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Mark Smith’s adopted an unexpected role as Missouri’s defensive stopper

At Illinois, the combo guard was maligned as a weak link in the Illini’s chain. Yet the sophomore has shown early promise as a steady and malleable defender for Cuonzo Martin.

Missouri Basketball

A closeout is not scintillating.

An act that can unfold hundreds of time each game is, by its very nature, mundane. You only notice closeouts when they go awry and a body is sailing past a shooter. No analyst breaks into commentary to laud a guard for bolting out of a stance, taking choppy steps and lifting their hands high.

Yet as offenses isolate players in acres of hardwoods and analytics gurus preach about the value of 3-point shooting, blocking a shooter’s field of vision has become more valuable than ever.

It’s unlikely you need to explain this Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin, who learned at the hand of Purdue coach Gene Keady and is a defense-first devotee. No doubt, he’s liberalized his view of offensive tactics, but the way to earn his trust – and minutes – is constancy in a rotation and using your body as a skin-and-bone barrier to the backboard.

If you’re looking for a Tiger living out Martin’s gospel, a relative newcomer arrival to Martin’s monastery might be a better choice. His name is Mark Smith.

When Smith decamped from Illinois, conventional wisdom cast Smith as a plug-in option at combo guard, resupplying MU’s depleted stocks of spot-up shooting. Checking in at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, he has the sturdy build – look at his timbers for legs – of a guard who could finish plays through contact at the rim. Despite his physique and strength, questions persisted about whether the Edwardsville native had the lateral agility and foot speed to clamp down on quicker wings.

Those critiques seemed all too prescient in Champaign.

After a swift start, Smith saw his shooting percentage (28.5) and minutes (15.5 per game) plummet during Big Ten Play, all while he sported the worst defensive efficiency rating (1.13 PPP) on the roster. By late February, certain scribes were playing armchair psychologist and sharing their diagnoses with coach Brad Underwood. “Mark Smith looks very unhappy,” one told the Fighting Illini coach.

Since the NCAA granted a special dispensation and set aside a mandatory redshirt year, Smith’s game appears rejuvenated. Over five games, he’s posted 11.6 points and 6.0 rebounds, shooting 50 percent from the 3-point arc along the way. Those are the kinds of numbers that easy to tout, but a better testament to Smith’s renewed spirit comes at the other end of the floor in screens navigated, help given and, yes, jumpers contested.

It’s early, but Smith’s presence is vital

To watch Smith in 2018 is to witness defensive basics in action. The Tigers’ approach isn’t a brand unto itself — unlike Virginia’s Pack Line or Syracuse’s zone — but the simple application of man-to-man principles consistently carried out. Instead of an overarching theory, executing fundamental techniques rule the day — basic maneuvers Martin can drill over and over in practice and easily adaptable to scouting reports.

Since moving up to the high-major ranks, Martin’s defenses have never finished better than 275th nationally in turnover percentage. It doesn’t apply heavy on-ball pressure to speed teams up, and while it makes finishing around the rim difficult, the system doesn’t do so at the expense of conceding open 3-pointers. And second possessions are rare events.

Success is contingent upon players like Smith seamlessly – and soundly – slotting into a collective. No one is going to stop when they spot Smith’s block percentage (0.0) or steal rate (1.8) on MU’s KenPom profile. Yet the granular analysis available through Synergy fleshes out Smith’s profile in more nuance.

Mark Smith | Defense - Play Type

Play Type Poss/Gm PPP FGM FGA eFG% %SF %Score
Play Type Poss/Gm PPP FGM FGA eFG% %SF %Score
P&R Ball Handler 2.6 0.615 0.6 2.2 27.3 7.7 30.8
Spot Up 1 0.6 0.2 1 30 0 20
Isolation 0.6 0 0.4 0.6 83.3 0 66.7
Off Screen 0.6 1.667 0.2 0.6 33.3 33.3 33.3
Handoff 0.6 1 0 0.4 0 0 0
Post-Up 0.4 0 0 0 - 0 0
P&R Roll Man 0.2 0 0 0.2 0 0 0
Overall 6 0.633 1.4 5 32 6.7 26.7
Synergy Sports

Those early metrics also hint that Smith’s supposed liabilities haven’t been a hindrance. There’s no question gauges of defensive reliability are delivering more favorable readings — albeit early ones — than they did during Smith’s stay in Champaign.

Mark Smith | A Change of Scenery

Play Type Ill. Poss. MU Poss Ill. PPP MU PPP Ill. eFG% MU eFG% Ill. %SF MU %SF Ill. %Score MU %Score
Play Type Ill. Poss. MU Poss Ill. PPP MU PPP Ill. eFG% MU eFG% Ill. %SF MU %SF Ill. %Score MU %Score
P&R Ball Handler 0.5 2.6 1.429 0.615 63.6 27.3 0 7.7 64.3 30.8
Spot Up 1.5 1 1.106 0.6 56.4 30 10.6 0 40.4 20
Isolation 0.7 0.6 1.13 1.667 66.7 83.3 17.4 14.3 52.2 66.7
Off Screen 0.2 0.6 1.4 1 62.5 33.3 20 33.3 60 33.3
Handoff 0.1 0.6 0.75 0 75 0 0 0 25 0
Post-Up 0.2 0.4 0.714 0 28.6 - 14.3 0 28.6 0
P&R Roll Man - 0.2 - 0 - 0 - 0 - 0
Overall 3.2 6 1.13 0.633 57.7 32 11 6.7 46 26.7
Synergy Sports

Often, we use analytics to quantify and rhapsodized about player’s contributions on the offensive end of the floor. Smith’s impact on that end remains, too. When he heads to the bench, MU’s offensive efficiency dips to 0.86 PPP from 0.97 PPP, according to lineup data amassed by HoopLens.

You can also spot a similar effect, though, for the Tigers defensively. A big one, it turns out. Subtracting Smith from the floor allows foes to put up 1.12 points per possession, according to HoopLens. Put another way, Missouri tumbles to 250th in raw efficiency from 110th nationally whenever he takes a seat on the bench.

Mark Smith | On-Court Impact

Category On Off
Category On Off
Poss 220 121
PPP 0.87 1.12
eFG% 43.9 56.5
TOV% 16.4 20.7
ORB% 20.5 35.7
FTRate 0.285 0.37
2FG% 41.2 49.1
3FG% 32.3 44.2
FT% 68.6 62.2
3FGA/FGA 0.363 0.43

Teams aren’t just launching more 3-pointers because of arithmetic, but because — as we’ve noted quite a bit at Rock M — it fundamentally alters the geometry of the floor. Gaps widen out for guards to attack. Big men get pulled off the baseline, opening space for cutters or creating more room for late-possession post-ups.

The ability to cover ground and close down space for shooters — or prevent those shots at all — is a premium. At the same time, holding up in the trash compactor that is a pick-and-roll and cut off a driver, because it not only stops a layup but stops a chain reaction. When guard enters the paint, help defenders — the defense’s white blood cells — scramble but become susceptible to kick outs.

No, Smith doesn’t prowl passing lanes. He doesn’t leave you gasping after a chase-down block. Instead, he does the rote work that keeps the shape and structure of Missouri’s defense from crumbling. Absent him, the Tigers allow more 3-pointers, give up more offensive rebounds and put teams on the line more frequently.

Alert, steady and flexible define Smith’s defense

Any analysis of Smith’s success starts with staying alert.

Of the roughly 100 possessions I watched on film, there was only a handful where the combo guard inattentively lost track of his assignment. Even in those rare instances, the culprit wasn’t laziness or apathy. Instead, they arose from Smith slid over to offer help or string out a dribbler in a pick-and-roll.

Reviewing Smith’s handiwork against Iowa State, Kennesaw State and Oregon State is largely spent watching him track opposing wings off the ball through all manner of screens: elevator, staggers and pindowns.

Let’s start with the Tigers’ trip to Ames, where Smith drew freshman guard Tyrese Haliburton. The Cyclones’ offense fell into a quick rhythm, too. Usually, Haliburton ran Smith through a pair of staggered screens on the wing — a Zipper action — that gave the Cyclones guard the option to launch a 3-pointer or put the ball on the floor a curling drive down the lane.

Behind Haliburton, a second screener — combo forward Michael Jacobson — could flare off for a pitch back. And if that option didn’t work, another shooter would curl off a pindown on the left block.

During this possession, Smith easily clears the screens by Jacobson and Zion Griffin to meet Haliburton on the catch, get into a balanced stance — hips back, feet wide and belly to belly with his man — and obscuring his line of sight. Haliburton tries to reverse the ball to Terrence Lewis, who is sprinting out of the pindown and could turn the corner. Again, Smith squelches a chance, stunting in from the top of the key to slow Lewis and allowing Torrence Watson to make up ground. For good measure, Smith also closed out under control on Haliburton, who lofted up a 3-pointer off the kickout he forced only a split-second earlier.

Earlier in the half, Smith showed little trouble navigating the same baseline cutting action to stick with Haliburton. He also cleared Jacobson’s screen easily, increasing the degree of difficulty for Haliburton’s pass in a pick-and-pop action.

The Cyclones also made it a priority to target favorable switches in high ball screens, isolating Nick Weiler-Babb on Kevin Puryear or a bigger wing in Marial Shayok attacking Jordan Geist.

While Smith wasn’t singled out, the possessions where he had to guard a primary ball handler didn’t end in catastrophe. Midway through the first half, Smith was isolated in a high ball-screen and held his own against the fleet-footed Babb, who admittedly didn’t get Jacobson’s best, and forced a contested mid-range jumper.

Time and time again, Smith’s steadfast engagement works to Mizzou’s benefit.

In one possession against Kennesaw State, Smith’s dexterity pops out.

From the start, Smith’s job is easy: see the ball on the strong side of the floor and use his peripheral vision to keep tabs on Kosta Jankovich loitering in the left corner. Once the ball is pitched to Tyler Hooker at the top of the arc, he slides out of the lane to play one pass away, but he’s not on or up the line — avoiding an overplay and keeping Jankovich from back-cutting him.

He’s still able to spring into action when Hooker blows by Pinson, pinching in as Reed Nikko steps up. Next, he closes out on Jankovich, shading the small forward to the baseline where — if he puts the ball on the deck — Nikko can again serve as a 6-foot-10 barricade on the block. With no other option, Jankovich reverses the ball back to Hooker, who rejects a ball screen to drive off the left wing.

Notice how Jankovich clears out the corner, too? Well, Smith doesn’t blindly trail him. He sees Hooker bearing down and throws on the breaks to lend Mitchell Smith a hand in trapping the Owls’ leading scorer on the baseline and forcing an errant pass.

After halftime, though, Smith swapped assignments and picked up Hooker, who moved off the ball and ceded point guard to Kenny Clarke. Al Skinner’s tight flex offense started running its leading scorer off an assortment of pindowns and flare screens — a strategy that sent Smith sprinting all over creation.

Given that Missouri opted to switch screens and sent defenders fighting over the top, Smith often handled Hooker moving at warp speed. He didn’t flinch. On this possession, he traces Hooker’s steps until a catch at the top of the key. Unable to get a shot or drive, Hooker reverses the ball back to Jankovich and then bolts to the weak side, where Isaac Mbuyamaba is trying to pick Smith off at the elbow.

Not only does Smith sprint through, but he’s able to get off the floor, contest and do so with enough control to avoid colliding with Hooker.

Clip after clip shows Smith zig-zagging and careening around screens, a job that hinges as much on effort as it does technique.

Oregon State orchestrates its offense around Tres Tinkle attacking from the top of the key and Stephen Thompson Jr. navigating a maze of screens. Again, from the first possession of the game, Smith’s head is on a swivel. First, Thompson takes him toward a bluff screen set by Alfred Hollins, feints a change of direction and then runs him into a step-up screen set by Gligorije Rakocevic, never losing contact and contesting Thompson’s jumper.

Five trips later, Smith not only swerves around a Hollins ball screen, but he works in tandem with Kevin Puryear to force a snake dribble and string out Thompson Jr. The ball reversal doesn’t move the move the Tigers’ shell, and Geist can apply enough pressure on Ethan Thompson that he steps on the baseline.

Just for good measure, Smith held his own when switched onto a jumbo wing in Tinkle, who couldn’t bull the Tigers’ guard on the left block. Instead, Smith forces him to take an entry pass feet away, enabling Nikko to slip across the lane and give help. Instead of a favorable post-up, Tinkle fires a behind the back pass into traffic — a poor decision that results in an easy steal for Jordan Geist.

And lastly, there’s a steady presence waiting at the top of the restricted area when opponents break out in transition.

A mere 200 possessions aren’t enough to anoint Smith a changed player. In all likelihood, his metrics will slip as the season unfolds. Dismissing the first five games, though, would be equally foolhardy. When Smith announced his attention to change sides in the Bragging Rights rivalry, the impetus was a better fit with Martin’s system and coaching style.

When Smith joined up, it was with the full knowledge that a fresh start was contingent upon a full embrace of Martin’s defensive dogma. If there were any doubts about his commitment, the beginning of the season is an emphatic rebuttal. And practically, Smith’s devotion to that liturgy brings a measure of stability — for himself and the roster that’s welcomed him to the flock.