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In appreciation of Jordan Geist

Jordan Geist wasn’t expected to be Mizzou’s No. 1 point guard this season, but he’s stepped up for a team that needs him.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Texas A&M C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports

For about two months now, I’ve been trying to figure out how I wanted to write this piece.

I started it on January 4, one day after Jordan Geist played 29 minutes and chipped in 10 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds during a road win against South Carolina. It was his return to the starting lineup after a long stretch of time where Cuonzo would start Blake Harris, but only give him reserve minutes. In my intro, I argued that while Geist had been useful, I still thought Harris was the best starting option moving forward.

The next day, Harris rendered my words moot by announcing his transfer from Mizzou. He’s now committed to play at North Carolina State starting next season.

Since then, every time I’ve tried to restart this piece, things have gone upside down. That weekend, Geist soft-tossed a pass that Chris Chiozza stole and took for a game-winning layup, ending Mizzou’s shot at a Tier 1 win. Public sentiment didn’t call for this piece. Then later in the month, Geist looked flustered in a road loss to Arkansas and turned in a 5-foul, 3-turnover performance against Auburn. Around that time, I decided I’d sit on my hands for a couple of weeks and see how things developed.

Since that time, it can seem like Geist hasn’t changed much. He displays a mean streak, most notably showing itself in the Kentucky win. But he’s also shown that he’s still vulnerable when facing pressure.

But I wanted to set aside some time in appreciation of a player I didn’t think would be playing this big a role before the season. It’s a role he’s earned mostly through tenacity and somewhat by necessity.

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

First, a little context. I’ve been tough on Geist in the past, but I’m not the only one. Since his arrival in Columbia, there’s been an noted consensus that Geist isn’t really a lot of people’s favorite player.

Here’s Sam from last year’s postseason player analysis (sorry for dragging you into this, Sam):

I make no bones about Geist not being my favorite player. I’m not, and have never been, a fan of the ‘stir the pot’ guy. I’ve played with them and against them, and it’s just something I don’t enjoy as a part of basketball.

Here’s Bill from the same post (you too, Bill):

That he finished the season playing the most minutes at shooting guard is pretty disturbing, but as much as anything else, it was because others weren’t stepping up... Still, he’s best if used as Phillips’ backup next year.

And here’s me from this year’s assessment of the ninth rotation spot (in which I advocated regular playing time for CJ Roberts - a shining moment for yours truly):

The issue is he doesn’t have the high level of skill to beat the rest of the group.

He’s not much of a scorer and his size and athleticism neutralizes much of a rebounding threat. And while he’s got some good vision, he can also be pretty reckless with the ball. To top it all off, his aggression can sometimes spill into his interactions with other players.

But it’s not all negative-to-ambivalent. Some of us at Rock M have always been big Geist fans.

It may seem, on the surface, like we’re not all members of the #GeistHive. I, for one, have been particularly harsh toward the junior guard here and on Twitter. Like Sam previously noted, it’s partially because of the way he plays agitator at times.

But I also think it has something to do with the time when Geist arrived at Mizzou. We’d suffered through 2 years of Kim Anderson ball, and by that point I was doing Olympic-level mental gymnastics trying to advocate for his tenure. I remember some fans said a player like Geist would never be at Mizzou if not for the low standard of play. I don’t know if that’s fair, but I couldn’t necessarily fault anyone for feeling that way.

None of that, of course, is Geist’s fault. Out of high school, he saw that his best shot at playing Power 5 ball was the junior college route. He parlayed that into a JUCO All-American season and a scholarship at an SEC school. Good for him. I just think it was unfortunate timing that saw Geist come to Mizzou when he did, therefore taking on some of the unpleasantness of the current era. His grittier style of play, in a time when Mizzou was starved for skill, probably didn’t help either.

Enter Cuonzo Martin. All offseason, we heard whispers and rumors that the staff had fallen in love with Geist. I guess in a way that made some sense: he’s a big guard and a hard-nosed one, at that. That seemed right up Martin’s alley. But still... Jordan Geist? A Top 5 recruiting class with two point guards made the prospect of giving meaningful minutes to a backup point guard from the year before a questionable move.

As previously noted, Geist hasn’t changed a lot over the course of this season. A lot of his advanced statistics either haven’t changed from last year or their improvement can reasonably be chalked up to increased playing time. For example, Geist’s assist and total rebounding rates are up slightly (18.4% to 22.9% and 7.1% to 9.4%, respectively). The assist rate is encouraging, but still a little low in the context of his turnover rate, which is also up from 14.4% to 20.7%, again likely due to his increased minutes.

But really, those changes don’t exactly mirror each other, especially when you consider that his minutes haven’t really gone up that much. He played about 55% of available minutes in Kim Anderson’s last year. And under this new staff that apparently loves what he brings to the table: just a touch over 58%. A 143% jump in TO% doesn’t exactly sit well when he’s bringing the same contributions in all other areas: his points, rebounds, and assists per game are all up less than 1 each.

That’s not to say Geist hasn’t improved in other areas. His effective Field Goal rate is up to 57.% from 42.3% and he’s shooting about 39% from 3-point range on the season. His True Shooting percentage is also up to 60.7% from a ghastly 49.6% last year. His offensive rebounding rate is up as well, so he’s definitely proved himself as more efficient and useful on the offensive end of the court.

Still though, the season-long numbers still don’t paint the picture of a wholly different player. In addition to minor changes in rebounding and assist rates, his steal rate is within a percentage point of last year’s total. We also haven’t seen much of an improvement in his free throw to field goal rate to go along with a drop in his free throw percentage (75% to 70%). If you look at the totality of this year, there doesn’t seem to be much of an argument that Geist has been a neutral influence on the court - maybe slightly positive if anything.

However - as you may have guessed already - the conference numbers tell a different story, one of a player who has answered the call for a team looking for any semblance of stability at its weakest position.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Mississippi vs Missouri Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, we’re all aware of how Terrence Phillips’ situation affected the depth on this team. A team with 4 point guards on the roster to start the season was down to 2 after the two transfers, and suddenly Mizzou was without one of its figureheads from the Kim Anderson area. And with the current situation of the investigation as it is - not even to mention the way Phillips has handled himself in that time - there looks to be little chance Geist has help on the way. Martin has adjusted by giving Kassius Robertson more time with the ball, but there’s no mistaking what’s clear: with 3 of the team’s 4 point guards not returning, Geist is the guy.

Geist was thrust into the starter’s role one game into the SEC slate and, barring unseen circumstances, will remain as the only pure PG until year’s end. And in all honesty, Phillips wasn’t contributing much before his departure anyway.

So what do the conference numbers tell us about Geist’s performance over the past month?

First, it’s notable how much Geist has played since the SEC slate began. While he’s played about 58% of available minutes this year, that’s up to about 73% in 11 SEC games. Of course, Martin started the year running Robertson as the main point guard with Harris, Geist and Phillips coming off the bench. And after that plan was scrapped, Harris got the starting call with Geist getting primary backup duty. After Harris failed to assert himself in the role, Geist’s minutes started to go up, he won the starter’s role at South Carolina and Harris was gone days later. It’s been a steady transition to “Jordan Geist: Starting PG,” but one Geist has clearly earned on the court when Mizzou was forging itself for conference play.

But his time as the effective starting point guard - he’s currently coming off the bench and playing starter’s minutes - hasn’t been by default. His rebounding and steal rates are lower than his season rates, but they’re still both improved on last year’s conference numbers. And while his eFG% and TS% are both down from his season totals, he’s actually chipping in about 3 more points per game.

Most importantly though, his assist rate is higher and his turnover rate lower than his season totals. Where there’s about a 2% difference in the season totals, it rises to an 8% difference in conference. He’s been especially good in this latest 3-game win streak, only turning the ball over 3 times. All of those came in the home win against Kentucky, meaning Geist has had 0 turnovers in the past two road wins. That’s huge for a guy who coughed up the ball 6 times at home against Stephen F. Austin less than 2 months ago. And it’s gargantuan for a team whose lack of ball security has doomed them several times this season.

Geist hasn’t been too shabby as a scorer either, despite some of his percentages coming back to earth. Geist’s 3-point shooting is back around 31% and his free throw shooting is actually down to 66% in conference. However, he’s shooting fewer 3’s (he’s 3-3) and more free throws during the winning streak. Two of the notable changes in that time have been the emergence of God-level Kassius and a more consistent Jontay Porter. It could be that with the uptick in offense from those two, Geist is settling into his role as a distributor first and scorer-as-needed. By that measure, more consistency from Jordan Barnett and Jeremiah Tilmon would do wonders for this development, creating an even more efficient version of Geist than we’ve been seeing.

As for defense, Matt covered it in his latest game recap.

Coming into the evening, the juniors [Geist and VanLeer] were allowing a 37-percent eFG% and 0.80 points per shot over the past four games. While we’ll have to wait and see what the final Synergy numbers look like for the Ole Miss game, what I saw of the pair live and in color looked sound. And that’s a boon given the current state of the roster... Mizzou is maxing out what it can get from the Fort Wayne native.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Texas A&M C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports

So here we are, staring down the home stretch of a season where Mizzou was supposed to rise once again to national prominence. In a way it has, albeit without Michael Porter Jr., 40% of the rest of a Top 5 class and a program figurehead undergoing a Title IX investigation. Still, Mizzou is sitting comfortably on the right side of the tournament bubble with the potential to lock up a spot in the coming weeks. A big part of the reason why has been the emergence of a new and improved Jordan Geist, who especially showed himself when the going got toughest.

I guess that shouldn’t be too surprising for a player who built his reputation on being a grinder, a guy who won’t go away despite what you may think of him or his talents. And while that type of player may not be who we always want, Jordan Geist has been more than we could have asked for this year. For that, he should be saluted and celebrated.