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Kevin Puryear leads a front court that could be Mizzou’s strength

With Jontay Porter gone, Kevin Puryear will take leadership roles both on and off the court.

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

Coming into the 2018-2019 season, most pundits — ourselves included — figured Missouri basketball would be defined by its bigs. Kevin Puryear was ready to cement his legacy as a fan favorite with a strong senior campaign; Mitchell Smith and Reed Nikko were back to provide sturdy depth; Jeremiah Tilmon had a college season under his belt and all the potential in the world; and Jontay Porter would make himself an NBA Lottery pick with a new conditioning program and refined skill.

Four out of those five things are still happening. Unfortunately, the one with the highest ceiling is the one we’re deprived of seeing.

In the last week, we’ve been previewing Missouri basketball’s roster, position by position. You can catch up on those pieces here:

Today, we’re focusing on the combo forwards, led by the four-year senior, Kevin Puryear. With Porter out, Puryear and his fellow bigs will have a lot of production to fill. Let’s examine how they could do it.

The Players

Senior: Kevin Puryear

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Missouri vs Florida State Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Statistical Profile (2017-2018)

Player Kevin Puryear
Player Kevin Puryear
Minutes % 63.3
Points % 11.8
Effective FG % 47.2
Defensive Rebound % 11.6
Offensive Rebound % 7.6
Block % 1

Sophomore: Mitchell Smith

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

Statistical Profile (2016-2017)

Player Mitchell Smith
Player Mitchell Smith
Minutes % 6.5
Points % 1.2
Effective FG % 58.8
Defensive Rebound % 21.4
Offensive Rebound % 3.7
Block % 5.6

The Preview

With the loss of Jontay Porter, no player becomes more important than Kevin Puryear, who took a step back in terms of contribution last year. How can Puryear best step up and help fill the void left by the younger Porter brother?

Matt Harris, Basketball Editor: I spent a lot of time meditating on this question. First, Puryear was recruited to play in a version of the high-low offense, which is built to offset bigs who struggle with stepping out. Now, the senior plays in a suped-up version of a four-out. I won’t get hyper technical, but those offense move the ground where Puryear does battle and may not always align with his skill set.

Where he succeeds is as a cutter, rim-runner and rebounder — plays that rely on a broken floor and a defense in scramble mode. Those hustle plays don’t always stand out, but they lifted the offense out of the doldrums at times last season. Obviously, you can’t diagram those plays. So, what to do with Puryear?

I think he can be effective on the block if you scheme to get him switches, whether it’s on a pick-and-roll or down screen, that let him work against wings or similarly sized combo forwards. Getting those matchups might improve his finishing at the rim. And, yes, he will need to shoot the ball better, but I think we should keep our expectations modest early on.

Obviously, swapping Puryear for Porter isn’t simple substitution, but I trust Martin and his staff to find hacks in their system to get him in spots and situations where he feels comfortable.

Josh Matejka, Editor: Puryear was probably in his ideal role last year as a sixth man who could win you a game or two (hello, Tennessee!), while not becoming overexposed. But he’ll need to step back into the primary role that he occupied in his first two seasons, albeit with more options this time around. He’ll need to continue excelling at the free throw line since much of his game involves banging around the rim. He’ll also need to develop some more moves around the rim since he won’t be able to bully bigger defenders.

One thing I really think would take his game over the top, though, would be an improved three-point shot. Puryear has the ability to hit from deep, but he took a big step back last year, only hitting 22.5 percent from deep. He doesn’t need to be Kassius Robertson, but getting to 35 or 36 percent would allow him to draw bigger defenders out, allowing him to exploit the speed differences and get to the rim.

Chris Bohkay, Featured Writer: Quick answer: he cannot. No one is going to step in and fill the void that was expected of Jontay, or even what his skill set was at the end of last season. But what he can do is be more assertive than he was last year. Something more akin to how he played as a freshman when perhaps too much was asked of him. Word is that KP spent the offseason working on his shot from long range, so if that’s the case, that’s a good start, because as much as we’d like to see it, KP is not going to battle under the boards, and he’s probably not going to get to the line often enough either. So, for me, KP, if you’re listening, get your shot blocked less, get to the line more, and let’s hope your shot has gotten back to where it was when you started your career. Oh, and no more hook shots, OK?

Mitchell Smith may be more of a traditional post, but his athleticism, shooting mechanics and necessity suggest he’ll play more of a combo role than what he’s used to. Will Smith be a force or is another year of growing pains ahead?

Matt Harris: We have to see what role Martin has crafted for Smith, but he’s added mass, drilled on shooting jumpers and worked in some handoff situations. All that suggests he might be a better fit for what MU wants in a combo forward. And while the sample size was small, he also showed a knack for finishing plays at the rim — lobs and dumpoffs — in pick-and-rolls.

Josh Matejka: I’m hesitantly very bullish on Mitchell Smith, mostly because I think last year’s red shirt allowed him to really get a feel for what his role will be in Cuonzo Martin’s system. Smith was a beast around the rim in his brief freshman stint, and he has the skill set to become more than just a rim-runner. If he’s able to unlock even an average jump shot, Smith will be dangerous. He’s still only a sophomore, so there are probably rough outings ahead, but I also think we’ll see a few games where opposing fans cry, “Where in the world did Mitchell Smith come from?!”

Chris Bohkay: Honestly, I have no idea — we saw so little of him his freshman year and we haven’t seen him since. With Jontay no longer being available and questions about Santos’ health, Smith is going to have an opportunity to make an impact early when it comes to playing time, and Mizzou is going to need him to play well to allow Tilmon some space. I think the year off to work only on getting bigger will only help, and I’m intrigued by what he can do as someone who will be moving around the perimeter. There is an opening for Smith to take advantage of free minutes — hopefully he can take advantage.

Cuonzo Martin showed last year that he isn’t afraid to shift players around when the situation calls for smaller or bigger lineups. Who else on the roster can fill minutes at the combo forward if the need arises?

Matt Harris: He’s got options. K.J. Santos can supply jump-shooting. If Tilmon’s shooting stroke is improved, he becomes more flexible in pick-and-rolls. As we outlined above, Smith could check off some boxes as a shooter and a roll man. All the while, Puryear has shown a knack for cobbling together production. I’m going to keep saying this, too: Missouri is trying to replace Porter in aggregate. We just don’t know whether doubts about Santos’ foot, Smith’s stamina, Tilmon’s shooting and Puryear’s hustle will be put to rest.

Trotting out a rotation of Geist, Mark Smith, Watson, Santos and Tilmon would put three ball-handlers on the floor, four shooters and a post comfortable playing in ball-screens. Santos could space to the wing, play in roll-and-replace actions and post up smaller guards that switch on to him out of pick-and-rolls. Until Santos heals, though, I’d be curious to see how Mitchell Smith looks playing as a jumbo wing.

Josh Matejka: Assuming he’s able to get healthy — again, not a given — I wouldn’t be surprised if KJ Santos got some run at the combo forward spot. He hasn’t shown any ready-made post moves, but he’ll allow Martin to spread the floor for better shooting lineups. He’s also got the height and athleticism to play around (and above) the rim, though that’ll mostly come in the form of closeouts and drives.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if we see a little bit of combo work from Jeremiah Tilmon early in the season. Tilmon has expressed a desire to stretch his game toward the three-point line, and while he’s probably not there yet, I think Martin would like to see some lineups with both Tilmon and Nikko against lesser competition so as to see what Tilmon could offer outside the block.

Chris Bohkay: My first thought would be Javon Pickett, he’s got the size for the position and when Mizzou runs small, he’ll have an opportunity to work the wings. If Dru Smith gets cleared, you could bring Torrance Watson out at the traditional 3 spot, since at that point you’re probably moving Geist to the starting combo guard slot. But looking at the roster, if Pickett can show out well, my money’s on him.