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Mizzou Basketball Position Preview: Wings

Torrence Watson was the prize of the 2018 class, but Javon Pickett provided more early production. How do the two sophomores follow up their freshmen campaigns?

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Are you ready for basketball season now?

Saturday’s loss in Nashville put a bit of a damper on the rest of the football season, and we get it — while you don’t want to give up on your team, it’s hard to get too jazzed about a team with losses to Wyoming and Vanderbilt.

So why not put that energy you’d otherwise invest in football into hoops? We’re just over two weeks away from opening night against Incarnate Word, and we’re prepping for the season by running through the position previews like we always do. If you want to catch up on our previous posts, see below.

Today we’re tackling the wings, a position held down by sophomore St. Louis products Torrence Watson and Javon Pickett.

In a lineup that seems destined to go small, Torrence Watson could play a variety of positions, but wing seems to be his calling card. How encouraged were you by Watson’s late season surge? What signs should fans watch for early on to see if he can maintain it?

Sam Snelling, Site Manager: Torrence Watson was always a key figure in that recruiting class. It shouldn’t have shocked us that he struggled early on considering he was likely approaching around 50% usage at Whitfield. The adjustment to playing off the ball along with Division I athletes was going to be a big one and it showed. But as the season progressed, so did Watson. For me, the signs showed earlier than his offensive breakouts because he became more reliable defensively. We know playing for Cuonzo Martin there’s a level of expectation on that end of the floor.

So when he was able to put things together on the defensive end, the offense soon followed. I’m honestly not sure what to expect this year because his elevation seemed to rise at the same time Mark Smith went out with injury and Javon Pickett became hobbled. I expect him to play a lot, but the minutes distribution in the early going should be interesting to track.

Matt Harris, Basketball Editor: I’m keeping an eye on two areas. First, can Watson remain a reliable off-ball defender? That’s the route to more minutes under Cuonzo Martin. Clamping down also gives Martin a reason to keep Watson on the floor when the sophomore runs into a shooting slump. And from team perspective, Martin could feel comfortable knowing he can three top-drawer defenders — Watson, Dru Smith and Mark Smith — on the perimeter at the same time.

Second, Watson has to pose a threat off the dribble. Last season, he was dead last in the SEC for offensive efficiency on rim attacks and shot just 25 percent (8 of 32) when he got there. Maybe a summer spent adding strength helps him play through contact and with confidence, but even the vague threat of attacking a closeout can keep defenders honest.

Josh Matejka, Deputy Manager: There were times last season, especially early on, when Watson looked a little lost when the action wasn’t right in front of him. This is a symptom of the change in speed from high school to college. But we can also fairly determine that Watson hadn’t played off the ball in at least two years — he dominated possession at Whitfield and was never not involved.

So I’ll have my eye closely on Watson when he’s off ball on both sides of the court. Is he cutting to the rim or waiting for a pass that won’t come? Is he surveying the offense around him, or is he locked in on his man? Watson’s streak late this spring came when he finally caught up to the speed of the game, especially when the action didn’t revolve around him. If he can stay engaged there, I won’t be too worried.

Javon Pickett was a pleasant surprise last year, becoming an immediate contributor on a team lacking for guard depth. Was last year closer to his floor or his ceiling?

Sam Snelling: Pickett’s work ethic is going to take him quite a long ways. The fact Martin tabbed him to attend SEC Media days says a lot of his own level of expectation and how it may differ from our own. Watching Pickett play and he seems like a guy who’s easy to underestimate. He doesn’t appear to have a huge ceiling, but did you think Jordan Geist had last season in him either?

No doubt Pickett is going to have to fight off more talented-higher ceiling players on the wing. But perhaps his effort and intensity can filter out to the rest of those players and elevate their own game. I don’t know what his ceiling is, but you’ve got to feel Martin sees Pickett as a central figure in this rebuild.

Matt Harris: This answer kicks the can down the road: We’ll know more when see Pickett on the floor. Like Sam, I think Watson might have a higher ceiling, but Pickett already does most of the tasks you’re waiting to see Watson carry out. He’s a willing driver, sticks his nose in on rebounds, seeks out opportunities to cut to the rim and is a willing switch defender.

If Missouri utilizes four-guard lineups, it’ll need a sturdy wing to body up forwards, box out and compete like crazy. Pickett has shown he’s more than willing. If his jumper comes along, he could even evolve into the occasional spot-up threat.

Josh Matejka: A few months ago I would’ve said the ceiling, but it’s hard not to wonder what Martin can draw out of Pickett. He’s clearly a hard worker and is cerebral to the point where he understands his strengths and weaknesses on the floor. He may never be an all-conference threat, but there’s potential for Pickett to evolve into the type of player that makes other fans say, “Holy crap, is that guy still around?”

Pickett’s willingness to do the things others might not means he’ll always have minutes available to him. I’ll be interested to see if he’s become a craftier defender, neutralizing some athletic disadvantages he may have against other SEC guards. If he can make strides there while steadily improving his jump shot, he’ll be a thorn in the SEC’s side for another three seasons.

We know that Cuonzo Martin values defense above all - it’s why Pickett got early playing time while Watson stumbled last year. With just a year under their belts, what sort of defensive improvements should we be seeing out the sophomore wings?

Sam Snelling: For these two, they really need versatility. Strength and conditioning and being able to defend in the post and around the basket will help with the flexibility within the roster. Missouri has some question marks at the four spot, and being able to flex stable wing players down into that role might give guys like Kobe Brown and Tray Jackson some leeway in learning how to play at this level.

Matt Harris: With Watson, it’s a matter of consistency. I’ve maintained that playing Class 3 basketball in high school enabled Watson to take some nights off at that end of the floor. The learning curve is steep enough when you show up to a high-major, and perhaps more so when you’re in Watson’s position. Over the latter half of the season, though, you saw his minutes climb as he became more engaged and attuned to the speed of the game. Seeing that carry over, along with some added strength, is what comes next.

For Pickett, his underlying metrics hinted at issues clearing traffic. When he chased his man off screens, he gave up 1.059 points per possession and allowed 51.9 percent shooting, according to Synergy Sports data. The numbers weren’t much better in pick-and-rolls, bumping up to 1.111 PPP and 54.5 percent. The Belleville East product closed down shooters and could stay in front ball-handlers during isolations, but moving around the floor presented some issues.

Josh Matejka: With Watson, it’s probably as simple as staying engaged. Like I noted above, he didn’t seem to have a feel for the game’s speed early on. It’s not that he wasn’t trying, it was probably just a long time since he was forced to work that hard on both ends of the court. If he stays active and helps out off ball, he’ll be fine.

For Pickett, it’ll have to be about positioning himself better. As Matt pointed out, Pickett struggled to keep up with his man off of screens and rolls. It’ll be imperative that Martin helps Pickett understand how best to mitigate the damage that might be done by a speedier player. Of course, part of this just involves getting faster, which was hopefully helped by an offseason under Nicodemus Christopher.