One of the biggest problems with Missouri basketball has been the relative absence of impact from Jakeenan Gant. Many, including myself, expected Gant to be a bright spot this year. We saw him in flashes last year, and with an offseason in the weight room and more acclimation into the system, we expected to see Gant take the next step. Instead, it's basically been the opposite. Gant has actually taken a step backwards in just about every category on the stat sheet, including minutes played. He's struggled to stay out of foul trouble, struggled to find himself offensively, and in turn he hasn't had anywhere close to the kind of impact Tigers fans and coaches likely expected him to make this season.
All of this was about the opposite of what I'd heard from inside the program about his play leading up to the season. In the preseason scrimmage against Creighton, Gant was called "beastly" by more than one source. Needless to say, this got a lot of hopes up that Gant had started to realize how good he can be. Yet, it hasn't happened when the games have counted.
Figuring out what has gone wrong is usually the easy part, fixing it tends to be a more difficult challenge. Let's do some X&O'n:
The obvious answer is Jakeenan is struggling with his confidence level. Confident players are usually decisive, and Gant just doesn't look confident on the floor. He moves somewhat tentatively, he hasn't taken many shots, and most of those he's taken have been of the questionable variety. I know Gant can shoot three pointers, they're just not going in, and I think he needs to work his way closer to the basket and get going there first before stepping out. I tend to believe the three's will start to fall once he gets going closer in first.
From a coaches perspective, they're giving Gant pep talks, telling him he needs to be more aggressive in finding his shot. I believe this is why we're seeing him pull the trigger on so many questionable three-point attempts early. At this point, Gant's interpretation is he's not being aggressive enough, so the answer is to shoot more. But when he's not getting the ball in space to operate, he takes a three pointer. Which leads us to problem number two.
Designing attack plays/Utilizing his strengths
Mizzou isn't the greatest shooting team out there, so they're likely to face a lot of zones. To date, the Tigers have mostly struggled against the zone, and one of the reasons is the young roster seems to content to just take outside shots which the zone is set up for allow. This is pretty indicative of Mizzou's early season zone offense.
Watch as Jakeenan floats around the high post, maybe he'll set a pick on the zone, maybe he'll catch the ball and turn and face. But he's not making an sort of impact on the zone, nor is he forcing the zone to react to his movement. Gant is known for having good shooting range, but what he's known for even more is his athletic ability. Gant should be in the short corner and trying to flash ball side. Zone offense works well when you're able to work from behind the zone. This is the alignment I'm talking about:
Where I have Gant stationed is the short corner. This is the perfect location for a player to work on attacking the zone from behind it. All five defenders will be looking at the ball, almost at all times, which makes it even easier to catch them by surprise with quick hitter plays, and passes over the top. An easy way to get quick baskets is to utilize the backside lob. One of the best ways to get a young guy going, especially one who is struggling with confidence, is to get him a few dunks. So this is why I would get Jakeenan Gant going towards the rim. Here is the play diagrammed, then a video of Michigan State running something similar:
In the video, you can see Michigan State uses the athleticism of Branden Dawson to attack the zone of Louisville. The Spartans have a shooter on one side of the ball to occupy the defender which makes the play run even easier, but Dawson also starts out much higher on the floor. The short corner is an even better place to attack from because even if the defense is stationed deeper, you can still approach from behind. This is also something you can accomplish by overloading the ball side, and hitting the lob from the wing. Just flash your opposite wing to back screen the weak side of the zone, and allow Gant to attack from his short corner position. Here's a diagram and how it might look.
If the lob isn't there, there is a big open spot in the mid post, which would draw up the center man of the zone, and allow for easy back cuts towards the rim from the ball side wing, as well as the short corner big stepping in for a high-low look.
Most teams feel as though they can shoot their way out of being zoned, but the truth is it's much easier to get a team to stop playing zone against you when you're carving them up with passes on the interior and over the top for easy baskets. Having a three point marksman certainly helps, but the bigger killer to a zone defense is easy baskets. And when you have somebody with the athleticism of Jakeenan Gant, throw it up high and let him go get it!
Getting Gant the ball in space
Going against a man-to-man defense, things get a little more cut and dried. Another way to get Jakeenan going is by giving him more attention in isolations. The current Mizzou offense, based upon the Self High-Low, leaves a few options to getting players in space to make plays. Originally Jakeenan Gant was recruited by Frank Haith and company, and to be quite honest, their style of offense is a much better fit for Gants talents. The last regime ran a ball screen and drive offense, where the post players were asked to set a lot of ball screens, hit mid range jump shots, and catch and finish around the rim. Now Gant is talented enough to flourish in a number of offenses, so it comes down on the coaching staff to get him going within their own system. Here's an example of how they can do it.
This is the alignment of the screenshot above. This happened after a bit of a scramble, and the Mizzou players find their way into a natural 3 out 2 in formation. Gant is benefitted here by having both Namon Wright and Cullen VanLeer on the floor, the Tigers two best shooters. Russell Woods doesn't get himself into optimal position here by being opposite Gant on the lane, instead of pulling his defender lower towards the baseline. Again, with spacing being important, the short corner comes into play again. When Gant attacks the middle of the paint, this will either draw the post defender to help to up, opening up a layup for Woods, or draw VanLeer or Wright's defenders into the paint to stop the ball, leaving open a 3-point shooter regardless of which one.
In an isolation on the post like the screen shot above, Gant was able to drive to the middle and was fouled on a shot which went in. Gants quickness and explosiveness didn't allow the necessary time for the defense to react, so all the help options above were nullified. Here it is in gif form:
If the coaching staff were to go to this sort of isolation early in the game, and really utilize Gants unique abilities. All of the sudden this would force the defense to crash even further down into the paint. When the defense starts to sag, suddenly you're going to see wide open looks for shooters, in this case your two best in Wright and VanLeer.
At this point, the Tigers stand 2-3, and against their three power five opponents they've struggled to score points in spurts. The spurts haven't quite been as bad as they were last year, but the quicker the Tigers can find a solution, or a go-to, when they need a bucket. Jakeenan Gant could be the guy, but he has to get his confidence going, and if the coaches make it easier on Gant to get a few easy buckets, he could become a difference maker for this team, this year. Otherwise, Gant could end up being another greatly talented player who never realized his immense potential. Gants first big opportunity to turn the tide of the start of his season is tomorrow night against Arkansas State. Hopefully he can get back to being the guy described as beastly.