On Wednesday afternoon, a three-second snippet posted by Missouri basketball set off delirium: a smiling Jontay Porter giving a knowing wink. Two minutes later, official word landed in e-mail inboxes: the combo forward was yanking his name from the NBA draft pool and sticking around Columbia for a sophomore season.
Your jubilation is warranted, too.
Missouri’s retooling job, which is one of the biggest in the SEC, gets a tad easier with Porter and fellow sophomore Jeremiah Tilmon anchoring the Tigers along the frontline.
Meanwhile, Porter’s presence allows coach Cuonzo Martin to continue charting a stylistic Middle Way as he builds the program in his image.
Since taking the job, Martin’s been clear he wants his offense to reflect the times: playing a perky tempo with players versed in multiple positions and spread out over acres of hardwood and raining down 3-pointers. It’s why Cornell Mann was hired to install Iowa State’s NBA-inspired scheme, one Martin spiced with ingredients ($) picked up from the nearby Golden State Warriors during his time at Cal.
Last season, Martin didn’t dawdle with his stylistic shift, which saw Mizzou hoist up 48 percent of its shots from long range (12th nationally, per KenPom). Porter’s enticing array of skills — a smooth 3-point stroke, intuitive decision making, savvy ball-handling and burgeoning shot creation — will only help steady that transition, even if the Tigers’ roster remains in a state of flux.
Heading into next season, Porter’s prowess in pick-and-pops will remain a nightmare for opponents, which have to respect the big man’s shooting stroke just enough that it allows MU to get creative with its off-ball actions. At the same time, it can ease the burden on guards like Jordan Geist and freshman Xavier Pinson, punishing teams who apply heavy pressure by hard hedging or trapping ball screens.
For all the promise Porter holds, though, his presence doesn’t resolve a lingering question: Who else is going to knock down shots?
Finding a resolution goes to the heart of Porter’s role, the structure of the Tigers’ offense and the demands placed on the rest of the rotation.
Even if Porter shows the growth many expect, the Tigers fortunes and, to a degree Porter’s draft stock, could hinge on the answer. So let’s take a look at the situation confronting the player and his program.
Martin’s pace-and-space conversion isn’t complete.
Missouri canned a program-record 306 treys last season, but its tempo (No. 297 nationally) never kicked into overdrive, and in a sublime surprise, the Tigers finished 34th in the country for the percentage of possessions they funneled into the post. Bombing away and playing through the block weren’t mutually exclusive, either.
Porter’s passing is what binds them together.
Out of the 74 assists he doled out last season, 62 percent of them resulted in a 3-pointer, and two-thirds of those shots fluttered off the fingertips of Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett. Tracing the supply chain for many of those shots just so happens to take you to the left block or the high post.
Over the past several seasons, observers have been quick to pen an obituary for the post-up, but what’s dying out is a style of play. Gone are the days of walking the ball over halfcourt, tossing the ball to a hulking center on the box and letting him jostle with another big.
The post itself isn’t defunct as a playmaking hub, though.
How Missouri uses post-ups — and Porter — has evolved with the times. It’s also where the Warriors’ imprint is deepest in the Tigers’ style. Under Steve Kerr, Golden State has used quick entry passes, usually to Draymond Green, as a triggering mechanism. On the wing, the Dubs’ band of snipers use split cuts to spring of their members lose. Dumping the ball inside isn’t a bid for a bucket. Instead, it’s a means to create a different angle to run a shooter off a screen.
Deploying Porter this way reaps a few advantages. The first is obvious: Porter is really close to the basket. His defender is on him tightly and can’t sag into the lane to take away passing angles to a cutter a shooter. Doing so gives Porter an easy bucket. And if Jordan Geist or Kevin Puryear curls off a screen at the top of key and dive bombs down the lane, Porter has a short pass that gives a help-side defender scant time to react.
If you’re looking for some tape, just look up the Tigers’ 77-75 loss this past January to Florida, a game where Porter dispensed four assists to Barnett, all of them coming from the post.
The action on this possession isn’t complicated.
After Barnett feeds Porter, the guard screens away to the nail for Robertson. Now, the screen isn’t aggressive, and Florida’s Chris Chiozza doesn’t have to fight his way through. Egor Koulechov, however, gets in a bind. When Porter drop-steps baseline, Koulechov is ball-watching and mulling whether to help down, allowing Barnett to drift back toward the 3-point arc. After Porter reverse pivots back toward the block, he has an easy pass.
Three minutes later, another simple action triggers a chain that ends with a wide-open catch-and-shoot for Barnett.
On this trip, Puryear flashes to the elbow, pulling his defender out of the paint and isolating Porter with a favorable post-up against Chiozza. With Florida’s three bigs clustered on the perimeter, guard Jalen Hudson cheats off Barnett to provide quick help if Porter tries to score over the top. So when Porter catches the high-low feed from Porter, his decision to whip a pass to Barnett is instantaneous.
Watch enough clips, and you’ll see that Porter doesn’t hold the ball long, a trait reflective of a player who diagnoses plays on the fly or can anticipate from which direction the defense will send help.
Case in point: this pass Porter delivered to Barnett against Vanderbilt.
But you see this trait manifest itself more often when Porter is working out of the high post or the middle of the zone, like this kickout to Robertson against North Florida.
And woe unto those opponents who thought using a zone would be a prudent course of action. Mizzou would just stick Porter at the nail, flank him with shooters and have Tilmon prowling the baseline or short corner, allowing him to scan for a botched slide.
When we imagine a player cracking a defense’s shell, we conjure the image of a guard knifing into a gap stressing help-side rotations. Well, Porter’s post touches achieve the same effect, but with different means but putting the defense in a state of tension. If a weakside defender gives help, Missouri’s floor spacing creates a long distance to cover if they have to close out on a shooter.
Put simply, when you have a big whose passing capitalizes on momentary creases and creates sprinting closeouts, it’s a boon for dead-eye shooters like Robertson and Barnett.
Will the players on the receiving end of Porter’s passes next year capitalize on them?
It’s not a trivial question. Among SEC programs, only Arkansas, Kentucky and Vanderbilt return less outside shooting than Mizzou, which saw players who sank 64 percent of its 3-pointers last season exit the program.
While the Tigers set a program record for 3-pointers made during a season, the nature of that production was binary. If Robertson or Barnett bombed away from long range, Missouri posted a gaudy 1.25 points per possession. When anyone else squeezed the trigger, though, the number tumbled to 0.99 PPP — roughly equal to No. 304 nationally, according to Synergy.
The data isn’t alarming, but it is sobering.
And it raises the stakes for newcomers K.J. Santos and Torrence Watson, who are already facing a steep learning curve as they arrive in an SEC loaded with deep and proven backcourts at Auburn, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Florida, Alabama, and LSU.
On paper, Santos offers the best prospects for immediate help, if only because he has a season of Division I experience in hand. During his freshman season at Illinois-Chicago, the 6’7 wing averaged 1.11 PPP on possessions ending with a 3-pointer and posted a 55.4 eFG%, putting him in the same ZIP code as Barnett.
How quickly that stroke translates is another matter. Santos, who averaged 7.1 points in 24 minutes a game at a Horizon League program, is in the midst of what will be a 21-month layoff from live action after he transferred from UIC and sat out last season at Tallahassee Community College. For now, Mizzou has 99 possessions to use as a talisman.
Meanwhile, Watson, the No. 109 prospect in Rivals’ database, arrives as a bonafide bucket-getter out of Whitfield Academy in St. Louis. Armed with deep-shooting range, he averaged 32 points per game last season — clearing the 50-point barrier three times — as the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year.
Impressive as Watson’s tools, and his potential to grow into an All-SEC caliber wing, asking him to shoulder a significant role as a shooter and scoring threat as a freshman might be premature. Just look at how last year’s crop of freshman guards fared in their first season at the high-major level.
Early returns? Not always for freshman guards
|Nick Weatherspoon||Mississippi State||11.1||29.9||35|
|TJ Starks||Texas A&M||9.5||32.4||148|
|Savion Flagg||Texas A&M||4.1||31.7||37|
|David Beatty||South Carolina||3||18||149|
If, a year from now, Watson is coming off a campaign where he averaged 10.5 points and shot 35 percent from deep, chances are he’ll have found a home on the conference’s All-Freshman team.
Over the next few months, optimism will be a natural, steady state. Keeping a player of Porter’s caliber in the fold is always be a net positive, and a remade physique and an improved ability to finish on the block will help blunt some lost production elsewhere on the roster.
Quality reliable outside shooting, and the spacing it produces, is a boon for a player with Porter’s skillset. If the Tigers’ shooting dips next season, assuming they deploy a similar style of offense, that will allow defenses to send more bodies in Porter’s direction.
In the face of hard double teams, Porter was turnover-prone, coughing the ball up on 22.2 percent of his possessions. On the perimeter, Porter’s airspace might get a tad more crowded if defenders aren’t worried about a wing flaring for a catch-and-shoot. For example, Porter sank just 31.6 percent of contested pick-and-pop 3-pointers this season.
For all the talent Porter possesses, ringing the arc with reliable spot-up shooters creates a gravitational pulls defenders to the perimeter and carves out room for Porter to operate.
That can be on the low block when he gets a cross-lane screen and cuts to the opposite block. Or it can be near the elbow when Mizzou runs a variant of a Horns set that allows him to feed Jeremiah Tilmon. Or if he catches a pass on a short roll and can put up a floater
Putting defenses in a bind requires forcing a decision between a lesser of two evils. Without sustainable jump shooting, it’s harder for Porter to pose that question.