Earning his keep: Layden Blocker’s defense helps him get on the court

Arkansas' Layden Blocker drives to the basket past North Carolina's Elliot Cadeau during during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Battle 4 Atlantis at Paradise Island, Bahamas, Friday, Nov. 24, 2023. (Tim Aylen/Bahamas Visual Services via AP)
Arkansas' Layden Blocker drives to the basket past North Carolina's Elliot Cadeau during during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Battle 4 Atlantis at Paradise Island, Bahamas, Friday, Nov. 24, 2023. (Tim Aylen/Bahamas Visual Services via AP)

FAYETTEVILLE -- University of Arkansas freshman point guard Layden Blocker got his feet wet in The Bahamas.

After Blocker went scoreless and played 12 minutes in the Razorbacks' first four games -- including not dressing out against Gardner-Webb because of an illness -- he combined for 72 minutes and started two of three games in the Battle 4 Atlantis played in Nassau. He averaged 8 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2 steals.

"Certainly the minutes that Layden got were great minutes for a freshman in a really, really, big, good tournament," Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said Monday.

Blocker played 16 minutes off the bench in Arkansas' 77-74 double overtime victory over Stanford in the tournament opener last Wednesday and was a defensive catalyst who had 4 points, 3 steals and 2 rebounds.

"Blocker was absolutely phenomenal," Musselman said after the game.

Arkansas junior guard Tramon Mark praised Blocker's defensive intensity.

"[He was] picking up the ball full court," Mark said after the game. "I think we need stuff like that more often.

"He's just a freshman, but guys were feeding off of him tonight on the defensive end. He did his thing tonight."

Blocker started against Memphis and North Carolina the next two days and was productive.

In 27 minutes in the Tigers' 84-79 victory over the Razorbacks, Blocker had 9 points, 3 rebounds and 1 assists. His minutes increased to 29 minutes in North Carolina's 87-72 victory against Arkansas and had 11 points, 3 steals, 2 rebounds and 1 assist.

"I feel like I did well just bringing energy," Blocker said after the North Carolina game. "I just tried to make the hustle plays and do the little things just to bring life [to the team].

"And just playing defense. Just being a dog on defense and being active."

Blocker's defense against Stanford helped him earn starts the next two games.

"He's a monster on the defensive end," Arkansas forward Trevon Brazile said. "He's not scared of nobody. He's fearless on the court.

"When we played Memphis, he held their guard to some low numbers."

Blocker helped hold Tigers senior guard Jahvon Quinerly, a transfer from Alabama, to 0 of 6 shooting, including 0 of 5 on three-pointers.

"He can go out there and do some special things on defense, and he's trying to become more of a leader as a point guard," Brazile said. "And it's good to watch him grow in those areas."

Musselman said that with the coaching staff still working on rotations early in the season, Blocker deserved to get more playing time in the Battle 4 Atlantis.

"Overall it was a good experience going down to The Bahamas and getting to compete against top college basketball teams," Blocker said Monday night on Musselman's radio show.

Blocker, who is from Little Rock, was a consensus 4-star recruit and ranked by ESPN and Rivals among the top 35 high school players nationally as a senior at Sunrise Academy in Belair, Kan.

"Layden's effort, phenomenal," Musselman said. "Toughness, phenomenal."

Blocker said on Musselman's radio show he was surprised to start against Memphis and North Carolina.

"It was a crazy moment," he said. "Having just been in high school and turning on the TV and watching college basketball games, I wouldn't expect to see myself in the starting lineup."

Musselman said Blocker handled it well.

"He's not nervous or scared of anything or anybody," Musselman said.

Blocker played the previous two seasons at Sunrise Academy after starring at Little Rock Christian.

"I felt like going to Sunrise really helped me with how I'm playing today," Blocker said on the radio show. "It basically got me ready for college basketball. It helped me prepare for this.

"It was tough leaving home when I was only 15 years old, and living with my teammates and coaches. It was hard a little bit, but I just thought about the outcome of it."

Duke starting 6-9 sophomore forward Mark Mitchell was one of Blocker's teammates at Sunrise Academy, so he'll see a familiar face on Wednesday night.

Another Sunrise teammate of Blocker's was Gradey Dick, a star freshman guard at Kansas last season who was a first-round NBA Draft pick by the Toronto Raptors at No. 13.

"I learned a lot," Blocker said on the radio show. "I was young playing with older guys."

All seven of Blocker's rebounds this season are on the offensive end.

"He's a great offensive rebounder for his position -- not good, great," Musselman said on his radio show. "But because Layden's a great offensive rebounder, when he doesn't come up with the offensive rebounds, it's really hurt our transition defense."

Blocker was among the Razorbacks who had the defensive assignment against North Carolina senior point guard RJ Davis, who scored 30 points against the Razorback to match his career high.

"We don't want to take away a strength of his," Musselman said on his radio show of Blocker's offensive rebounding ability. "But we do have to understand that when he goes to the offensive glass at the point guard position, that's very unusual.

"So we've got to try to figure out some scheme stuff that's maybe a little bit different that's in the past."

Musselman said Blocker also needs to have more assists. He has three on the season.

"Although Layden is an incredibly unselfish player," Musselman said. "I guess when he passes it, somebody has to make a shot, too, in order to get an assist."

Blocker said on the radio show he's working to improve his all-around game.

"While I'm here at Arkansas, I just really want to keep improving all of my game, every aspect of it," Blocker said. "Shooting, that's number one. Finishing, passing, being a point guard, making plays for my teammates.

"And keep improving my defense also. I feel like I'm a pretty good defender now, but I can be an even better one if I keep working at it."