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Jeremiah Tilmon and the dawn of the Stretch 5

The role of centers is rapidly evolving as lineups go small and spread the floor. The days of behemoths battling on the block are waning. But Mizzou’s low-post threat might have the blend of agility and strength to avoid extinction.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Missouri Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

In late January, a six-minute span inside Coleman Coliseum was a teaser of the low-block menace Jeremiah Tilmon might one day become. The 6-foot-10, 250-pound freshman had already mashed down a duo of dunks. The third, though, brought an audience on the Missouri bench to its feet. Kevin Puryear had already lofted a high-post feed to Tilmon on the right block, a pass he snagged as Alabama rim protector Donta Hall retreated toward to the baseline.

In four seconds, Tilmon faced up Donta Hall, threw a shoulder fake, ripped the ball left, pounded out a dribble and pirouetted off Hall. And then, well, you can see the clip.

The bench mob exploded. Jontay Porter flexed. Striding up the sideline, coach Cuonzo Martin punched the air.

If only Tilmon could get his soft hands and nimble feet to work in lockstep, he could induce terror on the low block — the kind we saw in a victory that revived MU’s NCAA tournament hopes. Now, with MU’s season opener against Central Arkansas looming, the East St. Louis native’s potential must manifest itself as production.

Tilmon’s climb atop a plateau to join the ranks of elite low-post players was already vital before Porter went down with a knee injury. What Tilmon resembles, though, might not entirely conform to expectations. You’ve heard the rumblings, the chatter of Tilmon spotting up for 3-balls on the wing and handling the ball in weave actions.

All of that might seem curious for a sophomore who, per data analyzed by Haslametrics, checked in 86th nationally in converting shots around the rim, putting him in the same neighborhood as guards Jalen Brunson, Theo Pinson, and LaGerald Vick.

Wouldn’t it be more prudent to dedicate time to polishing post-up moves and counters? How often will Tilmon actually roam beyond the free-throw line anyway? And if he does venture to the perimeter, what good could he do?

To reach satisfying answers, we have to grasp how the game is changing and how they force us — and Tilmon — to see his role mutating.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round- Michigan State Spartans vs Syracuse Orange Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Rise of the Stretch 5

In late April, Martin sat before local media to put a bow on his first season at the helm. Over 30 minutes, he lauded new roster additions, addressed Porter’s prospects of landing an invite to the NBA Scouting Combine and Cullen VanLeer’s then-murky future with the program after the guard tore his ACL.

An offhanded comment, though, about Tilmon’s development stood out: the big man was hoisting up a thousand 3-pointers a day.

“I don’t know if that’ll become who he is as a basketball player,” Martin said. “He’s so strong, he’s physical and he’s really improved around the rim in his workouts.”

The mental image of Tilmon launching from long range might draw guffaws, but the tidbit divulged by his coach is not only an early hint at MU’s plans for Tilmon but also his path once he leaves Columbia. The tectonic plates underlying his feet are shifting. For years, post players derived value from supplying a steady source offense.

What the modern game values, however, is less stuffing of the stat sheet and contributions that — even in an age of analytics — are harder to quantify: spacing the floor, flitting savvy passes and, yes, reliably sinking spot-up jumpers.

Lampoon these developments all you want, but the era of the stretch 5 has arrived. If Boston Celtics center Al Horford embodies of the origins of this new species, then young talents such as Lauri Markkanen and Jaren Jackson Jr. represent how quickly evolutionary changes are unfolding. Big men are migrating from the baseline to the elbow and slot on the wing, clearing out the lane and opening up vast chasms for fleet-footed ball handlers to exploit.

Biology class imparts another lesson: natural selection has winners and losers. Tuning into the NBA playoffs showcased the waning days of lumbering behemoths who become obsolete against small-ball lineups that isolated them in space. By the time the NBA draft arrived in June, the trickle-down effects were evident in what front offices coveted in prospects.

What are general managers seeking?

Above all, there’s an increased premium placed on 3-point shooting, which checks the impulse of defenses to switch and allows an offense to stretch the floor horizontally and vertically. Trotting out a big who can quickly decipher the blur of motion around them opens up more chapters of the playbook. At the same time, throwing the ball to the paint is becoming a fail-safe, a way to punish defenses who switch or to use the low post as a playmaking hub.

Discerning a quality shot is less about proximity and more reliant upon space. Need proof? Look at the type of possessions that proved most efficient for Missouri last season.

Missouri | Offensive Effiency - 2017-18

Play Type PPP Possessions Points eFG%
Play Type PPP Possessions Points eFG%
Cut 1.111 217 241 56.9
Putbacks 1.099 152 167 58.1
Transition 1.071 352 377 60
Spot Up 1.055 651 687 55.3
Pick-and-Roll - Roll Man 1.031 130 134 54.3
Hand Off 0.957 47 45 48.5
Off Screen 0.835 79 66 43.4
Isolation 0.824 91 75 38.6
Post Up 0.794 310 246 47.3
Pick-and-Roll Ball Handler 0.785 261 205 47.6
Synergy Sports

Funneling possessions through the post isn’t always good offense, and, as we’ll see soon enough, the observation even holds true for a traditional post player like Tilmon.

Tilmon was also vital in creating point-blank scoring chances for a roster who lacked an elite shot-creator on the wing and an offense that ranked 303rd nationally in isolation possessions, according to Synergy Sports data. He thrived by roaming the short corner, snatching feeds after setting a high ball-screen and rolling to the rim or — as we’ll see — getting a feed on the block as part of a secondary action during a possession.

Fortunately, Tilmon and the Tigers coaching staff spent this summer working in earnest to help him adapt.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Nurturing potential and overcoming growing pains

In July 2015, Mike Schmitz laid eyes on Tilmon at Nike’s Global Challenge and sketched out a first impression that proved durable.

Tilmon has a long way to go on the offensive end, although he did show flashes of soft hands and impressive footwork. He lacks natural feel and makes a lot of the same mistakes most 16-year-old bigs make: spinning into help defenders, bringing the ball down in traffic, crumbling versus double teams.

During the next three seasons, which included a one-year stint at LaLumiere School, Tilmon’s game remained static: rim runs, dump-offs, stickbacks and swatting shots. Recruiting analysts’ opinions fell into a chorus as the big man scaled rankings: Tilmon was an ideal piece of stone, but a chisel and a tolerance for callouses would be needed to chip away and refine his game.

Watching Tilmon’s freshman campaign unfold felt, in some ways, in some ways, like witnessing a foal learn to run. By now, his foul-prone play — racking up 7.5 of them per 40 minutes — and the long absences they produced have been extensively probed. In-game exile undercut Tilmon’s consistency, an easy-to-spot trend when reviewing possession data and color-coded zone charts.

Jeremiah Tilmon | 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 138 101 0.732 Average 50.0 50.0 29.0 10.9 38.4
Cut 58 61 1.052 Average 60.5 60.5 12.1 24.1 56.9
Putbacks 46 55 1.196 Very Good 61.5 61.5 4.3 10.9 63.0
P&R Roll Man 26 28 1.077 Very Good 68.4 68.4 15.4 15.4 57.7
Transition 15 19 1.267 Excellent 75.0 75.0 0.0 20.0 66.7
Spot Up 6 0 0 - 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Off Screen 3 0 0 - 0.0 0.0 33.3 0.0 0.0
Synergy Sports

Naturally, the bulk of Tilmon’s touches came from setting up shop on the block. The outcomes, though, were decidedly mixed. Even when you account for Tilmon’s youth, the center was far too turnover prone, coughing up the ball on 29 percent of the time — the highest number among high-major players with more than 100 post-ups.

Winnowing the pool based on comparable usage rates and ordering them based on per possession efficiency isn’t all that kind to Tilmon.

Jeremiah Tilmon | Comparable Low-Post Players

Player Team % Time Poss Points PPP FGm FGM FGA FG% %TO %FT %SF %Score
Player Team % Time Poss Points PPP FGm FGM FGA FG% %TO %FT %SF %Score
Dusan Ristic Arizona 34.10% 136 150 1.103 49 64 113 56.60% 7.40% 11.80% 8.10% 55.90%
Bruce Stevens Ole Miss 42.70% 137 139 1.015 41 46 87 52.90% 15.30% 23.40% 18.20% 53.30%
Shaquille Morris Wichita State 33.70% 141 137 0.972 58 51 109 46.80% 10.60% 19.10% 16.30% 47.50%
Kaleb Wesson Ohio State 49.30% 151 139 0.921 51 48 99 48.50% 13.90% 23.20% 16.60% 51%
Ray Spalding Louisville 31.30% 137 123 0.898 58 52 110 47.30% 9.50% 13.10% 10.90% 46.70%
Omer Yurtseven North Carolina State 32.60% 131 113 0.863 48 45 93 48.40% 15.30% 16% 12.20% 45.80%
Wendell Carter Jr Duke Blue 32% 150 113 0.753 48 40 88 45.50% 24% 20% 16% 40.70%
Jeremiah Tilmon Missouri 44.70% 138 101 0.732 43 43 86 50% 29% 10.90% 8% 38.40%
Kingsley Okoroh Cal 54.40% 130 95 0.731 54 36 90 40% 20% 14.60% 10% 35.40%
Synergy Sports

Valuing the ball wasn’t Tilmon’s only issue. Among the nine players whose profile matched Tilmon, the Missouri post rated near the bottom of the pool in shooting-foul rate. And when he did earn a trip to the line, he only shot 52.6 percent.

Tracing the underlying cause of Tilmon’s struggle is relatively quick: hard double teams.

Lots of them, actually.

To be more precise, he faced pressure from an opposing big or guard digging down from the wing on nearly a third of his post-ups, harassment that resulted in a giveaway 39 percent of the time, according to Synergy data. A staff can simulate pressure in practice, but it’s never as visceral as what a big sees during live fire. Experience is the only teacher.

Meanwhile, Tilmon was no shrinking violet. Confronted with veteran centers muscling him, he responded in kind — escalations that potentially increased the chances of the whistle going against him. Recently, a piece by The Athletic explored how Tilmon’s tried to tweak his mental approach. Within, CJ Moore aptly summed the frosh’s approach to conflict.

He will not back down from anyone, and while Martin likes that about him, sometimes he’d go too far with the mano-a-mano wrestling matches in the post. And if someone challenged him verbally, that became his focus. In one of those battles with former Texas A&M center Tyler Davis, Tilmon scored an and-one over Davis and Davis told him it was lucky.

Taken together, it’s easy to grasp what derailed Tilmon’s search for consistency. If he wasn’t parked on the bench for prolonged stretches, he was getting jostled in the lane.

Calling up this eight-minute montage, however, makes a clear case for Tilmon to stay just the way he is.

When Mizzou flows into its offense, Tilmon does yeomen’s work early in a possession. If it’s transition, he sets a drag screen. During secondary breaks, he sprints to the rim and takes up residence in the short corner. If the Tigers pull the ball out, Tilmon usually goes to work as a screener. A post-up is a tertiary option, one created for Tilmon via a rip screen set by a guard to let him dash across the lane as the ball reverses sides of the floor.

Jeremiah Tilmon | Post-Up Profile

Location Shoulder Finishing Move Possessions Points PPP
Location Shoulder Finishing Move Possessions Points PPP
Left Block Left Hook 12 12 1
Right block Left Drop Step 9 6 1.5
Right Block Right To Rim 8 12 1.5
Left Block Left To Rim 6 8 1.333
Left Block Right To Rim 6 5 0.8333
Synergy Sports

The construction of the Tigers’ offense carves out room for Tilmon to operate — often by inverting the floor and moving Porter and Puryear to the perimeter. The spacing and movement that comes before Tilmon ever snares an entry pass is an assist that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.

Seeing the mechanics and they unfold gives us a clear conception of what good paint touches look like for Tilmon.

Getting Hooked

Watch the action unfolding off the ball. Once the ball reaches Tilmon on the block, the movement of MU’s guards — Geist and Robertson bumping over as Porter goes to the strong side — balances the floor and holds Kentucky in tension.

No Wildcat is available to give help, chiefly because putting Porter on the wing tugs PJ Washington out of the paint. Hamidou Diallo should rotate over, because Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has closeout responsibilities on Robertson. Kevin Knox, who is drifting with Barnett, has size but rotating down would give Tilmon an easy pass out.

Inverting the floor gives Tilmon time and space to operate. He makes a clean catch, pivots, scans for shooters and then makes a play over his left shoulder against Nick Richards .

Rip and Go

This action is a staple in Missouri’s offense. Notice how Geist sets a down a screen on Roykas Ulvydas, an action that discombobulates UCF. Ulvydas is trying to fight through. Terrell Allen can’t stick around to help once Tilmon gets an entry pass because the flow of the play carries his man — Geist — into a down screen set by Robertson.

What defender can give help? Allen is chasing his man through a thicket of bodies. All while Robertson and Barnett are spaced to the opposite side of the floor, keeping their defenders frozen. Ulvydas takes away the middle of the floor, but Tilmon counters with a drop-step to the baseline away from the late-arriving Davis off the wing.

Do the Split

The action here is secondary to what Tilmon does with the ball in his hands.

After Tilmon pulls down an offensive rebound, he passes out and quickly reposts. Geist smartly recognizes Tilmon has deep post position as Georgia scrambles to match up and feeds him the ball. Next, Tilmon works to his favorite shoulder, but watch how he handles pressure coming his way.

Earlier in the season, he had a tendency to freeze when a big would help across the lane. On this possession, however, he uses a shoulder and ball fake to create a gap, then splits and finishes cleanly with his left hand.

The system also deployed Tilmon as a roll man in high ball screens and to camp out in the short corner. He could also use solid footspeed sprint from rim to rim down the middle of the floor, take a pass on the move and finish. Finally, as the data shows below, he could just go to the backboards and profit from second possessions.

Jeremiah Tilmon | Non Post-Up Possessions

Play Type Possessions Points PPP
Play Type Possessions Points PPP
Short Rebound 45 55 1.222
Basket Cut 39 45 1.154
Pick-and-Roll - Rolls to Basket 23 28 1.217
Flash Cut 17 14 0.824
First Middle 9 15 1.667
Synergy Sports

During preseason workouts, Martin’s impressed upon Tilmon just how imposing he can be as a low-block operator. Unless he’s hemmed in by a pair of defenders, his modus operandi is to attack the rim. Drills also replicate the thumping he can expect in close quarters, such as slamming him with mats to simulate contact.

That said, Tilmon’s mobility, footwork, and spatial awareness grant the coaching staff flexibility to move him around the floor — and help him straddle the line between the past and future of his position.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

What can Tilmon do to adapt?

Kaleb Wesson spied the future and knew what he needed to do. Sitting at home this summer, the Ohio State center, whose offense profile hews closely to Tilmon’s, watched the NBA draft, and he the frontcourt players he saw striding to the stage in bespoke suits and clapping commissioner Adam Silver in an embrace, well, didn’t bear any resemblance to him.

“I was watching the draft and I didn’t see anybody who was 6-10, 270, just a low-post scorer,” he told reporters in late July. “I thought that one aspect of my game would get me there, but I had a (wrong) way of thinking that. Watching the draft really put that in concrete for me. That part of the game’s not there anymore. You have to expand your game.”

A better example, though, might be Louisville’s Ray Spalding, whose physical dimensions and production approximate Tilmon’s. In 138 post-ups, Spalding averaged 0.898 PPP, scoring on 46.7 percent of his touches, able to score over either shoulder and exploit switches. Meanwhile, his work on the glass — 13.9 OR% and 20.9 DR% — and as a rim protector were also attractive.

Yet Spalding went off the board late in the second round (No. 56 overall), a slide whose root cause was easy to understand: an inability to reliably make jump shots.

Abandoning his inside game would be foolhardy, but Tilmon’s instincts about expanding his suite of perimeter skills are sound. While his ability to score on the block might key a breakout regular season, he could be neutralized in high-stakes tilts by teams who tilt heavily toward pace-and-space.

The ability to reverse pivot near the elbow for a mid-range jumper, flair at the top of the key on pick-and-pops and spot-up as a trailing shooter would also fit seamlessly into the offensive personality MU is trying to adopt. Handling the ball would also add more diversity to chunks of the playbook and involve Tilmon earlier in possessions.

Last week, Martin told reporters that Porter’s injury didn’t mean he’d enact wholesale changes to his system. The only tweak figures to be the personnel carrying it out, and some offshoots could involve Tilmon.

In roll-and-replace actions, Martin could use both his frontcourt stars, using Tilmon to set a ball screen at the top of the key and roll off while Puryear, Mitchell Smith or K.J. Santos cut vertically from the block. The sequence gives a guard like Geist options. He can attack the rim. He can dump the ball to Tilmon if his penetration is cut off. Or he can kick the ball back to a combo forward for a 3-ball. The multiplicity of threats keeps the defense from trapping him and yanks opposing centers and forwards off the baseline.

And if Tilmon’s handle is tight enough, MU could fold in a short roll option: hitting Tilmon quickly after he sets a screen, letting him take to two dribbles and survey the floor. He could pull up at the foul line for a jumper. Maybe he spies an open shooter and whistles a pass to the wing. Or perhaps a void opens, allowing Puryear to flash to the rim.

Tilmon’s usage as an initiator is likely to be small, but it achieves Martin’s stated objective of flooding the floor with shooters and passers, granting him flexibility in the process. Strain also gets lifted from an extremely young backcourt, too. If Porter, Tilmon, and Puryear, who figures to rebound from shooting 26 percent from behind the arc, supply jump shooting reliably, it offloads some of the demand on Santos, Torrence Watson, Mark Smith and Javon Pickett to produce early in their transitions to the high-major level.

Developing Tilmon isn’t a zero-sum game, either, where a post-up is substituted for a jumper. Diversifying his perimeter skillset creates additional opportunities for Tilmon and allows for more finely tailored game plans to exploit matchups.

Duke v St John’s Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

What would Wendell Carter do?

At least Tilmon has a player he can emulate as he tries to mold and shape his game.

In the run-up to the NBA draft, the debate over the first big man to come off the board often boiled down to Jackson, Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III and Mohammed Bamba. Along the way, it was easy to lose track of Wendell Carter Jr., who only made waves after draft night when his mother called out Mike Krzyzewski for the mortal sin of signing Bagley without conferring with her beforehand.

A stellar run during the Las Vegas Summer League helped build up buzz around the No. 7 overall selection, whose skillset and versatility are a more polished version of what Tilmon has to offer.

It’s not solely because the big men share similar physical profiles: bulky but long, which just so happens to make them ideal screeners. Neither are bouncy, but they have no trouble getting off the floor to mash down a dunk.

When you watch Carter, you see that he also prefers finishing with a hook shot. Like Tilmon, he showed a knack for using a drop step toward the baseline as a counter move. Both players have an inherent understanding of angles and timing to swat shots. And analytics reveals Tilmon’s efficiency on post-ups (0.732 PPP) is eerily similar to Carter’s (0.753 PPP) last season, including similar struggles with valuing the ball.

So why was Carter deemed a sleeper on draft boards? Review the columns below:

Wendell Carter Jr. | Non Post-Up Offense

Play Type Possessions Points PPP
Play Type Possessions Points PPP
Short Rebound 67 99 1.478
Basket Cuts 60 94 1.567
Spot-Up Jumper 28 33 1.179
Flash Cut 25 24 0.96
Trailer 17 16 0.941
Synergy Sports

Unlike Carter, Tilmon could not step out to the wing or act as a trailing shooter. Throughout last season, Carter also flashed the ability to attack closeouts and knock down two-dribble pull-up jumpers. Even on the block, he stellar footwork allowed Carter to work to back shoulder fadeaway jumpers.

Wendell Carter | Post-Up Offense

Block Shoulder Finishing Move Possessions Points PPP
Block Shoulder Finishing Move Possessions Points PPP
Left Block Right Drop Step 20 18 0.9
Left Block Right To Rim 15 17 1.133
Right Block Right Hook 13 11 0.846
Left Block Right Jumper 7 6 0.857
Right Block Right To Rim 7 6 0.857
Synergy Sports

Now, imagine you also get a post player who can not only score in a host of ways but is also an elite passer and ball-mover.

Who is the better passer? Tilmon or Carter?

Block Pass Tilmon Carter
Block Pass Tilmon Carter
Left Spot Up 1.000 1.235
Left Cutter 1.400 1.273
Right Spot Up 0.714 1.207
Right Cutter 2.500 1.111
Flash Middle Spot Up - 0
Flash Middle Cutter - 1

The fact Carter landed in the Windy City also makes him a reasonable proxy for Tilmon, given that they each play in an offense devised by Fred Hoiberg.

Last summer, assistant coach Cornell Mann visited Hoiberg, who was Mann’s boss for five seasons at Iowa State, to learn what updates and patches had been made to the system. So it’s reasonable to think that the duties assigned to Carter might be similar to what we could see out of Tilmon in his sophomore season.

Assuming intuition becomes a reality, Tilmon’s game won’t be radically different, only more refined. For example, Carter only attempted 47 3-pointers last season and just nine pull-up jumpers — or roughly 1.5 attempts per game. What mattered wasn’t shot volume, it was that he had the tool in his kit. The same logic applies to Tilmon: refining his jumper and face-up game doesn’t mean ditching post-ups.

Through that prism, Martin tossing out the tidbit that Tilmon is firing scores off 3-pointers in workouts is easy to reconcile with this comment made moments later.

“I don’t know if that’ll become who he is as a basketball player,” Martin said. “He’s so strong, he’s physical, and he’s really improved around the rim in his workouts.”

Carter’s own development shows its possible for a modern post player to straddle the line between a low-block bruiser and a stretch forward — a blueprint Tilmon and the MU staff can use moving forward.

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