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Torrence Watson is sloughing off a slow start for Mizzou

The Whitfield star’s shooting stroke is coming on line during the Tigers’ homestand, and it can help unlock other facets of the freshman’s game.

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

If you pause a clip from Missouri’s victory against Texas-Arlington, you can see Torrence Watson at the apex of his jump, a hand obscuring his vision and as the ball just leaving his fingertips.

It’s the picturesque pose of a proper mechanics, the kind of shot that helped the freshman average 31.2 points at the Whitfield School and enticed high-major coaches. And as the offseason unfolded, the thought of Watson, the nation’s No. 113 prospect, rising and firing was the easiest answer to a vexing question: Who would replace the spot-up shooting provided by Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett?

Never mind that Bart Torvik’s preseason projections pegged Watson to post 5.8 points per game. Or that looking back at recent similarly rated SEC freshman indicated that averaging 10 points a night would be a boon. When you’ve eclipsed the 50-point barrier three times as a high school senior, setting the bar for expectations at an appropriate height can be a challenge.

While the transition from a Class 3A high school to a high-major is steep, it was still sobering to see Watson only amass 22 points through his first seven collegiate outings, including a scoreless two minutes against UCF. It’s why witnessing Watson bury a 3-pointer off the right wing over the top of Pedro Castro’s closeout elicited a twinge of familiarity — and some sighs of relief.

“I always talk to him, but it’s not necessarily (saying), ‘Keep your confidence,’” Martin said of Watson after the Tigers’ 65-45 victory. “The tough part about it with the landscape and the one-and-dones (to the NBA) and the mentality, it’s like a guy can’t be a freshman and go through struggles. I know I went through them. I have sympathy from the standpoint that I went through it, but I don’t have sympathy because … it’s part of the growth.”

To that end, Martin used outings against UTA and Oral Roberts as Petri dishes, culturing lineups with heavier concentrations of youth. In both games, Watson got the bulk of minutes at wing, while Xavier Pinson spent longer stretches piloting the Tigers at lead guard. Meanwhile, Jordan Geist, Mark Smith and Javon Pickett swapped in an out at combo guard.

While all three freshman guards have played well, Watson’s presence on the floor has boosted MU’s offensive efficiency (1.18 PPP) without sacrificing stingy defense (0.96 PPP) that’s a staple of Martin’s teams. According to HoopLens lineup data, Watson’s 0.219 PPP differential — the margin between offensive and defensive efficiency — over the past four games is slightly higher than figures posted by Pickett (0.212) and well ahead of Pinson (0.098).

Torrence Watson | Finding a Groove

Category Offense - On Offense - Off Defense - On Defense - Off
Category Offense - On Offense - Off Defense - On Defense - Off
Possessions 111 145 104 152
PPP 1.18 1.07 0.96 0.99
eFG% 61.9 50.4 50 51.7
TOV% 18.9 19.3 17.3 23.7
ORB% 29.8 38.4 22.4 32.4
FT/FGA 0.452 0.244 0.125 0.368
2FG% 50 42.1 53.6 52.8
2FG% 50 40.7 30 33.3
FT% 71.1 57.6 33.3 67.4
3FGA 47.6 43.7 0.417 0.385
Hoop Lens

Seeing Watson’s shooting stroke warm up was the most welcome development, coinciding with a five-game stretch where the Tigers are shooting 46.5 percent from behind the 3-point arc. If Watson has settled in, it makes those gains more durable as the season move forward.

The lag — if you want to call it that — not only stemmed from the fact Watson serves in a reserve role but by the very construction of Missouri’s offense.

On most possessions, Watson sprints to a corner, spaces the floor and bides his time. Against UTA, for example, Watson was only screened for twice — staggers along the baseline — in the 29 possessions that I reviewed on tape. He only received one ball screen, one where UTA hard-hedged and quickly forced the rock out of his hands.

Unlike his days at Whitfield, Watson is dependent on the actions of others. Of his 38 field-goal attempts, roughly 76 percent are jumpers, and 20 of those shots came spot-ups, according to data amassed by Synergy Sports. Over nine games, only three of his shots were jumpers created off the bounce — all of them misses — and is attempting less than one shot per game at the rim. If Watson’s catch-and-shoot jumpers aren’t going down, his utility — at least until the past two games — evaporated.

Torrence Watson | Methods of Attack

Play Type Poss Points PPP FG% eFG%
Play Type Poss Points PPP FG% eFG%
Spot-Up Jumper 20 18 0.9 30 45
Spot-Up - Drive Left - To Rim 4 5 1.25 66.7 66.7
Off-Screen - Left 4 6 1.5 50 75
Spot-Up - Drive Right - To Rim 3 1 0.333 0 0
Transition - Right Wing 3 6 2 66.7 100

Bear in mind, too, that Watson shot 33 percent from 3-point range at Whitfield. His shot is a thing of beauty, but finding a way to boost its productivity was always going to be atop the to-do list once he set foot in Columbia. We’re seeing some of those natural growing pains play out early.

For example, early in the second half against UTA, MU caught the Mavs scrambling to match up after a turnover. Ayoub Nouhi picks up Mitchell Smith, but Patrick Mwamba turns his back to Watson. Smith makes a simple touch pass to Watson on the left wing for a quality spot-up look.

Five minutes later, Watson gets another crack at an open 3 — and from practically the identical spot on the floor. Of the inbound, Geist resets the offense at the top of the key, getting a pass from Tilmon, who chases it into a high ball screen. Radshad Davis commits the sin of stunting in too far in a bid to ward off middle penetration, creating an obvious kickout opportunity for Geist. Unfortunately, Watson can’t get the shot to drop.

Then are shots like the one Watson drilled over the top of Castro.

The set isn’t particularly fancy. Pinson decides to swing the ball after he’s halted during a high pick-and-roll. Castro isn’t compromised, playing one pass away and clearly seeing the ball and Watson. It doesn’t matter. Watson gets a clean catch and his release — the byproduct of a shot pocket starting around his chest — is quick enough to get a shot off in confined quarters.

Finding consistency from the outside lays the foundation for the next step in Watson’s evolution: attacking closeouts.

Just one possession after burying a 3-pointer, Watson exploits defenders trying to recover and contest jumpers. One the first attack, Brian Warren manages to head off the freshman near the elbow, but Mark Smith keeps the defense on tilt by slashing into a gap after Watson pitches the ball out to the right slot.

Forced to stay put and provide help, Warren can’t pop out with Watson to the wing. In effect, Smith’s dribble penetration forces a switch, with Tiandre Jackson-Young rushing to close down space on Watson. Watch how the freshman throws a quick pump fake to get Jackson-Young airborne, too. Warren can’t help down without abandoning Mark Smith, leaving Watson an open path to the rim, where he drew a foul.

Early in the second half, Watson got another rim attack out of a spot-up — only this time off a ball reversal that started by playing through Tilmon in the post.

This trip goes awry from the start for UTA. On the weak side of the floor, Warren and David Azore mix up assignments, which to Pickett being uncovered in the left slot. While Tilmon does receive hard double-team, he whips a pass to Pickett — and puts the Mavs on tilt. Watch how Davis bails out to cover Pickett, forcing Mwamba to rotate over and pick up Geist — and leaves Watson all by his lonesome. Once the ball swings, Andres Ibarguen, an undersized forward, rushes out to pick up Watson. The blow-by is easy, and Tilmon helps wall off Azore from contesting the layup at the rim.

Assuming Watson’s jumper becomes a lethal tool, he can catch ball reversals and decide whether to loft up a jumper or catch, rip and drive to the rim. If you read The Athletic’s profile of Watson ($) and watched film of him from high school, you know his game is tinged with a measure of savvy. Here’s how Whitfield coach Mike Potsou described his former star:

“He’s really good at reading screens, which is not something that a lot of high school kids are really good at doing,” Potsou says. “So I think getting him in some off-ball action would benefit him because I think it’s going to free him up and allow him to play in space. He’s very good in a ball-screen type of offense, at least at the high school level. He was getting blitzed or doubled every time he came off a screen, but he’d find a way to beat that blitz defender over the top, would accept the trap and then throw out of it or snake it and get to the rim or shoot a pull up or kick it out for an open 3.”

There’s also reason to think Watson could keep his run of good play humming along. Xavier looms, but the Musketeers — retooling under Travis Steele — have struggled to run opponents off the 3-point line, allowing 38.5-percent shooting from deep. Worse, they rank 300th nationally in giving up those shots.