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Mizzou Basketball Position Previews: The Combo Forwards

NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Auburn vs Missouri Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like just yesterday we were all waiting for the inevitable firing of Kim Anderson and the long, slow rebuild that followed. The seconds ticking down on that last SEC Tournament loss to Ole Miss... reality setting in on Anderson’s face... fans preparing for more years of noncompetitive basketball.

It also feels like just yesterday we were hearing rumors about the return of the Porter family to Columbia. Everything went from 0 to 100 really quick. Next thing we know, Jeremiah Tilmon is flipping... Kassius Robertson is committing... Jontay is reclassifying. All the while, it felt like years until November 10: tipoff of the 2017-2018 season.

Well, it’s almost here, folks. 3 days to go.

As we countdown the minuscule days left until real basketball is played, we’re continuing with our roster breakdown. We’ve covered the point guards, the combo guards and the wings. Thursday will get to the big boys down low. And today, we’re looking at the Combo Forwards.

The Players

Junior - Kevin Puryear

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Tennessee Knoxville News Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

Statistical Profile (2016-2017)

Player Kevin Puryear
Player Kevin Puryear
Minutes % 73.9
Points % 17
Effective FG % 44
Defensive Rebound % 15.6
Offensive Rebound % 6.3
Block % 1.2

Sophomore - Mitchell Smith

Arizona v Missouri Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Statistical Profile (11 games before injury)

Player Mitchell Smith
Player Mitchell Smith
Minutes % 18.86
Points % 3.38
Effective FG % 58.8
Defensive Rebound % 21.4
Offensive Rebound % 3.7
Block % 5.6

Freshman - Michael Porter, Jr.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Basketball Tipoff Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Preview

1. We talked about Porter last week as a wing. But with his size, playing down at the 4 will be another way to take advantage of smaller defenders. How do you think the phenom will do when asked to play down low?

Sam Snelling - 'Down low' is one way to put it. He's got the length and athleticism to affect shots around the basket, but he clearly could stand to add some weight to his frame if he wants to play inside more consistently. But with the way modern offense is evolving, he'll play all over the court on that side of the ball. So what you need is for him to not be problematic defensively when he has to guard a big physical post, and I think he's athletic and long enough to combat that.

Chris Bohkay - I think he's going to thrive, and as he plays and takes down smaller guys, leading to double teams, Tilmon or Jontay should be open slashing to the bucket for some easy points. Hell, if Keanau Post had MPJr playing the 4 he'd have been all-conference. The biggest non-problem problem Cuonzo is going to have is just deciding where MPJr is going to slot at any given time.

Jarrett Sutton - I think he’ll hold his own. The one area of his game I think he could improve in is his first step becoming more explosive. Against Kansas, I thought he was going to the rim looking for contact and fouls, as opposed to going to the rim to score. It was a bit forced, but that’ll be an area Michael will have to adjust to. Michael can score in a variety of ways, with both hands, but exploiting smaller defenders and embracing the physicality by using his upper body strength to not get pushed out of the paint will be important. He’s got great touch; he’ll have to show he can finish with contact where he gets a call or not.

Josh Matejka - Having watched him play live and on highlight tape, I honestly think it’s going to take a few games for him to learn (a) he’s capable of backing down college guards that are inches shorter than him (b) that he’s fast enough to blow by slower forwards. But when he does... it’s going to be a nightmare for opponents. Once MPJr figures out how to play down low with some confidence, the entire team is going to benefit in a big way.

Matt Harris - The offensive system MU runs exploits switches, and that’s a boon for a Porter. The phenom has length, but he’s not built to bang on the block after catching a typical wing entry. So you use spacing and switches to get him to spots.

For example, MU can run an action called Invert, where Porter Jr. sets a down screen from the wing for Kassius Robertson. The switch isolates a smaller guard on Porter, who immediately spins to call for a re-entry back to the block to score over the top. There are also actions where post players take advantage of back screens for lobs. One is Spin Rip, which starts with a dribble-handoff out front. While this happens, Tilmon could flash to the high post for a catch and hit Porter on a backdoor lob. What a lot of these actions have in common is pulling a big off the block and exploiting a mismatch. Porter has the savvy and flexibility to be moved around in ways to get him interior looks.

2. For two years, Kevin Puryear has been asked to be the star of a team that didn’t have much behind him. Now, it’s looking like he won’t even crack the starting 5. How can he still make a noticeable impact on this team when his playing time is sure to be cut?

Sam - Honestly, this team needs KP to be an effective guy on both sides of the ball. He struggled in his action against KU, but for the most part Kevin's a skilled enough offensive player to get his opportunities and points. Where he'll need to improve is with his defense and rebounding. He's improved steadily on the latter, but his defense has to get better if he wants to contribute offensively, because he needs to be on the floor. In the end I think he'll likely continue to come off the bench but I think he can be one of the better 6th men in the SEC.

Bohkay - He's got to accept his new role - something it seems like TP will have to do as well - and do the most that he can in the minutes he has. He's shown he has some range and some good moves around the basket, so take advantage when the big guys draw the defenders away from the basket and get those easy buckets.

Sutton - For me, KP has to show he can finish cribbers and shots around the rim. He still wants to go left. That’s easy to scout and defend knowing he’s not comfortable with his right hand around the rim. It’s how he gets shots blocked, because he becomes one-dimensional and is predictable. He has missed too many bunnies around the rim in his first two years. But what you never question with Kevin is how hard he plays. I love that about him: he wants to win and he plays with passion. He has to improve his consistency with his jump shot. He has worked on his form and his follow through has improved from last season. If his feet are set, he can be a catch and shoot forward from 3-point range and from the short corners or elbows.

Matejka - I agree with Bohkay’s assessment mostly because I think a lot of Puryear’s deficiencies were born from the fact he was always trying to do too much. On a team with so little talent, KP was a lone bright spot and had to do everything in his power to even keep games close. That led to maximum effort, but it also led to a lot of silly misses on the offensive end; I know a lot of people who look at him as a guy who misses gimmes. If Puryear accepts he’s not “the guy” anymore, he’s going to play a big role as someone who can make easy buckets by the basket and draw respect with his jumper.

Matt - Puryear’s minutes may get trimmed, but what he’ll be asked to do is a better fit with his skill set. He won’t have to play off the block. He won’t be expected to play in the two-man, high-low game. But his face-up game and range beyond 15 feet is still an asset. The structure of the offense means that, like Porter, there will be mismatches where he can take a bigger, slower-footed defender off the dribble, loft up jumpers from pick-and-pops and so on. If he can accept a role off the bench, he’ll lend some depth to the rotation.

3. We haven’t had much of a look at him, but Mitchell Smith certainly looked like a promising athlete with a lot of height last year. With a deep rotation, what does he have to do to make himself a factor on this team?

Sam - I worry a little about Mitchell because of his light frame and the fact he's coming back from a serious injury - he's just already facing a deficit. I still like his mobility and touch offensively. I just don't know if it's enough to carve out a role this year. You basically are going to look at someone like Mitchell as a transfer risk, but Martin could try to redshirt him this year. Let him put on weight and then you'd have another big for the roster next year. I think next year and into the future he could be a good player at this level.

Bohkay - It seems like guys in this situation get run by excelling in practice and going hard on the floor in the minutes they have. Smith needs to be aggressive rebounding and make the most of his minutes in the same sense KP does. But doing the little things should get him noticed and time out on the floor. Rebound, defend and don't get too crazy on the offensive side of the ball.

Sutton - Mitchell can’t be timid or afraid when he gets minutes. He’s coming back from injury, he’s not seen the floor all that much, and he has to separate himself and prove he belongs. What will that be is my question? Is it defensively as a rim protector or lateral defender that can guard multiple positions? Is it being a great offensive rebounder, screener, and stretch forward? Can he finish at the rim and does he have touch on his jump shot to knock down a pick and pop 17-footer? All these questions we don’t really know, aside from seeing it in practice at times. I want him to show that he’s got a motor and can play as hard as Kevin Puryear. He has to bring energy and enthusiasm, which will only help him. He’s a good athlete, but he’s got to show and prove he can be more than just an athlete.

Matejka - Smith is going to get a few opportunities at the beginning of the year against blood donor teams. And if there’s a prayer of beating out Reed Nikko for that reserve big man job, he’s going to have to show out in a big way. That means rebounding like a monster, while showing off the athleticism on the defensive end and on the occasional “wow” play - put-back dunks and the like.

Matt - To me, Smith feels like an odd man out, and I say that as a guy who thought there was long-term potential for the big man. Before his injury, you could see Smith bust his butt on rim runs. His jumper was mechanically sound, and he didn’t seem uncomfortable playing away from the block. And he seemed to pick up passing from the high post. We all knew he had to bulk up and become a reliable post defender, but it was expected to come in time. The injury cost him a valuable asset: time. He’s behind Tilmon, Porter and Nikko, a fellow sophomore who may have the bulk to at least body up on the block and fight for rebounds.

4. What are some of your concerns about the combo forwards on this year’s roster?

Sam - When you're starting with Michael Porter Jr it tends to ease your mind quite a bit. But I do worry a bit that KP will adapt well to his new role. I think it's a great fit for him, but he seemed to press at times against KU and that isn't a good way to go about it. Ultimately, you're going to have MPJ playing a lot at the sort of wing/post combo role, which I think should make any Mizzou fan feel good about the position this winter.

Bohkay - I guess my only concern is if Puryear can't handle the demotion that's come and has a bad attitude about it. That's literally the only thing I can think of and even that seems a stretch.

Sutton - Consistency and foul trouble are the two areas of importance for me. Staying healthy is first and foremost most important. From there you look at them having consistent production while not playing down to competition. The same effort, the same energy, the same toughness, the same confidence every day with young players can be a tough hurdle to overcome. I look at Kevin Puryear and Jordan Barnett to set the ton as experience players and returners to lead that charge not just in games, but in practice as well.

Matejka - I guess I’m a little worried if MPJr takes a while to adjust to the college block game. It shouldn’t be too hard for him and I have confidence he’ll learn eventually. But I’d rather it happen sooner than later, because he’s the key that makes the engine run. I’m also going to be watching Puryear adjust to his new role, but I’m fairly confident he’ll roll with it.

Matt - There’s a quick drop-off once you sit Porter. Puryear owns a decent skillset, but he’s average athletically. And we don’t know what, if anything, we can expect from Smith. There are ways you can tweak the rotation to paper over foul troubles or injuries, but if we're honest, this rotation has an elite player, a solid SEC rotation player and a question mark.

5. Give us your one-sentence preview for each player.

Sam - Kevin Puryear will need to accept his new role.

Michael Porter can't be a black hole.

Mitchell Smith needs to get swole.

Bohkay - Kevin Puryear will accept his role and be happier as a result of winning double digit games.

Mitchell Smith will do everything in his power to destroy Arkansas.

Michael Porter JR will be good at basketball.

Sutton - Kevin Puryear brings back experience, toughness, grit, and can be an impact role player that will be asked a lot of still in a different role.

Mitchell Smith is a work in progress, is trying to get healthy, and is an athletic forward with size that can be a help on the defensive end in spotted minutes.

Michael Porter is a hybrid combo-forward that will be challenged night in and night out, but has the basketball IQ and demeanor to leave a legacy and be remembered.

Matejka - Kevin Puryear will play in the NCAA Tournament he’s deserved for 2 years.

Mitchell Smith will have at least one crazy highlight we’re all talking about the day after.

Michael Porter Jr. will effectively blend his guard and post skills by December.

Matt - Michael Porter Jr. sinks his teeth into mismatches at his natural position, exploiting his ability to drive, knock in jumpers and will be a focal point—if needed—from the mid-post.

Kevin Puryear will accept his role and play 18 minutes a night, benefitting from operating more on the perimeter to give Mizzou steady bench scoring.

Mitchell Smith will get healthy and carve out a role as a rim protector and putback specialist to eat minutes if Jeremiah Tilmon remains foul prone.

As always, thanks for reading, y’all. We’ll be back Thursday for our final position preview: the post players.