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Jeremiah Tilmon will take the spotlight in Jontay Porter’s absence

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The former blue-chipper will lead up a group of steady post players that look to dominate down low.

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

We’re about 100 hours away from the tip off for Missouri basketball’s 2018-2019 season. It’s been one of the more intriguing off season’s Tiger fans have endured in at least half a decade - maybe more.

To recap: Missouri makes first tournament in five years; Michael Porter Jr. declares for the NBA; despite draft reports, Jontay Porter decides to return for his sophomore year; Mark and Dru Smith transfer to the Tigers from Illinois and Evansville, respectively; summer recruiting yields the commitments of Mario McKinney and (after a brief scare) Tray Jackson, while losing E.J. Liddell to Ohio State; 2020 recruiting sees 5-star Josh Christopher express serious interest in Missouri; weeks before the season, Jontay Porter tears several ligaments in his knee during a secret scrimmage.

That’s a long paragraph, and it doesn’t even go into the roller coaster we’ve seen from the NCAA waiver process for the Smiths. But soon we’ll all be able to archive those things into our memory banks as the Tigers get set to take on year two of the Cuonzo Martin era.

We’ve been previewing Missouri’s roster position by position over the past two weeks. You can catch up on those pieces below:

Today, we’ll be finishing up our preview series with a look at the post players. Jeremiah Tilmon is coming off a strong — if inconsistent — freshman season and Reed Nikko is back for another year of towering over guys in the block.

The Players

Junior: Reed Nikko

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

Statistical Profile (2017-2018)

Player Reed Nikko
Player Reed Nikko
Minutes % 20.3
Points % 3.2
Effective FG % 54.9
Defensive Rebound % 18.1
Offensive Rebound % 10.3
Block % 8.8

Sophomore: Jeremiah Tilmon

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Statistical Profile (2017-2018)

Player Jeremiah Tilmon
Player Jeremiah Tilmon
Minutes % 48.4
Points % 11.3
Effective FG % 56.4
Defensive Rebound % 12.6
Offensive Rebound % 12.3
Block % 5.5

The Preview

Jeremiah Tilmon had an up-and-down freshman season, and suddenly finds himself as one of the team’s primary weapons in the absence of Porter. How does Tilmon take the next step and become a powerhouse in the post?

Matt Harris, Basketball Editor: Staying on the floor, but everyone will say that. Yet, that’s half the battle. Tilmon’s game fits so naturally into what MU wants to do offensively, too. It’s just a matter of extracting more efficiency. On post-ups, for example, opposing defenses ran hard-doubles at him. A lot. Dig into his numbers, though, and you’ll see Tilmon was actually a decent distributor — 1.143 PPP — in the face of pressure. As a finisher? Not so much. (He posted 0.444 PPP and had 31.4 TO%.) So much of Tilmon’s growth could come from the game simply slowing down for him.

That’s why it was encouraging to see him working on mental skills in the offseason, which often teaches players cognitive reframing: How do you take a negative thought and flip it. The ramifications could be big for the East St. Louis native. If Tilmon understands he has elite tools and develops mental tools to remain resilient, the focus he needs could click in.

As far as on-court development, I can get behind the idea of Tilmon improving his perimeter shooting and dribbling. That’s just the direction the game is going. The Stretch 5 is all the rage. And Tilmon has the athleticism to adapt. If he can knock down pick-and-pop jumpers, pass out of short rolls and play hand-off actions, it allows MU to replicate some of the spacing they might have achieved with Jontay Porter on the floor.

Josh Matejka, Editor: I was really encouraged by CJ Moore’s excellent profile on Tilmon in The Athletic ($) last month. In it, Tilmon admitted there’s a mental aspect of his game that he’s working to master. It was something we all noticed last year — how one foul could derail a half or one dunk could propel a few minutes of dominance — and to hear that Tilmon is working to harness that part of his game is refreshing.

On the court this should look like fewer fouls, which is really the key to unlocking his potential. His athleticism and aggressiveness were his enemies at times last year, but those are things that can be translated into strengths when they’re controlled correctly. Tilmon showed last year that he has the skills to be a dominant SEC big — advanced footwork, crafty moves in the post. If he can start to spread his game outward even a little bit, on top of cutting back on silly fouls, he’s going to be unstoppable for as long as he’s in Columbia.

Chris Bohkay, Featured Writer: First off, I’m very excited about what season two for Jeremiah is going to bring, really more than anyone else on the roster. After a year spent on the floor, I think we can expect to see a Tilmon more in control of his body which will result in less of the silly fouls that he (and all freshman bigs) tend to get dinged on. Looking at the development of his frame from last year to this should bring some optimism to Mizzou fans knowing that he won’t be as easily pushed around this year, and that in turn should lead to more of his smooth baby hook under the basket we saw at times this year.

Jack Parodi, Basketball Analyst: It all starts on the defensive end for Tilmon. He bulked up this offseason, and I fully expect him to be a monster down low and on the boards. We saw last year that when Tilmon turned away opposing players’ shots, he turned it up a gear or two and it showed in his offensive game. To put it shortly: the more hyped up Tilmon gets by blocking shots, the better he’ll be on the other end as well.

Reed Nikko remains the most sturdy thing on Mizzou’s roster - you know exactly what you’re getting from him every time he steps on the floor. Is there a way for him to step up into a larger role, or are you content with what he’s shown so far?

Matt Harris: Like Kevin Puryear, Nikko was recruited for a very different system than the one he finds himself in. So I don’t know if his role expands, but I think his skill set won’t allow it to contract, either. Per HoopLens data, MU’s adjusted defensive efficiency with Nikko on the floor checks in at 0.91 PPP, while opponents only post a 43.3 effective-field-goal-percentage When he’s off the floor, those numbers tick up to 1.02 PPP and 47.3, respectively. That’s in line with what we know Nikko offers, physicality on the defensive end and a steady presence on the backboards — hallmarks of a sound positional defender. Offensively, he’s able to forage for putbacks and earn trips to the line.

So, yes, I’m content with what Nikko offers. He gives Cuonzo Martin the flexibility up front if foul trouble arises without seeing a drop off defensively and in rebounding — areas that are still near the top of Martin’s list of chief concerns. Considering the health questions that dogged Nikko when he arrived, the fact he’s found a niche is encouraging enough.

Josh Matejka: Reed Nikko doesn’t really need to expand what he’s doing as much as he needs to get more confident in it — have steadier hands, shoot better from the line, etc. He’s a capable rim protector, and he’s pretty reliable to grab some boards and clean up baskets. However, if he could find a way to acquire even a few post moves down low — and if he could become more of a passer — he’ll become an invaluable member of the Tiger rotation. Right now, Nikko is about as good a clean up man as you can get, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up becoming a really solid post presence in his third college year.

Chris Bohkay: I’m content with what I’ve seen from Nikko, especially considering what’s gone through to get healthy. I’m hoping that he’s worked on being able to secure the ball under the basket, both as an offensive weapon but as a rebounder as well. With the loss of Jontay, minutes will be available to complement Tilmon down low and I’m hoping he can take advantage. I’d also like to see him jack up a three from distance in garbage time in the non-con.

Jack Parodi: Nikko absolutely has to improve on his lateral quickness and rim-protecting to convince me he’s worth a larger role this year. Far too often players bodied him up for an easy layup or just ran right past him on the block, and Missouri just can’t have that this year — especially with Porter’s injury. Nikko will see more minutes than usual because of Porter’s absence, but I don’t see him making much of a noticeable impact on either end. What’s good about his game, however, is consistency. He’s not going to woo anyone out there, but he won’t make disastrous mistakes, either.

We heard a lot of talk this offseason that post players (specifically Tilmon) were working to stretch their game to model the style of the NBA. Do you think this is all lip service, or could Mizzou fans really see post players stepping out more often this year?

Matt Harris: Yes. But I don’t expect the number of possessions to soar. Establishing that threat and moving bigs around, though, can help a player like Tilmon. Take pick-and-rolls, for example. When Tilmon would trot up to set a screen for a high pick-and-roll, his defender would hang back in the middle of the lane. In those coverages, opponents bet that their guard could string out Kassius Robertson or Jordan Geist, and if they did the corner, their post would be able to tag Tilmon — bump him off course — or break up a pass.

Now, imagine if Tilmon flairs off, takes a pitch back and knocks down a 3-pointer from the top of the key. The calculus changes. Maybe that opposing post can’t simply clog the middle of the lane. Opening up the middle makes it easier for Tilmon to make a catch on the move. It gives Geist a clear path to the rim if he turns the corner. And it puts the defense in rotation, opening up kick outs to spot-up shooters.

Allowing Tilmon to play as a Stretch 5 in some sets not only diversifies his game, but it’s another tool MU can use to maintain its optimal floor balance and force opponents to make painful compromises.

Josh Matejka: I think we’re going to see some experimenting at the beginning of the season — maybe even a Tilmon three! — but I don’t expect it to be a key component of Missouri’s offense for at least another year. I don’t doubt Tilmon will be a more skilled ball handler and shooter than this time last year, but it’s also unfair to expect him to turn into Brooke Lopez in one off season.

Oh wait, did I forget to mention Reed Nikko? Look, if Nikko starts to step out, I’ll assume either (a) the Tigers are steamrolling opponents so bad that they’re just trying to stay interested or (b) things have taken the ugliest turn.

Chris Bohkay: I’m betting it’s definitely something they worked on and I do think we’ll see a bit of it, it just depends on how successful they are. Now I don’t think we’ll see Tilmon and the others looking to shoot from long every time down the floor, but that’s not to say it’s an impossibility. I love seeing big man shoot from long range, so if you’ve got it and you’ve got the green light from the coaching staff, I say fire away.

Jack Parodi: I don’t see Tilmon or any of the big post players really step out beyond the three-point line this year; at least not at first. While Tilmon and the Missouri basketball program continuously shared videos of the sophomore big man shooting three’s and mid-range jumpers, he’s still a bit away from earning Martin’s trust to do that in a game. Maybe that’ll happen by the time SEC play rolls around, but I don’t see any post players shooting long-range shots aside from Puryear.