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Binding Agent: Kevin Puryear’s play holds Mizzou together

The senior’s timely spot-up shooting and improved perimeter defense don’t always leap out of the box score, but those quiet contributions have helped the Tigers exceed early expectations.

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

Holding the Braggin’ Rights trophy aloft, Kevin Puryear’s face rested in contentment.

Once inside the locker room, though, he mugged with Mizzou’s hard-fought hardware, secured in a 79-63 victory over Illinois that also ended a five-game skid to the Illini, and beamed as the Tigers showered coach Cuonzo Martin in bottled water.

Peruse the box score, and you’ll see Puryear only tallied eight points and collected just three rebounds, but the raw statistical accounting doesn’t always credit all of a player’s labors. Yes, there were his two spot-up 3-pointers — shots lofted up over textbook closeouts. Or the cross-court skip pass to Javon Pickett, whose own triple during Missouri’s emphatic 21-4 closing run that stretched almost five minutes.

Instead, look at Illinois’ side of the ledger next Kipper Nichols’ name: seven points on 3 of 11 shooting, including 0 of 6 from behind the arc. That’s also the handiwork of the Blue Springs’ native. Five days earlier, he subtly assembled a similar performance in MU’s victory over Xavier, limiting Naji Marshall to five points and 2 of 10 shooting from the floor.

In late October, we mused whether Puryear could fill the chasm created by Jontay Porter’s knee injury. Instead, Puryear passed on a contorting act to fill another’s role. And as Missouri winds down non-conference play, ushering it out Saturday against Morehead State, he’s tweaked the chemistry of his game to produce a stronger epoxy to seal gaps and fill cracks as they emerge.

It’s yeomen’s labor, but if done right, maybe there might be more sweet moments in store like the one that unfolded inside the Enterprise Center.

Low usage, high-impact

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

The preseason narrative surrounding Puryear’s role is easy to recite: demand for offensive productivity from the Blue Springs’ native boomed after Porter went down. Instead, the season’s first 11 games have only reinforced what we knew about the senior’s ceiling on that end of the floor.

His best games — a pair of outings against Kennesaw State and Oregon State — came against defenses that allowed Puryear to operate near the elbow, spot-up for catch-and-shoot 3-pointers or slip into a crowd for a tip-in. Watch Puryear against the Beavers, and you’ll see him at ease cycling through the middle of a zone, shuttling from the nail to a low block to a corner — hunting for voids to catch, turn and flick his wrist.

By and large, Puryear still sets up shop in the same spots and gets many of the same looks he did during his first season in Martin’s system.

What has changed, however, is Puryear’s ability to stretch defenses. So far, he’s connected on 40.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers taken during half-court possessions, per Synergy Sports data — a far cry from the 23.7-percent clip he posted as a junior. Ironically, post-up possessions — and the 0.588 PPP that comes with them — have been the drag on Puryear’s overall efficiency. Purging paint touches from Puryear’s data puts his efficiency (1.109 PPP) in the same neighborhood as SEC stars Daniel Gafford or Admiral Schofield.

Put another way, the combo forward is still MU’s fifth option, sporting a usage rate of 19.1 percent, but one maximizing every shot that leaves his hand. It’s best to think of his contributions a pair of Carhartt Duck Bib overalls. They are far from haute couture, but they’ll keep you alive you cold spells and who knows what handy item — a corner 3 late in the shot clock, perhaps? — might fall out of a pocket.

Stealthy and Stingy Stopper

Evaluate the credibility of this statement: Kevin Puryear’s among the SEC’s best defenders at the combo forward spot. Seriously, take a minute and think about how you would have reacted if it had been put forward during the preseason.

I’ll admit that I would have been dismissive of the idea.

At the time, it made a certain amount of sense. As a junior, only Jeff Roberson ranked worse than Puryear in defensive efficiency among high-usage big men in the SEC. The root of Puryear’s stemmed from guarding on the perimeter, where struggled to recover and contest jumpers taken out of pick-and-pops and hem in stretch forwards capable of putting the ball on the floor. Worse, those woes were part of a larger three-year decline in metrics that track performance on that end of the floor.

The returns, albeit early, reflect a senior surge for Puryear.

Late Bloomer

Play Type 2016 PPP 2017 PPP 2018 PPP 2019 PPP Caree Poss Career PPP
Play Type 2016 PPP 2017 PPP 2018 PPP 2019 PPP Caree Poss Career PPP
Spot Up 0.63 0.961 1.108 0.692 254 0.862
Post-Up 1.034 0.761 0.9 0.5 148 0.878
Isolation 0.941 0.333 1.3 1.286 74 0.946
P&R Roll Man 0.667 1 1.3 1.222 51 1.019
P&R Ball Handler 1.714 0.778 0.4 0 35 0.686
Off Screen 1 0.857 0.2 0 33 0.575
Hand Off 0.5 0.75 0 2.5 16 0.375
Synergy Sports

Drill down into Synergy’s data set, and you can see the improvement has taken place in the least likely of places — snuffing out shooters.

Shots Selected | Kevin Puryear

Shot Attmpt Poss/Gm PPP Rank FGM FGA FG% eFG%
Shot Attmpt Poss/Gm PPP Rank FGM FGA FG% eFG%
Jump Shots 4.9 0.741 77% 1.4 4.9 27.8 37.0
Runner 0.4 0.500 - 0.1 0.4 25.0 25.0
Around Basket 0.7 1.250 - 0.4 0.7 50.0 50.0
Post-Ups 0.8 0.667 - 0.3 0.8 33.3 33.3
Synergy Sports

At this juncture last season, Puryear’s presence on the floor could be construed as a liability. Now, Mizzou cedes a skimpy 0.91 PPP in lineups featuring him, while his individual rating (0.727 PPP) puts him in the same company as Schofield and Grant Williams. Considering that Jeremiah Tilmon’s been equally stellar — when he stays on the floor — you could argue Mizzou currently has one of the SEC’s best defensive duos patrolling the frontcourt.

You could also see Puryear at the height of his newfound powers during Mizzou’s past two outings.

Against Xavier, he picked up Naji Marshall, a matchup that, in all honesty, should have tilted toward the Musketeers. The 6-foot-7, 220-pound sophomore thrives at creating driving angles, and he has the length and body control to finish amid a tangle of bodies cluttering the lane. Coming into the game, though, he’d only sank 18.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts. Targeting Puryear in any number of pick-and-roll actions or running Marshall off screens would have been a logical move.

Instead, Steele played Marshall off the ball, usually spacing him to the slot on the weak side of the floor. How many times did Marshall take part in a screening action? Twice. The first was a pick-and-pop in the game’s opening minutes, and it’s worth reviewing.

Jordan Geist easily slips over the top of Marshall’s screen, limiting the amount of time Puryear hems in Quentin Goodin. It also shortens the distance Puryear has to make up while closing out on Marshall. At the same time, Pickett’s able to stunt out to the arc and prevent Xavier’s best slasher from knifing into a gap.

Often, Marshall was a bystander on a wing and watched Quentin Gooden operate in high pick-and-rolls, which were snuffed out after Missouri tweaked its ball-screen coverage.

You can see the tweak clearly on this Xavier possession. Rather than hang back to intercept a dribbler after they’ve turned the corner, Tilmon hard hedges, blocking Goodin’s line of sight and preventing a pocket pass to a rolling Zach Hankins. Instead, the Muskies settle for a more traditional post-up — one where Mizzou can give ample help.

Puryear cheats in a bit more than usual, putting two feet in the lane while the ball is on the strong side of the floor. But he can take that risk and shade his help over because the scouting report wouldn’t tout Marshall as a threat worth keeping close tabs on. Once Hankins kicks the ball to the corner, Puryear has time on his side, because Marshall’s shot load is a beat slow.

All too often, Marshall’s touches were borderline isolation plays, settings where an impotent jumper made it easy for Puryear to sag off.

This trip ended with Marshall forcing an ill-fated floater after Puryear cut off a drive and a drop step.

And if Puryear needed help, Missouri’s rotations and shell were sturdy enough to supply it, such as Mark Smith stunting in from the corner to force Marshall into an off-balance mid-range attempt.

When the time came to reciprocate, Puryear’s assistance was equally timely, which included pilfering Paul Scruggs’ pocket.

Earlier in the first half, Puryear bolted from the free-throw line to help apply a baseline trap on Tyrique Jones. And after Jones shoveled the ball to Ryan Welage in the right corner, Puryear and Xavier Pinson hustled to box in the San Jose State transfer, who had little choice but to burn a timeout.

By now, we understand there’s no slick marketing material for Missouri’s defense. The Tigers rely on foundational man-to-man principles carried out with consistency by a quintet that understands its nightly scouting report. For all the tweaks at the margins, the Tigers system is an expression of its culture — an ethos reflected in Puryear’s last go-round in Braggin’ Rights.

To slow down Brad Underwood’s spread motion, Missouri focused on the offense’s power source: the pinch post. Fundamentally, Illinois’ offense is a pattern-based system that hinges on two-man reads between a big man stationed at the weak-side elbow and guards playing off him. If you can disrupt the timing of those reads, you grind the Illini to a halt.

So that’s what Missouri opted to do.

Watch the first possession. Tilmon starts out fronting Giorgi Bezhanishvili, then sags off on a ball reversal to prevent an entry pass to a curling Kipper Nichols, and finally, he recovers to provide help once Trent Frazier takes a handoff. The Illini are forced to run a late-clock action for Nichols, who trots from the left wing for a contested 3-pointer.

As the game unfolded, Illinois moved away from that base alignment to create movement.

First, the Illini used staggered screens at the top of the arc, with a guard flaring off to the weak side and a post player rolling down the lane. If neither of those options is available and Frazier couldn’t get to the rim, there were counters built in. Later they began using Bezhanishvili in handoffs out front in an action where a guard would sprint in from the wing, take the ball and have three options: launch a 3-pointer, drive down the middle of the lane or find the freshman diving toward the rim.

Ultimately, though, the Illini’s options dwindled, and they settled on running high pick-and-rolls for Frazier — a conventional look that was old hat for the Tigers.

Where does Puryear factor in?

The Illini’s shifting tactics eventually rendered Kipper Nichols, who was being tracked by Puryear, into a spot-up threat. For example, on the Illini’s fourth possession of the night, Puryear and Tilmon teamed up to trap the 6-foot-6 guard after he tried to use the pinch post to pick off Puryear.

Six minutes later, Bezhanishvill’s positioning at the elbow was barely an impediment Puryear, who ducked under the screen to cut off Nichols’ drive and force a contested pull-up.

As the first half wound down, the Illini’s reliance on Frazier to create with the ball in his hands converted Nichols into a floor spacer.

Instead of chasing Nichols around screens, Puryear could position himself to play one pass away, give help in the lane and still get back out to cover Nichols’ on spot-ups. It happened twice in 10 seconds. The first time, Frazier’s cut off in the middle of the lane and pitches the ball back to Aaron Jordan, who attempts a drive off his own — one warded off Puryear helping over. When Jordan finds Nichols, Puryear isn’t rushed to close out.

Jordan comes up with the miss, dribbles out and feeds Nichols for another crack from long distance. That attempt also kicks off the heel of the rim.

And so it went for Nichols. The only buckets Puryear conceded were a pull-up jumper on a broken play, one the combo forward created by poking away a pocket pass to a roll man, and a contested floater early in the second half.

Will Puryear’s glue hold up?

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

Wondering whether Puryear can sustain his play isn’t a slight.

Over the past two seasons, Puryear’s performance dips as the Tigers’ embark on the nine-week siege that is SEC play. Last season, Missouri posted 1.13 PPP with Puryear on the floor during non-conference play. It slipped to 1.04 PPP during conference play. There was a similar dip — 1.06 PPP allowed from 1.02 PPP allowed — on the other end, too.

Twelve months ago, Cuonzo Martin had a ready-made solution: He eased Jontay Porter into starter’s minutes, a transition that not only made Mizzou’s offense more menacing but actually improved its defensive metrics. This season, however, there’s no convenient swap to be had.

On the cusp of conference play, there’s also a window can pry open. The SEC looks slightly weaker than a season ago, even if it’s currently projected to land six NCAA tournament bids. The middle of the standings may be fluid — LSU, Alabama and Vanderbilt all look like teams that will fight to stay on the bubble — and grant the Tigers room to push up the standings.

And if the past six games are any indication, the Tigers are gelling faster than expected. A trio of freshmen are grasping their respect roles. Mark Smith has filled the need for a 3-and-D option on the wing. Jordan Geist continues to spurn low-expectations. And Jeremiah Tilmon is close to averaging a double-double, posting 14.1 points and 8.5 points, since the Tigers returned from the Paradise Jam.

Now, we’ll see whether the mortar mixed by Puryear is resistant to the weathering effects of conference play.