On Tuesday, we kicked off the college basketball offseason with a first look at the 2018 Missouri basketball recruiting class... well, partially.
Cuonzo Martin is bringing six new faces into the Missouri program this summer: three freshmen and three transfers. In fact, most of the time since Missouri’s season closed against Florida State was spent scouring the transfer market for potential additions. In the end, Martin brought on Dru and Mark Smith to sit a year before joining Missouri in 2019. They joined K.J. Santos, one of the first members of the 2018 class.
So we’ve looked at what we can expect from the freshmen. Now let’s go to the transfers. Each of the below players represents a blend of intriguing potential which Josh and Tashan will rate on a scale of Layup-Swish-Dunk.
K.J. Santos (University of Illinois-Chicago)
Josh Matejka: K.J. Santos is perhaps the most intriguing member of Missouri’s entire recruiting class because he presents such a high-ceiling, low-floor scenario. Go ahead and take a look at his highlight video and it won’t take you long to see why he’s such an exciting add.
Where to start? Santos is a big, versatile forward who appears to have gotten bigger based on his Twitter account. On top of his size, Santos appears to be an explosive, fluid athlete. He regularly bounces over taller players for put back dunks and is able to use his length to make tough shots at the rim fall. He’s not lightning fast, but he has a good first step and seems to have the requisite body control to move smoothly in the lane, finding holes where there don’t appear to be any.
In addition to his pure athleticism, Santos appears to have a well-rounded offensive game. He’ll never be a ball handler first, but he has enough skill to beat guys off the dribble. He has the vision to get his teammates involved off double teams and screens. And to top if all off, he has a smooth jumper that, with precision, could become deadly; he shot 36 percent from three-point range in his freshman year at UIC. This combination of skills led him to a variety of high major offers during high school.
So what’s the catch? Why the “low floor” to go with the “high ceiling”? Well for starters, look at where he ended up. UIC was a bad mid-major team when Santos committed, and below .500 while he was there. He started 30 games during his freshman season, but only averaged a 7.1 points per game to go along with 4.2 rebounds and 1.2 assists. Sure, freshman will struggle in their first year of Division I ball no matter where they go. But wouldn’t such a talented recruit excel - or at least stand out - in the Horizon League?
Then there’s the question of injuries and rust. The Kansas City Star’s Alex Schiffer wrote a story on Santos the other day, detailing several foot injuries and a torn thumb ligament that kept him off the court for a long time in high school. After transferring from UIC, Santos aimed to spend a year at a junior college before he suddenly chose to take another year off. How is a player supposed to hit the ground running when he hasn’t played competitive basketball in a year and spent almost half of the past five years on the sidelines?
The TL;DR summary: We don’t know what Missouri is getting from K.J. Santos. His combination of athleticism and skill is enticing, but it doesn’t come without concerns and red flags. The fact Martin’s staff grabbed him early suggests they plan on making him a big piece of what they’re doing over the next few years. In this case, fans will have to trust that Santos’ hype will turn into results.
Tashan Reed: At 6’8, 210 pounds, K.J. Santos fits exactly what Cuonzo Martin’s been looking for: long and athletic with all the prerequisite physical tools to be an excellent perimeter defender. His height should also allow him to switch and even defend in the post. He struggled from the field in his lone year at the University of Illinois-Chicago but shot 36 percent from deep, showing promising 3-and-D potential.
Santos redshirted after transferring to Tallahassee Community College, so he hasn’t played in a collegiate basketball game since 2017. While he’s assuredly been working on his game, that raises a bit of concern about whether he can immediately produce. I’d like to see how quickly he’s able to transition to high-major ball given his layoff.
I expect Santos to be a versatile combo-forward that sees time at multiple positions off the bench for the Tigers. With Dru and Mark Smith out due to transfer rules and Cullen VanLeer potentially missing time as he recovers from a torn ACL, Santos should find himself with plenty of opportunities.
Verdict: Santos is a swish. He helps Missouri continue its progression toward positionless basketball while providing another veteran who can help guide the younger guys. He should be an excellent fit and make an immediate impact... assuming he can stay on the floor and his rust.
Mark Smith (University of Illinois)
Josh Matejka: Mark Smith’s commitment to Missouri came at a weird time in the offseason. Fans were still caught up in the drama of the Courtney Ramey situation, a recruit to whom Smith was always seen as a backup option. The prospect of having a Top 50 point guard on the roster immediately is more appealing than having to wait a year, but that didn’t stop Martin and company from scooping up the one-time Illinois Mr. Basketball winner.
So what do Missouri fans have to look forward to for the next year? Try watching any of Cuonzo Martin’s teams, and you’ll get an idea. Smith is a hard-nosed guard that plays through contact at the rim and has the ability to be a tenacious defender when he sets his mind to it. He struggled shooting the ball in his one year at Illinois, but his shot isn’t a major problem outside of a few tweaks and some more reps. But most of his scoring will come from attacking the hoop and getting to the free throw line where he shot 80 percent during his freshman season. And while he’s not a prototypical point guard, he does have the vision to find open teammates when he’s drawing attention on the drive.
So what’s the downside? He didn’t produce much during his first year at Illinois, but he did start 19 games and had several outstanding performances. Smith battled through an injury during his time in Champaign and reportedly struggled with Underwood’s coaching style and his ultimate fit within the program. All of these could raise concerns about his will to fight through tough circumstances, and Cuonzo Martin isn’t exactly known as a “take it easy on my guys” leader. Smith will have to earn his keep in Columbia.
But to be honest, I’m not all that worried about Smith’s mental makeup. Martin’s players say he doesn’t sugarcoat how things will be on his team, and the two sides wouldn’t have agreed to this marriage if they didn’t think Smith could handle it. And to top it all off, Smith was a freshman playing 20 minutes a game at a Power 5 school. Outside of one-and-done level players, most freshman are going to see their ups and downs. Instead, I look at his flashes of brilliance as a sign of what’s to come. It’ll be a while before he steps on the Mizzou Arena floor, but Mark Smith is a player who should be expected to be a major contributor as soon as he’s available.
Tashan Reed: I believe the success that Mark Smith had early in the season with Illinois better reflects who he is than his struggles toward the end. He cracked double digits six times in his first 14 games, including 17 and 11-point outings against UNLV and Missouri, respectively. Ironically, his game against the Tigers was his last time scoring in double digits for the rest of the season. From there, Smith mostly served in a reserve role and didn’t seem too comfortable. He has shown an ability to score, which the Tigers could certainly use.
Smith didn’t do much distributing in his time at Illinois, and he struggled taking care of the ball as well. Despite his size at 6’3, 215 pounds, he didn’t defend very well or get many rebounds, either. He also picked up a ton of fouls, which limited his time on the court along with his lack of minutes. Smith also struggled with efficiency, shooting just 33 percent from the field and 23 percent from three. To be fair, Smith was a freshman and has time to figure things out. However, he has plenty to work on before he’s ready for a consistent roll.
I think that Smith will be a bit of a project for Cuonzo Martin. His primary concerns should be becoming a much better defender and rebounder while allowing the offensive end to come more naturally. I expect it’ll take him a couple years to learn before he becomes truly effective.
As we all know, Missouri needs guards, but I think Smith may end up being forced to take on a larger role before he’s ready for it. He has a lot of work to do, but if anyone can figure it out, it’s Martin.
Verdict: We’re a bit divided here, so we’re cautiously going to settle on a swish. Smith clearly has the ability to be a big contributor when he hits the floor, but he has to turn those skills into production. If he does, look out.
Dru Smith (University of Evansville)
Josh Matejka: The second smith Cuonzo Martin brought in this offseason is pretty much everything the Tigers could have used last year and this coming year. He’s an offensively potent lead guard who can score at all three levels and create off of dribble penetration. His aggressiveness on the offensive end is helped by the fact that he’s a smooth athlete who always seems to have a plan. For all of Jordan Geist’s good qualities, improvising was never one of them and it showed last year.
Smith is also a daring passer with good vision, which led to good and bad results at Evansville. He was had a Top 20 assist rate in the country (37.5 percent), but he also carried a 26 percent turnover rate, which would have qualified for the worst among Missouri’s guards last year (outside of Blake Harris and Terrence Phillips). He doesn’t seem to have an inconsistent handle, and his instincts are good. But if you watch his tape, he makes an awful lot of dangerous passes that are likely to be intercepted by faster, longer defenders.
Defensively, Smith also fits with what Martin wants and is a ball hawk. His steal rate (4 percent) was in the country’s top 20 last year and he posted a 93.4 defensive rating on the year. Even better, it went down to 91 in conference play. He gives some of this back by averaging almost four fouls a game, but Martin will help him clean up his defense.
But perhaps Smith’s best attribute is his shooting. Smith was an excellent shooter from just about everywhere last year, posting 48.3 three point, 62.4 two point, and 86.2 free throw percentages - that all rounds out to 65.6 effective FG percetage and [double-checks notes] 70.5 true shooting! That’s damn good, folks, and those numbers would have made him the best shooter on Missouri’s team.
If Torrence Watson is the sure thing in the freshmen class, Dru Smith is that among the transfers. He fills a position of need whenever he becomes available and provides Martin with an offensive and defensive threat. If he can clean up his fouls and learn to pick and choose his passes, he’ll be a treat to watch for two years.
Tashan Reed: Dru Smith is the prototypical all-around point guard: able to handle the ball; run an offense; finish inside; hit perimeter jumpers; defend both guard spots; etc. He’ll provide the Tigers with a very high basketball IQ. Smith posted an incredibly efficient line last year at Evansville: 13.7 points, 4.6 assists, and 3.5 rebounds per game on 57.8 percent shooting from the floor and 48.2 percent from three. If he were eligible for this season, he just might have been Mizzou’s starting point guard.
Smith turned the ball over quite a bit last season at 3.2 turnovers per game in 22 appearances. To put that in perspective, Smith turned it over 13 more times in 11 fewer games than Jordan Geist, who had several nightmarish performances. As Missouri fans became painfully aware, turnovers can absolutely kill a team. A lesser concern is his tendency to pick up fouls. He committed 60 fouls compared to 62 for Geist. Thankfully, Smith will have plenty of time to get better at protecting the rock and staying on the floor.
Regardless of who Mizzou acquires between now and the 2019-2020 season, Smith will hold a steady spot in the rotation. His skill, poise, and experience will make him a useful tool for Cuonzo Martin to use at his disposal. He’s a reliable player with about as few weaknesses as you can ask for.
Verdict: It’s hard to rate Smith as a dunk since he won’t be available this year... but what the hell does it matter? Dunk it is.