, the Champions League of prep basketball). The 6’3″ shooting guard broke scoring records and put up 40 and 59 points while making a strong case that Arkansas, for likely the first time ever, is home to the nation’s most electrifying high school player*. The Arkansas Wings founder Ron Crawford, who has coached in the U.S. youth developmental system, said last week he believed there was “no doubt” Monk would make the U17 national team.
But after a three-day audition in Colorado involving 33 players, Monk was among the first cut. If the experience becomes a valuable lesson, this isn’t necessarily bad thing for Malik. He strives, after all, to become a world-class point guard, and none other than John Stockton – one of the top point guards of all time – was cut from the 1984 Olympic team. Monk already is one of the most athletic prospects we’ve ever seen at the guard position. Two of the most freakishly athletic forwards in the history of the game, Charles Barkley and Blake Griffin, were also cut from national teams.
Stockton, Barkley and Griffin all bounced back from their disappointments to become NBA All-Star caliber players. For Monk to one day do the same, he’ll have to keep improving. He must become a more consistent shooter and better decision maker, his older brother Marcus Monk said. “He’s really been working on his distribution as far as his passing skills and making better decisions with the ball. He’s improved in that area some.”
But Malik isn’t yet the well-rounded player his coaches and (potential) national team coaches want him to be. In the five games he played in the EYBL Finals, the only standard statistical category he led the Wings in was points (18.8 ppg). He finished second in blocks (0.4) and assists (2.6), third in steals (1.6) and fifth in rebounds (3.5).
Honing shot selection, though, is the biggest task right now. Squaring off against fellow Arkansan KeVaughn Allen, Monk scored 40 points on 14-for-20 shooting against Memphis-based Team Penny. But in the other four games, he shot 11% from 3-point range and 21% overall from the field.
Marcus Monk has been working on helping his brother cut down on bad shots. They break down film of his game to sharpen Malik’s court awareness and make him a better teammate, Marcus said. “It’s more discussion as far as how to read screens and looking at that second and third level of defense. Like a quarterback, you know.”
In early July, Monk had a chance to learn firsthand from one of the world’s most efficient basketball players when he attended the LeBron James Skills Academy. James is “really active with his camp. He takes time with all the players,” recalled Marcus Monk, who attended the event as an observer.
Malik Monk and his fellow campers played with or against LeBron during scrimmages. Indeed, Malik and LeBron guarded each other for a play. Nothing too dramatic happened, though, Marcus said, chuckling. “I don’t know if Malik really touched the ball. It was cool.”
Since James and and Kentucky head coach John Calipari are close friends, it’s likely information and insight into how players perform at LeBron’s camp eventually reaches Calipari. Kentucky offered Malik a scholarship earlier this summer and many of its fans are excited about the prospect of him joining “Big Blue Nation.”
Malik told kysportsreport.com the Kentucky offer is “big” because “it helps get your name out” and he likes how Calipari helps his players improve and land in the pros. “I am striving to be a one-and-done player (in college), and he’s shown he can do that for you.”
Some Kentucky fans also believe the Wildcats have an advantage because another Arkansas Wings alum, Archie Goodwin, chose their school over Arkansas in 2011. The two Arkansans have talked, but they do not hang out much. Other Kentucky fans worry that aspects of Goodwin’s experience at Kentucky – especially the harsh reception he got in Fayetteville last season when the Wildcats visited – could be a deterrent.
One kentuckysportsradio.com commenter weighed in:
“I just feel sorry for this kid when he commits to uk or some other out of state school and not Arkansas.
Arkansas bball fans are crazy and obnoxious and their team isn’t even that good. ( yes, I remember they swept up last year) every time Archie shot free throws he was booed hard. He also got fouled what should have been a flagrent. Their fans automatically hate players if they don’t go to their school.
Also don’t hate Archie Goodwin. I just hopes he gets his career on track and stops going to skating rinks.”
Although Malik hasn’t named a Top 5 or Top 10 list of schools yet, it’s widely assumed the University of Arkansas will be included in any forthcoming list. His brother, Marcus, was an All-SEC receiver for the football team and played for the Razorback basketball team. His cousin Ky Madden currently stars for the Hogs. And Malik occasionally trains with former Hog greats Ron and Ronnie Brewer. Last summer, he scrimmaged with current Razorbacks but hasn’t had time to do so this year.
Last year, Marcus served as a manager on the UA basketball staff. He won’t return to that position this fall, he told me. That’s because the position, like a graduate assistant in football, requires the manager to take graduate credit. But Marcus already graduated with a Master’s of Business Administration degree earlier this summer and has no intention of starting another program.
At this point, Marcus doesn’t even know if he will stay in northwest Arkansas this upcoming school year. “I’m still just debating and feeling my way out with my options. I don’t really want to speak on it.”
He’d rather talk about his younger brother, who has tantalized the nation with his jaw-dropping athleticism while (I’m sure) at times frustrating his coaches and teammates with erratic shooting. Lost in all the hype and concern over future college choices, though, is the fact that Malik is still 16 years old. Marcus Monk is very conscious of keeping things as normal as possible for him.
That means fielding lots of phone calls from media and coaches on Malik’s behalf. It also means making sure Malik stays fresh. Because even the ligaments of 16-year-olds only have so many highlight dunks in them before they start breaking down. During the summer, between basketball events and practices, “we won’t discuss basketball, we won’t work out out; he’ll just straight relax,” Marcus said. “He’s mentally fatigued as well. It’s good just to get away from it all as far as actually putting a ball to the floor.”
So long as he keeps nurturing a deep love for the game, working hard and listening to the mentors around him, Malik Monk should have more chances in his future to make a national team.
If and when that at last happens, who knows how high he could go?
*Altheimer’s Jackie Ridgle was the Malik Monk of his day (mid 1960s) and would have been a YouTube star had the Internet then existed outside of Al Gore’s brain. He was only 6’4″, but is said to have been able to leave change on top of the backboard. As a college star for California, he’s rumored to have blocked one of Lew Alcindor (i.e. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar)’s skyhooks.