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Can Kevin Puryear stretch himself — and defenses — to replace Jontay Porter?

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In the wake of the sophomore’s season-ending injury, Missouri’s senior stalwart has been pegged as the most likely replacement. Yet it’s worth asking how he fits the role and what he can provide the Tigers.

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NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Texas A&M C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Puryear ‘s wrists have a history releasing catharsis.

You remember the moments, too.

Popping open at the top of the key with 3.8 seconds left for a 3-pointer at the horn against Auburn that purchased Missouri — and coach Kim Anderson — another day at the SEC tournament. Last season, he also offered split-second salvation after MU squandered a 12-point lead against Mississippi State after a kickout from Kassius Robertson found him spotting up deep in the corner and in front of the Tigers’ bench.

Those moments sear themselves into our memories and become the reference points for optimism when uncertainty hits. And it certainly did ten days ago when Jontay Porter crumpled to the floor, tearing ligaments in his right knee, during a closed scrimmage.

Within a day of the sophomore’s injury, scribes raced to amend the plot and elevate supporting characters. Puryear’s name was chief among those touted as the closest proxy to Porter. Those takes aren’t bold. And they don’t make the mistake of framing Puryear as a substitute good. They even sketch the faint outline of what you’ll see here.

These analyses all reached a similar conclusion, too. If Puryear, who only sank 26 percent of his 3-pointers last season, improved his perimeter shooting, then the Tigers might be able to withstand Porter’s absence. It’s a reasonable inference but taking a deeper dive into Puryear’s game raises the question as to how realistic that expectation might be and — more broadly — how Puryear’s game meshes with MU’s system.

The past isn’t always prologue. However, Mining three years’ worth of possession data offers us a glimpse as to whether Puryear’s capable of menacing opponents on the block, the elbow and behind the 3-point arc. The answers it provides should make us ponder the expectations we set for Puryear’s final go-around in black and gold.

So, what does Puryear’s body of work look like?

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we’ve framed the issue at hand, it’s important to add that we need to look at Puryear’s entire body of work, while in Columbia. Last season, the Blue Springs native saw his shooting bottom out — 30.6 percent on jumpers — and shots generated via post-ups remain inefficient at 0.814 points per possession.

So how did Puryear butter his bread?

Kevin Puryear | Offensive Profile - 2017-18

Play Type Possessions Points PPP Rating FG% eFG% %TO %FT %Score
Play Type Possessions Points PPP Rating FG% eFG% %TO %FT %Score
Post Up 73 61 0.836 Good 39.5 39.5 19.2 24.7 43.8
Spot Up 69 60 0.870 Average 37.9 46.6 11.6 4.3 36.2
Cut 56 64 1.143 Good 53.7 53.7 7.1 26.8 55.4
Transition 24 23 0.958 Average 47.1 50 12.5 16.7 50.0
P&R Roll Man 23 15 0.652 Poor 26.3 28.9 8.7 8.7 30.4
Put Backs 23 26 1.130 Good 66.7 66.7 17.4 21.7 56.5
Isolation 11 19 1.727 Excellent 80.0 85.0 0 9.1 81.8
Off Screen 5 0 0 - 0 0 20.0 0 0
P&R Ball Handler 2 1 0.500 - - - 50.0 50.0 50.0
Hand Off 2 0 0 - 0 0 0 0 0
Miscellaneous 21 11 0.524 Good 33.3 33.3 57.1 28.6 28.6
Open Look Analytics

Sorting the columns tell us Puryear thrived in chaos.

A broken floor served him best, whether it was snagging a miss for a putback, cutting into a gap if his defender was caught ball-watching or beating the defense down the floor on a rim run. Hustle plays and exploiting favorable post matchups — smaller combo forwards who let him work over his right shoulder — helped paper over trends that have solidified since his freshman season.

Sifting Puryear’s possession data through a silt pan tells us he regressed as a catch-and-shoot threat and struggled to convert on post-ups. The arrival of an elite frontcourt duo in Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon only eroded his chances for low-post touches, while MU’s tight embrace of 3-point shooting pushed him further down the pecking order and toward a scavenger’s life.

Kevin Puryear | Offensive Progression

Play Type 2016 Poss/Gm 2016 PPP 2017 Poss/Gm 2017 PPP 2018 Poss/Gm 2018 PPP Career Poss/Gm Career PPP
Play Type 2016 Poss/Gm 2016 PPP 2017 Poss/Gm 2017 PPP 2018 Poss/Gm 2018 PPP Career Poss/Gm Career PPP
Isolation 0.935 0.724 0.969 0.516 0.333 1.727 0.740 1.000
Cut 1.871 1.207 1.875 1.017 1.696 1.143 1.813 1.120
Putbacks 1.194 1.135 1.313 1.024 0.697 1.130 1.625 1.088
Transition 0.967 1.167 1.406 0.889 0.727 0.958 1.031 0.989
Spot Up 1.086 0.911 2.656 0.835 2.091 0.870 2.229 0.855
Post-Up 2.871 1 3.219 0.835 2.212 0.836 2.760 0.891
P&R Roll Man 1.225 0.632 1.063 0.824 0.697 0.652 0.989 0.705
Miscellaneous 0.742 0.609 0.969 0.677 0.636 0.524 0.791 0.605
P&R Ball Handler 0 0 0.156 0.677 0.061 0.500 0.729 0.286
Off Screen 0.065 2 0.125 1 0.152 0 0.115 0.727
Handoff 0.032 0 0 0 0.061 0 0.313 0
Synergy Sports

When the conversation turns to Puryear’s jump shooting, we’ve probably done a poor job fitting it into context, treating his junior season as a hiccup, blip, dip or whatever noun comes to mind. Hitting at a 26-percent clip in catch-and-shoot situations wasn’t an aberration. Throughout his career, Puryear’s never been a genuine threat to space the floor and pull defenders out of the paint.

Kevin Puryear | Catch-and-Shoots - Career

Play Type 2016 Poss. 2016 PPP 2016 eFG% 2016 Poss. 2016 PPP 2016 eFG% 2018 Poss. 2018 PPP 2018 eFG%
Play Type 2016 Poss. 2016 PPP 2016 eFG% 2016 Poss. 2016 PPP 2016 eFG% 2018 Poss. 2018 PPP 2018 eFG%
Guarded 43 0.977 48.8 44 0.773 38.6 24 0.667 33.3
Unguarded 12 1.083 54.2 21 1.143 57.1 26 0.808 40.4
Total 55 1.000 50.0 65 0.892 44.6 50 0.740 37.0
Synergy Sports

If it seems like I’m piling on, that’s not the intention.

Instead, I’m asking whether Puryear’s being drafted into the right role. Without question, Puryear’s been a consummate leader and bulwark through a turbulent four years. He’s stuck it out as the program bottomed out through its worst stretch on the floor in its history and amid almost comical roster turnover, playing alongside a stunning 40 teammates during his career.

Tabbing him as Porter’s replacement is a natural response, given that it’s been ages since Smith or Santos have been seen — both of whom will have endured 20-month layoffs — in a game of consequence. Slotting Puryear into Porter’s minutes is, in part, the byproduct of seat time. However, it’s not as if there’s any other known entity we can put forward as a viable alternative.

What I am saying, though, is that promoting Puryear doesn’t require us to smash a square peg to splinters trying to fit it into a round hole — one involving more than rippling twine from behind the arc.

Puryear’s game may not fit Porter’s role

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

To be abundantly clear, Puryear can lay claim to a role within Martin’s rotation. For one thing, his contributions, while not always eye-catching, buoyed MU in moments when 3-balls kicked off the back rim and Porter faced an onslaught of hard double teams — all while Jeremiah Tilmon looked on from the bench. What we saw down the stretch of last season is the persona of best fit: glue guy.

Yes, Puryear’s duties expand slightly with Porter sidelined, but we have to be nuanced in outlining what those changes entail.

When he arrived four years ago, Puryear was cog intended for an entirely different make and model of offense — one that frankly has been collecting dust over the past five seasons. During his tenure, Anderson tried to install a knockoff version of the high-low system that Bill Self made famous at a certain school to the west.

Why does this matter? Well, Self designed his bastard version of a traditional motion to fit post players who are poor perimeter shooters. His directions are clear: a big shouldn’t hoist up a guarded shot outside the paint.

Look at the initial action: the ball moves to a center in the high post, triggering the power forward to duck into the lane, seal his man and stick his hand in the air. As you scroll through the rest of the guides, you might see the four set down screens or receive a cross-lane rip screen when the ball goes into the weakside corner.

No, Anderson didn’t impose a blanket ban on Puryear driving the ball. The ability to face up and beat slower-footed posts of the dribble was touted one of Puryear’s strength. At the collegiate level, though, the translation proved rough.

Kevin Puryear | Drives - 2016 and 2017

Play Type 2016 Poss. 2016 PPP 2016 FG% 2017 Poss. 2017 PPP 2017 FG%
Play Type 2016 Poss. 2016 PPP 2016 FG% 2017 Poss. 2017 PPP 2017 FG%
Post-Ups 16 0.625 44.4 10 0.900 28.6
Spot Ups 21 0.476 28.6 34 0.765 50.0
Isolations 22 0.818 23.1 26 0.538 23.1
Total 59 0.644 30.6 70 0.700 37.5
Synergy Sports

Before he even set foot on campus, scouts affixed the label of ‘crafty’ to Puryear’s game. One tour through the SEC, however, allowed opponents to figure out what he tucked away in his bag of tricks, which might explain why his efficiency on post-ups and spot-ups tailed off slightly as a sophomore. On certain nights and in individual matchups, the balance might tilt ever so slightly in his direction, but the jump in productivity you might expect never manifested itself.

Upon Cuonzo’s Martin’s hiring, the pendulum swung toward the opposite end of the schematic spectrum.

Over the last decade, dribble-drive motion and four-out systems gobbled up market share, placing a premium on flooding the floor with shooters and multiple ball-handlers operating in acres of space. (Even at Kansas, Self has followed the trend and utilized guard-heavy lineups.) At MU, the staff installed a modified version of a pro-style offense — a system that radically retooled job description of Puryear’s position, asking combo forwards to space the floor on the wing, pick-and-pop and even handle the ball in weave actions.

As possession data shows, none of those is Puryear’s forte.

For example, pick-and-pops.

The action was a staple in Missouri’s offense. Porter would trot up from the block, set a ball screen and, instead of diving toward the rim, flair off at the top of the key. If Porter’s defender tried to string out Jordan Geist toward the sideline — a common tactic for combatting high pick-and-rolls — the punishment was a pass pitched back for an open jumper.

Few SEC players were used more frequently in that action in Porter, whose efficiency on those trips (1.053 PPP) ranked eighth in the conference. How big is the gap between Porter and Puryear? Try 0.647 PPP and 28.6 percent shooting from the floor.

You see the conundrum, right?

If Puryear can’t bury open jumpers, bully bigs on the block or punish defenses for the coverage of ball screens in the middle of the floor, the task confronting MU and Martin is slightly more complicated. No, it’s not akin to pulling the engine block out of a car, but it’s also not as straightforward as swapping your brand of spark plugs.

Over the summer, I broke down how MU went about attacking the rim last season, and Puryear’s savvy as cutter stood out. Surveying for gaps gives Puryear room he lacks in some post-ups, and it also keeps defenses honest if a help defender cheats down too much to double Tilmon. Those plays hint that getting Puryear on the move might be a middle way.

While Puryear’s never made hay in pick-and-rolls, they could yield some favorable switches that let him post-up a wing. And if Tilmon and Mitchell Smith’s face-up games translate, forcing an opposing big to come out of the lane, the lack of clutter might improve his efficiency at the rim if a guard slides him a pocket pass.

And, yes, seeing his accuracy from long distance tick up would be more than welcome. For his part, Puryear told reporters in June he’d put an emphasis on tightening up his handle and creating his own shot. And maybe Puryear’s finale is one that’s kept a breakthrough under wraps.

On the eve of the season, Missouri and its coach are in the familiar position of devising a contingency plan on the fly. None of us know what adaptations or alterations the staff will make, but overstuffing Puryear’s portfolio with a profile that bears little resemblance to his own might doesn’t seem rational.

Instead, let’s sit back and see what Mizzou and Martin have for in store for the program’s stalwart.