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Health concerns lead the questions for Mizzou’s wing players

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The addition of Mark Smith could help, but depth is already a concern for the wings.

Twitter: @MizzouHoops

Would you believe it if I told you we were only one week out from Mizzou basketball?

You would? Well, there goes my lede.

But seriously, it’s pretty incredible to think we’re one week out from the start of the 2018-2019 season. It feels like this last month has zoomed by with various recruiting sagas, commitments and decommitments, catastrophic injuries and transfer waivers. It’s been hard to keep sight of the fact that basketball season is here, and we’ll soon be able to stop wondering about how Cuonzo Martin will fare in his sophomore season.

We’ve been previewing Mizzou’s roster by position for the past week. You can catch up on those pieces below.

This week, we’re finishing up the roster. We’ll start with the wings, who will get a boost from Mark Smith’s addition, but still feature a lot of questions for the guys who fill the prototypical wing role.

The Players

Sophomore: K.J. Santos

Freshman: Christian Guess

The Preview

No player on the Tigers’ roster presents a bigger gap between floor and ceiling than KJ Santos. Assuming he gets healthy, what kind of impact could he have — and what do you think is realistic?

Matt Harris, Basketball Editor: So long as Santos consistently hits jumpers, I’ll be happy with whatever production the jumbo guard can offer. Over the summer, I slotted him as a 3-and-D wing, a role that remains a natural fit. You could also envision Martin bumping him down to play as a small-ball four in some lineups. Replacing Jontay Porter should be a task Missouri tackles as a group assignment, with Santos giving the Tigers 3-point shooting, a driver at the elbow and a wing big enough to exploit switches on guards down low. The one concern: does his foot injury hamper him putting the ball on the floor to attack closeouts or getting off the floor to finish around the rim? Suffering three foot injuries in five years raises some questions about whether Santos’ body has betrayed him too often.

Josh Matejka, Editor: Santos has the athleticism and mechanics to be a deadly 3-and-D guy for the Tigers, and I think that’s a realistic expectation for him. Santos wasn’t a knock out shooter at Illinois-Chicago, but he was good enough to think his future may be as a sniper with a lot of reps. And his natural length could create match up nightmares at the college level.

The added bonus is that Santos seems to be a great finisher at the rim. It may be too early to expect him to develop as a ball handler so he can get to the rim, but closing out on his own shots and staying around the rim will give him loads of opportunities to pick up stray buckets, especially against smaller teams. Of course, this is all hanging on the, “assuming he stays healthy,” part of this question, which is about as far from a guarantee as you can get.

Chris Bohkay, Featured Writer: If he’s healthy, his impact will be big. He’s going to be filling the spot that Jontay would have occupied, and while he’s not Jontay Porter, he’s going to have to step up and fill that space. Realistically, he’s the only one that’s built to do so. It’s hard to predict the impact of a player that’s been hurt for the summer and on top of that, a foot injury which really can only heal by not really doing anything. Assuming he comes back healthy and able to contribute I think the expectation of high single-digit scoring and around 6 rebounds a game would be reasonable. But again, it’s a broken foot, and that’s not something you just bounce back from.

Chris Guess was a late add to the roster, but he seems like a player who could at least provide energy minutes. Are you expecting anything more from him in his freshman season?

Matt Harris: I’d size and tailor a redshirt to slip on the Cleveland native. No, Missouri’s offense isn’t static, but it values wings that can shoot the ball and serve as secondary a ballhandler. Those are areas where Guess has admitted he needs work. At the moment, he’s a tad too ball-dominant in a system that values movement and spacing. Then there are matters off the floor. At Shaker Heights High School, he knuckled down an performed an academic triage to earn an NCAA waiver for eligibility. Yet his integration into college has been swift. Let him have a year to grow as a player, mature physically and get settled in the classroom.

Josh Matejka: Probably not. Guess has an exciting highlight reel, but the courtship between him and Mizzou seems too quick to expect any reasonable production at this point. I’d love to see what Nicodemus Christopher could do with him in a redshirt year as Martin instills some more useful off-ball skills in his arsenal.

However, if Guess does manage to find himself on the floor, I’d just love to see him bust his tail on defense and getting to the rim. Anything further than that would be a bonus.

Chris Bohkay: First things first, get Guess on that meal plan where he eats about 7 meals a day — I think the previous staff tried something similar with Jakeenan Gant. Guess feels like a project at this point that should get some minutes off the bench, hopefully in garbage time in the non con, and then some valuable minutes giving the other guys a breather come SEC season. I’m not expecting much more than that, but a couple games where he sneaks in some double figures with some outside shooting would be nice. But the injuries on the team and the lack of depth should provide Guess the opportunity to get into games a bit faster than if the roster was 100% healthy.

The addition of Mark (and possibly Dru) Smith gives Cuonzo Martin added flexibility in the back court. How do the extra guards play into how Martin shapes the wing position?

Matt Harris: You can envision a core quartet coalescing with Smith, Torrence Watson, Javon Pickett and K.J. Santos. The question is whether Smith, who may have accepted the idea he’d have a year to toil and grow, can produce at a level that matches his potential. At Edwardsville, he showed the ability to stretch defense, convert through contact at the rim and make sound reads to hit shooters coming off an array of screens. Should those skills translate, MU has three wings with the potential to punish defenses where a man botches a rotation or stunts too far in from the wing. Meanwhile, Pickett has a history as a crafty driver and finisher.

Stability and balance on the wing means Martin can offload some of the 3-point shooting and ball movement Jontay Porter would have provided when an inverted floor put him on the wing. That spacing and off-ball movement almost act like a hockey assist, creating room and warping the defense so Tilmon can get solo coverage on the block or Kevin Puryear can put the ball on the floor and attack slower-footed bigs.

Lastly, Martin and the staff have wanted to get Jordan Geist playing off the ball a little more. That’s not an indictment of the senior, either. It’s just a recognition that basketball is evolving in a direction where rosters are stacked with ball-handlers, shooting and positional flexibility. For example, pairing Geist with Smith and Watson, both of whom handled the ball a ton in high school, would make actions like a dribble handoff deadly. Why? Each guard is at ease with the ball in their hands, can exploit poor switches for a jumper or drive, or make a simple read to roll man.

Josh Matejka: The addition of Mark Smith is largely helpful as it allows Torrence Watson to spend some more time at the wing. Watson’s offensive game fits the mold of what guards and wings need to be doing in the Tigers’ system, and he’ll give Martin the option to play small and not risk losing as much production on either end. Javon Pickett could also fill the gap when needed, though I’d worry about the Tigers defense a little more if he’s at the wing. With a rotation of Santos, Watson and Pickett at the wing, Martin would have enough depth to be able to redshirt Guess and not lose too much sleep over what he’s getting from the wing.

Chris Bohkay: I think we saw a bit of what Mizzou will do this season, last season when they played a smaller line up once MPJr was stuck on the bench and Smith was redshirting. Going small on the wings with Tilmon holding down the interior is going to give Mizzou some opportunities to play faster and provide the guards — when a three guard lineup shows up — the opportunity to use their speed and shooting ability to open the floor up. I think we can now expect Mizzou to start Geist, Watson and Smith at the beginning of the season. If Santos is healthy, you have a starting five for Mizzou that looks similar to last year’s team that starts with the guards picking up the slack for a lack of a true 3/SF in the lineup.

*This piece was published before news of Mark Smith’s waiver clearing.