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Rounding up Missouri’s 2018 basketball class: The Freshmen

Missouri’s 2018 recruiting class seems to be all wrapped up. What should we expect from the incoming freshmen?

Class is out, the graduates are gone, and the 2017-2018 school year is over. To mark the occasion, we’re officially waving goodbye to the exhilarating, maddening ‘17-’18 basketball season and setting our sights on November.

Sam started our offseason coverage yesterday with a look at Missouri’s roster and what it signals about the future of the program under Cuonzo Martin. There will be a lot to get to this summer, including what we can expect from returning contributors and (fingers crossed) an early jump on next year’s recruiting class. But before we get to all that, we still need to take a comprehensive look at the new faces coming this fall.

With the late April commitment of Courtney Ramey to Texas, Missouri’s last commit jumped off the board, and it appears (outside a late cycle surprise) Missouri’s 2018 class is signed and sealed, ready to be delivered to Columbia.

So what should we expect from the fresh faces of Tiger tomorrow? Josh and Tashan are taking a closer look, starting with the freshmen today and the transfers later this week, and rating each recruit on a three-tiered scale: Layup-Swish-Dunk. You can probably guess which one is best.

Torrence Watson

Josh Matejka: Cuonzo Martin’s biggest win of the 2018 recruiting cycle was flipping Torrence Watson from Ohio State to Missouri, bringing in a guy who could be a star down the road. Watson was a volume scorer at Whitfield, leading the metro area with 31.9 points per game, and he does it at all three levels. He’s got a nice, quick shot with range; he can pull up and hit a mid-range jumper; and, most notably, he’s a tenacious slasher who gets the rim with ease, finishing through contact and getting to the line. He’s a big guard at 6’5” with room to add muscle, which Nicodemus Christopher will surely make a priority this summer.

Watson will almost certainly be an immediate contributor at Missouri, mostly because he has to be. Missouri is losing 56 percent of its points this offseason (assuming Jontay Porter stays in the draft) and three of its top four three point shooters. Watson’s call will be to score, score, score, a call that could put him in the starting lineup to begin the year. He wasn’t always the most efficient scorer in high school, but the presence of other options should allow him to pick better shots and not force too much.

The biggest question surrounding Watson’s freshman season - other than his efficiency - will be how he can defend. I don’t doubt Watson’s buy-in, and he’ll undoubtedly be giving his all right away. But there’s a difference between turning the switch on against high school players who are all smaller and less skilled than you and Division I guards. This isn’t to say he’ll be a disaster defensively, but it’s a much less certain thing than his offensive credentials.

Overall, Missouri fans should be stoked to watch Torrence Watson play over the next few years. He was an early commit and feels like a familiar entity at this point, but that shouldn’t take away from the excitement. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him entering the pantheon of great Missouri scorers by the time his senior season rolls around. He’ll have an opportunity to start that foundation right away as a go-to scorer on a team that will depend on his quick adjustment to college ball.

Tashan Reed: There isn’t much that I don’t like about Torrence Watson. His explosiveness, ball handling, versatility, and jumper are all reasons why he’s oozing with potential. He averaged nearly 32 points at Whitfield, erupting for three 50-point and 40-point performances, respectively. Being from St. Louis, he should mesh with Cuonzo Martin’s method, values, and mentality instantly. And his potential doesn’t stop on the court: Watson could help solidify the recruiting pipeline from St. Louis to Columbia.

Watson has been knocked for playing at a Class 3 high school. I really don’t think it’s that big of a deal, but there’s a chance that his numbers were connected to him being significantly better than his competition. There’s no real way of knowing until Watson actually plays at Mizzou.

I fully expect Watson to be a starter by the end of the year. Cullen VanLeer’s injury should be a factor, but even with him healthy, I could see Watson taking over. His scoring ability and talent should allow him to immediately produce. He’ll have growing pains just like any other freshman, but I think he’ll overcome them.

Verdict: Simple: This is a Dunk. Watson has the most potential out of anyone in this recruiting class. He’s a ready-made scorer who also has the tools to be a great defender under Cuonzo Martin. But his most compelling attribute in 2018 may be his ability to jump in right away and be an impact player. The mixture of upside and the possibility of day-one contribution makes this an easy one.

Xavier Pinson

Josh Matejka: Cuonzo Martin dipped into the prestigious Simeon Career Academy in Chicago to grab his freshman point guard commit. Pinson recruitment felt like a whirlwind from initial interest to commitment, but it seems to be a match made in heaven. He was a rising 3-star and with Missouri needing point guard depth, Martin grabbed the up-and-comer with the promise of early playing time. It’s still probably not likely he’ll supplant Geist in the starting lineup, but Pinson’s opportunities for early minutes have certainly seen an shift with the commitment of Courtney Ramey to Texas.

So what should we expect from Pinson right away? It’s kind of hard to tell at this point. He’s small and wiry, which shouldn’t suggest the makings of a highly productive SEC point guard. But he has a few inches on LSU standout freshman Tremont Waters, and is working to add some weight before fall workouts. Pinson’s shot isn’t great right now, so he’ll need to make his living at the rim and at the line. If Pinson can mimic Waters focus on getting to the bucket and getting fouled, Pinson may be able to add some light scoring punch to a team that will need it. His full court vision will need some time to develop at the college level, but he has a knack for finding teammates around him and creating things in small spaces. It would be nice to see him learn to drive and kick to open shooters on a consistent basis. However, quick dump offs to the waiting arms of Jeremiah Tilmon and Reed Nikko will be just fine in the meantime.

Defensively, Martin has the building blocks to turn Pinson into a great stopper. Pinson has more bounce than explosion, but he’s deceptively quick and has good reach. Active hands on his part will turn a lot of errant passes into easy buckets on the other end, and Pinson will need to quickly develop his defense if he wants a good shot at taking the lead guard role. The tools are there; it’s just a matter of when they’ll be ready.

Realistically, Pinson won’t be a major contributor until his sophomore and junior seasons. As Martin said countless times last season, point guard is the hardest position to adjust to in college basketball, and there are few exceptions outside elite talents like Waters or Collin Sexton. Pinson will fill a role this season and could earn more responsibility if he adjusts defensively and plays to his strengths on offense. He has a unique opportunity to grab hold of the future starting position while Dru and Mark Smith are sidelined for the year, and he’d be well-served doing whatever he can to take hold of that opportunity. If he can, Cuonzo Martin may have found a sleeper point guard who can help usher in a bright new era for Missouri basketball.

Tashan Reed: Without a question, Mizzou’s biggest weakness during the 2017-18 season was ball control. Xavier Pinston can be loose with the rock at times, but he may already be one of the Tigers’ best ball handlers and pure passers. He’s the only true point guard on the roster and plays with a pass-first mindset.

As for concerns, it has to be his weight, right? Pinson has excellent height at 6’3, but he weighs just 170 pounds. He’s going to have to get bigger and stronger in order to thrive in SEC-play. His jumper and ability to score in general are additional weaknesses that have to be addressed.

I expect Pinson to have a bit of an up-and-down year. With him lacking a consistent jumper, he’ll find defenses leaving him open on the perimeter. His size will prevent him from finding much success with attacking the trees in the paint. Despite this, I can see him putting on a few passing clinics and showing flashes of what lies ahead in the future.

Verdict: Pinson is a swish based on his potential. Once he fills out his body and polishes his game, there’s no reason that he can’t be an excellent point guard at the collegiate level. He’ll have plenty of opportunities to grow given Missouri’s weakness at the guard spot, and a combination of hard work and good coaching should help him put it all together brilliantly.

Javon Pickett

Josh Matejka: Pickett was something of a surprise signing for Cuonzo Martin to open the 2018 class for several reasons. First, he was yet another Illinois commit who decided to cross state lines and come play for the new Missouri coach. Second, he was originally a 2017 recruit who opted to take a prep year and reclassify back to 2018. And finally, without putting too fine a point on it, there were questions about his future as a Power 5 player. Pickett was a prolific scorer at Belleville East, but lacked the explosiveness of a high level guard recruit. Still, as Sam pointed out when he first committed...

He’s got a knack for offense, and reliable scoring and the ability to make open shots are never easy to turn away. Plus, he’s also been proven to be an avid rebounder for a guard, and he has a body that can withstand some added weight.

As we saw last season, you can never have too many guards, especially guards that can score the ball a little bit. And scoring is certainly Pickett’s modus operandi, especially around the rim. He’s got nice touch in the paint and has good sense for playing around the rim. Unfortunately his size and athleticism won’t allow him to go that route until he gets stronger and adjusts to the college game.

However, I’m still pretty optimistic about the Pickett signing. I don’t believe Martin (or any good coach for that matter) is in the habit of banking scholarships on players they don’t believe can contribute. And Pickett does have potential: his natural scoring ability and tenacity to the hoop is something that’s hard to teach and will pair nicely with Martin’s defensive touch. If Pickett can get stronger and a little quicker, he could definitely end up being a starter by the time his tenure in Columbia wraps up. I could even see a future where he’s a double digit scorer on a good team in ‘20-’21 or ‘21-’22. He’ll never be the guy, but I don’t doubt he could turn into a really nice role player down the line. He’ll just need some time to get there.

Finally, I think there’s one final element to Pickett’s recruitment that was mentioned a lot at first, but is now going unsaid on some level: he was brought on as an added recruiter for the St. Louis area. Specifically, Pickett played in the same city as 2019 priority E.J. Liddell and likely has his ear on some level. Whether or not it will help in bringing him to Columbia is yet to be seen. But hopefully Pickett can chart his own course in Columbia, one that will be remembered separate of any unseen recruiting boost he may or may not add.

Tashan Reed: Javon Pickett gets buckets. He averaged 25 points per game in his senior year at Belleville East and is seen as a three-level scorer. He initially committed to Illinois before reclassifying and heading to Sunrise Christian Academy prep. Like K.J. Santos, he didn’t appear in any games (he was injured early on.)

The biggest concern has to be defense. Pickett has the size, at 6’3, to defend other wings, but he hasn’t displayed much explosiveness. And while he can do a bit of everything offensively, Pickett has to become a better shooter and passer in order to be effective at the Power 5 level.

I expect Pickett to be a bit of a spark-plug for the Tigers. I don’t expect him to play a ton of minutes, given his lack of ball-handling ability, but I can see him maximizing whatever time he gets. He provides Missouri with depth but doesn’t fill an immediate need with his skill set. He’ll fall behind Cullen VanLeer, Torrence Watson and Santos at the wing spot. He’s young, though, and should could find his role increase down the road.

Verdict: Javon Pickett is a textbook layup. He was a star in high school who clearly has the skills that could make him useful at the next level. He’ll need to work hard to really maximize his impact down the road, but Division I coaches don’t take guys for no reason. With a lot of work in the weight room and on the practice floor, Pickett could see his star rise in Columbia.