When K.J. Santos trotted to the scorer’s table five minutes into a clash against Morehead State, it was a substitution made out of necessity.
At the other end of the floor, Jeremiah Tilmon had just picked up his second foul, whistled for extending his arm after using a spin dribble to escape a hard double team near the right block. While the Tigers’ big man hunched forward on the bench and wiped sweat from his brow, MU’s future became the present.
Over his 22 months on the job, coach Cuonzo Martin made his stylistic intentions clear. He envisioned using multiple ball-handlers. He wanted to spread shooters across acres of hardwood. And Martin sought big men who could step out to the perimeter at one and crash the class on the other.
Often, a shift toward “positionless” basketball was discussed as a state of being Mizzou is still striving to achieve. Using that lens isn’t wrong, either. One glimpse at MU’s recruiting board reveals as much. Out of 29 players targeted in the Class of 2019, a dozen play on the wing, while another 10 are multidimensional combo forwards.
Yet as Sam Snelling noted this past May, the construction of Missouri’s roster already equipped Martin to make a transition. No, the roster composition isn’t archetypal, but the Tigers had the personnel to play with four guards on the floor. They could also mimic the NBA’s use of a small-ball five, bumping Kevin Puryear or K.J. Santos down to the post.
The only constraints would be the shackles Martin put on his own flexibility.
In the run-up to the season, figuring out how MU could play small was mostly an exercise in hypotheticals. With Tilmon and Jontay Porter at its disposal, Mizzou’s big men had the strength to play on the block, the mobility to thrive in pick-and-rolls and the vision to be elite passers out of the post. Playing small, to be frank, would be insanity.
Events, as they often do, changed the calculus.
First, Porter crumpled to the floor during a closed scrimmage in late October, the sophomore lost for the season to a knee injury. At the same time, Santos was hobbled by a foot injury that kept him in a walking boot as the season began. Finally, Tilmon is still struggling to ditch his foul-prone ways.
And so as non-conference play wound down, Martin sent Santos onto the floor to pair up with Puryear in about the only in-game setting that serves as a Petri dish for lineup experimentation: blowing out an overmatched foe from the Ohio Valley Conference.
Over the next four games, small-ball rotations received half of MU’s available minutes and in a Baskin-Robbin-inspired 31 flavors. For the first time, we could see the destination Martin is trying to reach – even if some members of the rosters are only serving as test pilots.
Is it worth going small?
Necessity is the mother of all invention, but for Martin it also spurred adaptation.
Once Santos received a clean bill of health, the coaching staff had a new tactic if Tilmon picked up quick fouls. They could insert Santos at forward, shuffle Puryear to the paint and keep steady hands like Mark Smith or Jordan Geist on the floor.
They also had another option: When opponents trotted out smaller or leaner combo forward, Martin could counter with four guards, spread the floor around Tilmon and perk up the tempo to attack within the first 10 seconds of possession — all without sacrificing rim protection and rebounding.
So how did the tinkering pan out? Let’s take a look at the three lineups that received the heaviest usage.
Shrinking for Success?
|Per 40 Score
|Per 40 Score
Tweaking lineups involve trade-offs, and you can vividly see the bargain struck by Mizzou.
Puryear and Santos didn’t kickstart the offense, which posted a minus-26 scoring margin against Morehead State, Tennessee, South Carolina and Alabama. Coupling a pair of low-usage forwards with an average combined efficiency (0.86 PPP, per Synergy Sports) wasn’t a catalyst. And, as we’ll see later on, it made MU vulnerable defensively when opponents prowled for favorable switches.
Playing four guards, though, wasn’t an abject failure. Admittedly, the sample size was minuscule, but the Tigers’ offensive production certainly perked up. You can see why Martin might be tempted into playing a floor-spacing wing over a bigger body.
When you drill down and take core samples from specific lineups, these broad observations hold up.
The guard quartet’s offensive potency might elicit comparisons to the Tigers’ roster six years ago when a (barely) seven-deep rotation tore off 30 wins in Frank Haith’s first season. Yet that team contained enough residual DNA of coach Mike Anderson’s program to offset pedestrian guarding — the 2012 group ranked 223rd nationally in effective-field-goal percentage defense — by creating turnovers and bleeding opponents of possessions.
Martin’s ethos is entirely different, preferring the Tigers to sit down, rotate on a string, switch cleanly and mob the glass. The result is a relatively young lineup with only one top-flight wing defender in Mark Smith and a big with a reputation for ticky-tacky fouls.
Reviewing shot charts for opponents when those three lineups are on the floor only drives home the point. In four games, the Tigers’ small-ball combinations allowed 52.1 percent shooting, including 72 percent (18 of 25) in the lane, which just so happened to be where opponents attempted half their shots. The fact that Morehead State, Tennessee, Carolina and Bama shot a combined 2 of 9 behind the arc spared MU from cringe-worthy metrics.
So should we take this as a sign that Mizzou isn’t quite ready to fully adopt the pace-and-lifestyle Martin aspires to lead? Are the 40 minutes that unfolded in College Station over the weekend the best case for keeping with the status quo?
But not quite.
Four-guard lineups still hold potential
When you first call up the play, the action looks ragged.
After securing a rebound on the baseline, Mark Smith fires an outlet pass ahead to Jordan Geist, who immediately punches the gas and pushes the ball to the middle of the floor. Ahead of him, Alabama guard Kira Lewis Jr. scrambles to get off his rear at Tilmon’s feet, while John Petty is just landing after hurtling over his fallen teammate. All the while, nobody notices Smith trotting down the court.
What looks like chaos, though, is actually perfect execution. It’s also a chief argument for Mizzou to carve out minutes for playing four wings at once.
Watch the play unfold for yourself, too.
What do you see?
First, keep an eye on Tilmon. Instead of sprinting rim to rim, he veers toward the top of the arc, sets a drag screen and picks off Lewis with his hip. Once Geist turns the corner, he should have several options. First, he could knife toward the rim. Second, he can lay off a pass — assuming Galen Smith steps up — to a rolling Tilmon. Or if Riley Norris pinches in, there’s an easy pass out to Torrence Watson for a catch-and-shoot 3-ball from the right wing.
Instead, Geist picks the fourth option: pulling up and pitching the ball back to Smith, who hasn’t been picked up after crossing half court.
That play unfolded over five minutes against the Crimson Tide, one where the Tigers outscored Bama 14-11 and demonstrated the potential and peril of a four-guard grouping. In 15 minutes spread out over four games, the group averaged nearly 1.4 PPP — or roughly 90 points per game if you account for MU’s adjusted tempo — the kind of production that would naturally ebb with higher usage but still offers tantalizing potential.
What makes it so alluring?
Let’s start with Tilmon’s mobility and comfort playing in space.
Last week, Sam and I discussed on Dive Cuts that one way to curb Tilmon’s foul trouble is to move him around. Instead of hand-fighting on the block, MU could flash him to the mid-post, or they could start him at the elbow or nail — as they do when Mizzou uses Horns sets. The point is that Tilmon’s footwork and hands make him a natural fit to play away from the rim, even if his jumper is a work in progress.
You can see that potential manifested when the Tigers deploy him as the only big on the court. The initial alignment is pretty routine, too. A pair of guard is stationed in each corner, while another trots to a slot. Meanwhile, Tilmon roams around the restricted area. The triggering mechanism is a high pick-and-roll, where Tilmon sets a flat ball screen.
Now, Missouri’s wrinkles come after Tilmon and Geist probe the defense in their two-man game. On this possession, Tilmon screens twice, but the Tide don’t bite, so Geist slides the ball to Watson in the left slot. The freshman’s drive isn’t elegant or powerful. Instead, he meanders his way toward the rim. Function, however, trumps form. Watson still coaxes Bama’s backline to rotate, which is where you another reason Tilmon is vital.
While Watson wormed his way in from the perimeter, Tilmon drifts to the weak-side short corner. He’s in perfect position for a pass once Donta Hall and Herbert Jones cut off Watson’s penetration. This is where trouble starts for the Tide. Dazon Ingram slides down to account for Tilmon, leaving Lewis responsible for two Tigers guards at the top of the key. Tilmon spots the two-on-one immediately, zipping out to Geist, who moves the ball to his left once Lewis commits to a closeout.
The result: an open 3-pointer for Smith and a foul on Tevin Mack to set up a four-point play.
This is just one set, but it underscores the balance MU can achieve with this lineup on the floor. Yet the Tigers can still play fast, manipulate spacing and get Tilmon a quick post touch.
On this trip against South Carolina, Geist again has his head up surveying the wings. He spots Watson, who could squeeze the trigger on a quick 3-ball, and kicks the ball ahead. The Gamecocks were slow across the board to matchup, which means Tilmon gets to his favorite spot on the left block and presents a big, open target for Watson. The freshman easily dumps the ball in, allowing Tilmon to turn and face up a late-arriving Felipe Haase — and read the weak-side of the floor. Scampering back leaves Carolina scurrying in cross-matches and only Keyshawn Bryant covering two shooters on one side of the floor.
The read is easy. Again, Tilmon’s kickout continues pinging the ball around the floor, first to Smith and then to Javon Pickett for an open jumper. Ahead of the loss to the Gamecocks, I pointed out how Tilmon has quietly emerged as one of the nation’s better-passing big men, and you can see the dimension it brings to the floor.
Now, if only the Tigers’ defense held up
In a couple of seasons, when the Tigers’ underclassmen are seasoned and recruiting has imported the personnel Martin covets, playing with four guards may be a standard operating procedure. For now, it just can’t endure the stress test that comes on the defensive end of the floor.
This piece doesn’t have the space to highlight every gaffe or breakdown, but a lot of the errors are the result of inexperience and execution. In particular, you can see why Watson’s still behind Pickett in the Tigers’ pecking order.
Defending off the ball remains perilous for the Whitfield product. Against Morehead State, he lost track of his assignment twice, allowing a 3-pointer on the right wing and a floater from the middle of the lane after his man flashed in front of him for a pass. He ran into similar trouble versus South Carolina.
Ideally, Watson has one foot in the lane and can keep tabs on the ball and Bryant, who is hanging out in the left corner. While every team has different principles for helping, it’s unlikely they call for Watson to come across the lane to help Tilmon double-team Chris Silva. Once the Gamecock’s forward escapes pressure, he easily skips the ball to Bryant, who nonchalantly dribbles into a pull-up jumper as Watson weaves through bodies.
Going small carries the risk of mismatches, especially in the paint. Opponents shot 70.6 percent inside the arc against this group, including 9 of 13 (69.2 percent) inside the paint. You can see why when Alex Reese easily seals off Pickett for a high-low feed. While Tilmon walls up on Reese, Hall slips in behind for a big-to-big pass — one that still results in an a the Tide getting scoring over the top of the Tigers’ 6-foot-4 freshman.
A lack of size also pops up in another obvious way: rebounding. After 30 defensive possessions together, the four-guard grouping of Geist, Smith, Pickett and Watson allow opponents to track down 50 percent of their misses. If Tilmon is lifted away from the block, MU can’t afford to miss checking out runners flying in to crash the backboards. Even a smaller group in Morehead State found ways compete inside.
While Geist and Smith are solid rebounders at the wing position, Pickett (4.6 DR%) and Watson (7.1 DR%) struggle at times to make their presence known on the backboards. Pointing out the issue isn’t a criticism, either. Instead, it’s merely acknowledging the reality that comes with feeding minutes to underclassmen: strength and savvy come with time.
Opponents exploit an undersized post
So how are lineups featuring an undersized post doing?
In a word, mediocre.
The two most common lineups featuring a frontcourt of Santos and Puryear have struggled to get traction offensively (0.785 PPP) and been leaky (1.24 PPP) on the other end of the floor. If the end goal is to create mismatches, it’s simply hasn’t worked.
Instead, the Tigers wind up settling for late-clock 3-pointers or freelancing drives by Geist in the middle of the floor. The chemistry between Santos and Puryear is also still a work in progress — evidenced by Santos twice failing to connect with a Puryear as cut from the top of the key toward the rim against Morehead State.
What’s more worrisome is how opponents are already trying to isolate the combo forwards in mismatches. Case in point: A.J. Hicks signals for the Eagles to clear out the left side of the floor so Lamontray Harris can step out, square up Santos and drive to the rim, earning a 3-point play at the end.
Opposing guards also try their hand at getting Puryear or Santos in open space. On this possession, Hicks attacks left and uses a ball screen out of Horns set to size up and attack Puryear on the wing.
For South Carolina, exploiting the mismatch involved simple logic: Our post players are bigger than yours. Good luck guarding them solo. Do you think Santos envisioned himself trying to front and deny a space eater like Haase, who easily backs the UIC transfer under the rim and draws a foul?
Or trying to slow down Maik Kotsar once he gets rumbling downhill from the elbow and finishes at the rim — also drawing a foul on the sophomore.
There are also trickle-down effects for the rest of rotation. After Santos darts across the lane to help Puryear pester Silva, Torrence Watson’s job is to help down on Frink, who outweighs his fellow freshman by 65 pounds. Even after Puryear forces a miss, Frink easily blots out Watson for a stick and, yes, another foul.
The only remedy for these issues can be found on the recruiting trail and underscores just how vital E.J. Liddell and Tray Jackson were to Mizzou’s plans.
When we talk about positionless basketball, we’re really talking about flexibility. Landing Jackson illustrates why. When he arrives on campus, the Detroit native brings to the table the ability to post up, flash to the elbow for jumpers, turn a corner and attack out of handoffs, or spot up in the corner for jumpers. All the while, he’s long enough to contest shots at the rim and switch four spots on the perimeter.
Right now, MU doesn’t have a natural fit for the position. K.J. Santos is, at his core, a bigger wing trying his best when called upon to jostle in the paint. Next year, Jackson (hopefully) is sturdy enough to guard his man solo, which allows Santos to stay attached. And if teams try to switch, both are nimble enough to recover.