Portis sharpens up with LeBron


FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas forward Bobby Portis didn’t accomplish everything he wanted during the LeBron James Skills Academy earlier this month.

Sure, he spent the week fine-tuning fundamentals. He gained confidence in scrimmages with big-time talent all around him, too. But no matter how hard he tried, Portis said he couldn’t get James — who won two NBA titles and reached the NBA Finals four times with the Miami Heat — to reveal his future plans.

“I asked him a couple of times where he was going and he didn’t say anything to me,” Portis said. “He just took a couple of pictures and that was it.

“He was like, ‘Keep it moving young fella.’”

Portis may have failed in attempts to find out James was heading back home to the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the week remained valuable as he prepares for 2014-15.

The Little Rock native — along with teammate Michael Qualls — was among 30 college players invited to participate in the elite summer camp held in Las Vegas earlier this month. It was the second leg of a busy summer for both Hogs. Portis also participated in a Nike Big Man camp held in New Jersey in late June, while Qualls attended the Kevin Durant Skills Academy in Washington D.C., in early July.

“It was a great experience for me to go against some of the best players in the nation and go up against guys with more experience,” Portis said Monday. “I think it helped me out a lot because I came out with a ton of confidence on the block.”

Portis said the opportunity should pay off as he continues to prepare for his sophomore season.

Portis already was one of the Razorbacks’ most consistent players as a freshman in 2013-14, averaging 12.3 points and 6.8 rebounds game. His performance helped Arkansas reach a postseason tournament (the NIT) for the first time in six seasons.

But he has much bigger aspirations for 2014-15. So do the Razorbacks.

“I think with the team we have this year we can compete with anybody,” Portis said.

There’s no doubt Portis’ continued development will be key to making the NCAA Tournament a reality in coach Mike Anderson’s fourth season.

He showed plenty of promise last season, but his room for growth was apparent. It was especially visible on the offensive end, when Portis struggled to produce with his back to the basket against the SEC’s bigger, veteran post players.

But the summer camps showed Portis was growing in one way. He came to Arkansas at 6-foot-9, but now measures in at 6-11. He’s also up to 244 pounds.

Anderson heard Portis was impressive in other ways as well.

“The big man camp that Bobby went to, the feedback I’m getting that he did what Bobby does,” Anderson said. “He’s a big time motor. And for a guy that size, really running the floor and I think they were really impressed with his skill level.”

Portis and Qualls are the foundation of a roster shaping up to be Arkansas’ best under Anderson. Eight players are back from the 2013-14 team that went 22-12, including six of the Razorbacks’ top seven scorers. Arkansas also addressed some of its biggest needs with a signing class that includes point guards Anton Beard and Jabril Durham as well as big man Trey Thompson.

So it’s no surprise Arkansas is a popular pick to break through and reach the NCAA Tournament. But Portis said last year showed nothing will be given to the Hogs.

“We have to go out there and prove it ourselves,” Portis said. “It’s set up but last year it was set up for us to make it to the tournament, too. We won seven games in a row and then unfortunately we lost our last two to Alabama and South Carolina. So we have to go in with a level head and stay focused on the season.”

Anderson said his team understands after watching them work this summer.

He liked the makeup of his roster as it began workouts and was even more impressed Monday. Anderson said his players have done everything asked of them and added: “We’re much more mature in how we go about our business.”

“This is Year 4. It’s a big year,” Anderson said. “I say that every year, but even more so because familiarity I think is so important. We’ve got more guys now that are coming back that are very familiar with what we’re going to be about.”

Portis is leading the way. Arkansas won’t be void of leaders with veterans like Ky Madden, Alandise Harris and Anthlon Bell back, but Portis said his experiences at the elite camps helped him understand the Razorbacks will look to him this season.

It’s a role he’s eager to fill after a productive summer.

“Me and (Qualls) need to come back and be leaders to our basketball team,” Portis said. “Every person who was at that camp is a leader to their team. I felt that was something we lacked last year in certain situations, having a leader out on the floor.”