We’ve been unpacking the 2017-2018 Missouri basketball season player-by-player over the past few weeks, and while we’ve exhausted the end-of-season roster, there are still a few players to note.
Point guards Blake Harris and C.J. Roberts were certainly the least heralded recruits in Missouri’s Top 5 class last season, but both were solid 4-stars that boosted the program’s profile and offered their own promising skill sets.
Unfortunately, fans will have to watch them from afar. C.J. Roberts lasted a matter of weeks before opting to leave Missouri for Texas Tech. It wasn’t seen as a major surprise to a lot of people, especially after he took a lot of time to recommit to Missouri in the first place. On top of that, Roberts was handed a developmental redshirt, an odd thing to do to a 4-star recruit. He likely started hearing of more promising situations, and it’s hard to fault him for jumping on one.
Blake Harris is a little bit of a different story. The Chapel Hill product got a lot of starts at the point, flashing promising athletic and play-making potential. But he also brought a lot of bad decision-making and was particularly turnover prone, enough so to where Cuonzo didn’t think it worth it to stick with him for long stretches of time. Harris ended up going back to his home state to play for Kevin Keatts in Raleigh, the team that originally lost out on his services. Again, it’s hard to fault Harris, especially as a recruit who came with the expectation of playing with Michael Porter Jr. It would have been great to see him stick it out, but obviously Harris thought other pastures were greener.
So what does the Rock M staff think of the two transfers? Did either of them make any sort of impression before shipping out of Columbia?
C.J. Roberts (Transferred to Texas Tech)
Josh Matejka: It’s hard to be too upset about Roberts’ departure because we never really got a chance to see who he was. Cuonzo’s decision to redshirt him at the beginning of the year felt like the writing on the wall, so I think most people were already resigned to his being a non-factor at Missouri. I’ll closely watch him with the Red Raiders because I still think there’s a really good Division I player there.
Tashan Reed: I really can’t blame C.J. Roberts for deciding to transfer. For starters, he was recruited by Kim Anderson, not Cuonzo Martin. I’m sure that when he signed, he expected to at least play in his first season at Missouri. Having to take a redshirt year and sitting behind the likes of Terrence Phillips, Jordan Geist and fellow freshman Blake Harris was probably tough for the former four-star guard. With commitments from transfers Mark Smith and Dru Smith, Roberts’ situation probably wouldn’t have gotten much better in 2018 even with the eventual departure of Harris and Phillips.
Chris Bohkay: If I recall, C.J. Roberts got two free throws against Kansas in the exhibition game, and then we never saw him again. The last recruit of the Kim Anderson era was gone and we never got to know him. The fact that Chris Beard gave him a scholarship tells me that CJ’s got skills, and perhaps the time he spends in his mandated transfer year solely in practice in Lubbock will help him to the be the player that Cuonzo did not think he was ready to be as a freshman. It would, however, have been interesting to see what could have been with Harris departure, Phillips’ dismissal and Porter’s injury. What kind of run he would have gotten, and how that would have affected Mizzou’s season and does he develop in that time to have a successful end of his freshman season.
Sam Snelling: C.J. Roberts went from the crown jewel of the Kim Anderson recruiting efforts to an afterthought in the wake of the Michael Porter Jr. craze, stuck in a shotgun marriage with Cuonzo Martin. So it’s no surprise it didn’t work out. Roberts is an electric player but not at all the kind of off-the-ball guard Martin usually prefers to recruit. It was basically a setup where Martin needed players, and Roberts needed a landing spot after Anderson’s firing, so they both stuck it out until it appeared clear it wasn’t the right fit.
There’s no blame for Roberts failing to make an impact. He didn’t have great options last spring and liked the school. It’ll be very easy to cheer for C.J. as he takes on a tall task in playing for Chris Beard and the revived Texas Tech Red Raiders.
Matt Harris: After C.J. Roberts transferred, I spoke to a couple people who framed the exit as one rooted in different expectations. The combo guard expected Missouri to push the pace and utilize secondary breaks as a large chunk of its offense. Well, you watched the games. The lag in schematic transition played a role, but there was also the feeling in the player’s camp that the reasons for his redshirt — and the development process tied to sitting a year — weren’t clearly explicated.
I don’t think this is a case of Roberts being obstinate. Nor do I think Cuonzo Martin and the staff deliberately masked their intentions. Last fall, Martin didn’t sound like a coach thrilled with his options at lead guard. Stumping for Kassius Robertson’s transition to a combo guard role was the first rumbling of instability at that position. The staff also loved Geist’s moxie. In that context, Roberts was third on the depth chart for a team whose tempo was among the slowest at the high-major level. So it made sense that he’d exit before the end of the first semester as a mid-season transfer.
Blake Harris (Transferred to North Carolina State)
Josh Matejka: This one stung for me because (A) I was a big Harris fan (B) I still thought Harris represented the best path forward for Missouri at point guard. Sure, he was a raw talent. But his athleticism, vision, and playmaking ability were all things the Tigers lacked at the point position, and Harris provided all three in spades. I understand he might not have been ready, and Cuonzo isn’t about handing out minutes to players who don’t deserve them. But Harris decision to bow out mid-season seemed short-sighted to me, especially given the situation Missouri is currently in at his position.
Tashan Reed: I feel that Harris’ transfer was far less justified. While his playing time was sporadic, he was playing. Martin was fairly tolerable of his uncontrolled, fast-paced style and poor decision making.
In his performances against Long Beach State and Illinois, Harris showed the promise to potentially become the full-time starter for Mizzou. Playing only 11 minutes against South Carolina and coming up scoreless, though, was the last straw for Harris. It was his closest game to home and although his team got the win, he seemed to want a bigger role in it. His decision to leave came off as a very emotional one that wasn’t well-thought-out or planned. Will things really be different for him with an NC State that has much more strength and depth at the guard position? I don’t think so.
Chris Bohkay: When Blake Harris was named the starter for the Kansas exhibition I think many Mizzou fans were surprised, assuming that Terrence Phillips would remain the lead guard for this team, even expecting him to lead the SEC in assists with the amount of talent that suddenly surrounded him. But he wasn’t, and Blake Harris was the guy, which is what made his departure so surprising. On a team with zero point guards, Blake Harris didn’t even want the job, seemingly because he could not get the job done in practice to the point where Cuonzo was comfortable leaving him on the floor. When Mizzou looked dead flat against Illinois coming out of the second half, Blake Harris (before getting T’ed up) was the guy that was dragging this team back into contention. And I imagine, had he stuck out the season he would have carved out more minutes for himself to the point where going into 2018-2019 he would have been, “the guy.” But it was not to be, and just based on one quote from the marvelous SI piece on Cuonzo, where he had to rein in Blake, it was clear that the two weren’t gelling.
Sam Snelling: Another shotgun wedding, Harris wanted to play with Michael Porter Jr. and never got the chance. Harris was a talented player, but you could see his struggles with consistency, as expected with a freshmen. Somewhere there was a communication disconnect between the head coach and the player on what the expectations for Harris and his season were. Perhaps it was the prospect of playing far away from home and not getting to play with your friend, or perhaps it was just a personality mismatch. Whatever it was, it wasn’t going to work out.
In a lot of ways the Porters came in and overwhelmed the first class, even steering the players signed. Of the whole group, the only one who appeared to be really suited for the head coach was Jeremiah Tilmon. So good luck Blake. I think the uptempo style under Kevin Keatts will fit him much better.
Matt Harris: First, a caveat: I’m not in Mizzou’s practices. I don’t sit in the back of film sessions. And I don’t digest the scouting reports handed to players. What we see on the floor is the culmination of all those things, and a staff has to weigh those variables as it doles out minutes and roles.
That being said: I think Harris’ development could have been handled better.
The conventional wisdom holds that poor defense draws Martin’s wrath. Digging into Harris’ defensive profile, though, reveals the freshman was stellar guarding pick-and-rolls (0.6 PPP/37.5 eFG%) and in spot-up situations (0.471 PPP/26.7 eFG%) for the Tigers, according to Synergy Sports data. While the sample size is small, his 4.5 steal percentage hinted at an ability to generate transition offense. Lastly, Harris’ 4.2 fouls per 40 minutes is a bit on the high side for a freshman, but it’s not grotesque.
So it would seem that Martin had a lead guard with length, athleticism and the potential to be a solid defender.
But I think you know where I’m going next, too.
Harris’ decision-making could be scattershot at times. With the ball in Harris’ hands, MU faced binary outcomes: a savvy dish or a brutal turnover. Among the nation’s top 25 point guard prospects in the 2017 class, Harris’ 48.0 assist rate trailed only Oklahoma’s Trae Young. His turnover rate, though? Try 29.8. Given the small sample size of possessions — Harris only saw 13.4 percent of minutes, per KenPom, it’s not unreasonable to assume the assist rate would have tapered off a little bit.
So I understand Martin’s consternation. He had a point guard who showed a preternatural ability to play in transition and the raw tools to be a plus-defender. Turnovers are frustrating. They’re deflating. But part of seasoning a player is letting them play through mistakes and living with growing pains. With Martin, the hook was used rather quickly.
Shortly after Harris transferred, I was told that Harris became disenchanted with the process. Supposedly Martin told him heading into SEC play that MU was going to show a little more patience. Yet he was pulled quickly in a road win at South Carolina — one where dozens of friends and family were in the stands — and effectively benched for the night. Throw in the fact that his ties were stronger with the Porters, both of whom looked to be on track to leave after a season, and you can see why Harris decided to end the shotgun marriage.
What unfolded isn’t unusual, but I’d still classify it as a missed opportunity for Mizzou to stabilize a position where instability has reigned.
Catch up on the rest of our postseason player analysis pieces: