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Examining Mizzou Basketball’s last rotation spot

Cuonzo Martin has most of his rotation figured out. But who’s getting the last spot?

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

We’ve spent so much time at Rock M Nation finding ways to analyze this upcoming season. From an exciting recruiting period to scrimmages against old rivals, we’ve tried to find as many holes as we can and create ways to talk about them.

To be honest, the reason shouldn’t have to be explained at this point: The excitement around this program and this weekend stands up pretty well on its own. And in just two short days, we’ll be able to leave all that behind. We’ll have actual games and stats to digest.

But until then, we’ve gotta keep this #content machine cranking. So today, I’m going to look at one of the remaining unanswered questions for this team... the rotation.

Granted, the full scope of the rotation isn’t much of a “question” right now. Cuonzo Martin has repeatedly said he’d like to roll with 9 men regularly, and 88.8% of those spots are already filled. We’ll see the Porter brothers, Kassius Robertson, Jordan Barnett, Terrence Phillips, Blake Harris, Kevin Puryear and Jeremiah Tilmon on a regular basis. And that’s fitting: they’re the guys who have proven by way of reputation or game experience that they deserve heavy minutes on what should be a competitive team.

But we’d be remiss to forget that ninth spot altogether. Sure, that player will probably get the least amount of playing time. But if Cuonzo didn’t see a a need for nine regular players and the potential to fill that need on the roster, he’d have given us a different number.

Going by what we know about this group of players, I see four main contenders that could fill that 9th spot from the get-go. So let’s take a look at what they all offer on the court, the holes in their game and how likely they are to get a shot to contribute starting Friday.

Cullen VanLeer - Junior

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Pros: VanLeer’s skill is pretty one-dimensional in nature, but it’s a pretty valuable skill to have: he’s a shooter with range. Now, that has yet to fully translate to Division 1 basketball. He only shot 34% from deep last year and had a 50% effective field goal percentage (eFG%) — a stat that adjusts for the fact that 3-point shots are inherently worth more than 2-pointers.

Part of that might have to do with the fact he was overexposed. On a roster that lacked top-level talent, VanLeer was often asked to be the scorer he probably isn’t. If he becomes more of a spot up, 3-and-D type player, his shooter’s touch may find more room to grow.

It’s also unlikely he’ll be asked to create his own shot very often: Mizzou has many distributors that will be looking to kick it out to open shooters. If VanLeer is able to get more open looks, we’ll probably see his percentages go up.

Cons: Like I said, VanLeer is a pretty one-dimensional player. He’s got the ability to shoot the ball, but when the shots aren’t falling, it’s really hard to justify his minutes. He’s not much of a rebounder or distributor. And while I mentioned he could become a 3-and-D guy, his defense has left a lot of be desired in the past.

His athleticism isn’t going to surprise anyone in the SEC. So while VanLeer’s positives are pretty easy to point out, he doesn’t have much of a margin for error. If he’s not shooting well, it’s time to start looking elsewhere.

Outlook: If I had to assess the current chances of nailing down that ninth spot, I think VanLeer is probably in the lead at this point. I know that will make many fans — myself included — anxious. But the reality is, VanLeer can be a valuable piece if he finally develops the shot we’ve been hearing about for two years. And in all reality, he’ll almost never have to make that shot himself.

If he can spell the guards for just a few minutes a game, make some open 3s and not kill you on defense, he’ll probably see regular minutes.

Jordan Geist - Junior

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Pros: Looking through his stats from last year, he only finished Top 5 in one notable area — he was second in Assist % behind Phillips. So he’s got some ability to dish the ball, which could be pretty useful this year — if he can avoid turnovers. However, Geist’s contributions almost entirely fall under the “intangibles” category. He’s a guy who made his way to Division 1 basketball through the JuCo ranks, and he’s developed the chip on his shoulder to prove it.

Geist is tenacious, aggressive, and not afraid to mix it up with opposing players. He plays with the sort of fire that befits a player who knows how lucky he is to be playing ball at a high level. His aggressive style of play can create some pretty fun moments on both ends of the floor, and he’s definitely a player who endears himself to fans who love “grit.”

Cons: Remember when I pointed out Geist “only” finished Top 5 in one area? There’s the issue. Geist is a fireball, and no one would ever question how hard he’s going to play. But the issue is he doesn’t have the high level of skill to beat the rest of the group.

He’s not much of a scorer (42.3 eFG%) and his size and athleticism neutralizes much of a rebounding threat. And while he’s got some good vision, he can also be pretty reckless with the ball (14.4 turnover%). To top it all off, his aggression can sometimes spill into his interactions with other players. And given how young this year’s team is, they need to stay away from chippy games, no matter how much some people may like that style of play.

Outlook: It’s hard to get a read on where Geist stands at this point. He only got four minutes against Kansas, but we’ve continually heard that the new staff is a fan of his. And I can see that: he plays hard and clearly loves the game. That’s going to endear him to any coaching staff. But it’s also clear that he’s not as skilled as much of this roster. I’d say he probably ranks third on this list, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him sneak his way into a few contests this year.

Reed Nikko - Sophomore

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Pros: You can’t teach size, and boys and girls, Reed Nikko has some size. Nikko is a tank down low, measuring at 6’10 and 250 pounds. During his freshman season, we saw flashes of how he could use it to bully people down on the block.

He definitely came into the college game with raw tools, but those are things that can be refined with time. With some conditioning, limited exposure, and injury luck, it wouldn’t be hard to see Nikko as a Ryan Rosburg type player with a much more limited role. And if you’re into such things, Nikko ranked in the Top 5 on last year’s team in Total Rebound Percentage and eFG%.

Of that former stat, he was the only one in the Top 5 to play significant minutes. So while he wasn’t out on the floor as much as others, he used those minutes well.

Cons: The flip side to having exciting raw tools is just that: they’re raw. Nikko can definitely be a useful player, but he’ll need to settle into his role and refine the two things he can definitely contribute: boards and buckets. And while he did fairly well in those two areas last year, there’s a reason he didn’t see as much time on an 8-24 team.

All of these concerns come after the fact that Nikko might be injury prone. Yes, injuries aren’t as big a deal when you’ve got options for the last rotation spot. But if Nikko wants to win a regular job and have an opportunity to expand on it, he’ll need to stay on the floor.

Outlook: Despite only getting in during garbage time against Kansas, I’m going to put Nikko at secnd on this list... and I’d say he’s closer to first than a lot of people think. And my reasoning doesn’t have much to do with Nikko. It’s all about Jeremiah Tilmon.

Tilmon fouled out of each of the two scrimmages we have information on, leaving Mizzou vulnerable on the post. As limited as Nikko can be, he’s definitely a big body down low. If Tilmon can’t get his fouling problems under control, Nikko will be there to take advantage.

CJ Roberts - Freshman

Pros: Roberts’ pros are harder to nail down because... well, we’ve never seen him play in a game with Division 1 competition. We did get a short look at him in the Kansas game, but almost nothing substantive (more on that later.) Outside of highlight tape, all we have to go on is past scouting reports. Here’s what Rock M Nation’s Sam Snelling had to say when Roberts originally committed to Kim Anderson’s staff:

Roberts is an explosive athlete and high volume scorer with the ability to make shots at all three levels. He’s played both on and off the ball in high school and projects to play both at the college level, although primarily he’ll be thought of as a point guard due to his size. At 6’0 and 175 lbs, Roberts could stand to put on a little weight but should provide an immediate impact for a program that has struggled to score the last few years. Roberts has the ability to catch fire and carry the offensive load and has perhaps as high of a ceiling as any guard (outside of to top 3 or 4 guards) in the country.

This is a pretty common consensus on Roberts across the board: he’s a gifted offensive player and one hell of an athlete. Now the question is whether or not that will show up in a college game. And the only way we’ll be able to tell is if he’s getting minutes.

Cons: Take almost everything I just said and repeat it again. We know about the promise of CJ Roberts, but we don’t know if it’ll translate. It’s obvious he hasn’t adjusted as well as the other freshman on the roster — he only played two minutes against Kansas. So what’s the source of the issue? Is his defense not up to snuff yet? Is his offense struggling to develop? It could be a combination of the two.

He’s also got a size disadvantage, playing at only 6’0 and 180 pounds. That’s point guard size, but he’s got three people ahead of him on the depth chart: Phillips, Harris, and maybe Robertson too. So if Roberts can’t provide some scoring punch off the bench, he’s going to need to find his defensive game in a hurry.

Outlook: At this point, there’s almost no certainty surrounding CJ Roberts. I think he’ll see more time as the year goes on, but we just haven’t seen anything to suggest the coaches trust him with extended minutes yet. He’s ending up fourth on my list.

So those are my objective thoughts on the battle for Rotation Spot No. 9. And now for subjective thoughts...

If I had to personally rank who I want to see take up that spot I’d rank them like this:

(1) CJ Roberts

(2) Reed Nikko

(3) Cullen VanLeer

(4) Jordan Geist

I think Roberts has the potential to be a really good four-year player for this program, and I think the best way to develop him will be getting him on the court with players like Kassius Robertson and Michael Porter Jr. while they’re here.

I trust Coach Martin, and if he says Roberts isn’t ready, I’ll bite my lip. But I’m also willing to take a less polished player in that spot if it means better things down the road.

Roberts is easily the most skilled player and has the highest ceiling of any of the four. VanLeer only offers one thing, and has yet to prove he’s even good at that thing. I’m a little worried about Tilmon’s foul troubles at the beginning of the year, so I think Nikko will be necessary. But that’s probably the only time I want to see him taking up substantial minutes. As for Geist ... I love his passion.

Mizzou has been talent starved for too long. Put the most talented player on the floor. In my opinion, that player is CJ Roberts.