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NCAA Basketball: Oral Roberts at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

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For Jeremiah Tilmon, the block is a distribution hub

Missouri’s center has quietly and steadily evolved into capable ball-mover — a skill that could prove pivotal to the Tigers’ fortunes.

Mull these questions for a moment: When Jeremiah Tilmon snared a pass in the post, how often did you watch what unfolded away from the block? While Tilmon pounded out a dribble, could you see Jordan Geist creeping toward the corner? Once Tilmon dipped a shoulder, could you spot Javon Pickett darting in from the weak side of the floor? And when a defender hopped across the lane to hem Tilmon in, did Kevin Puryear slide toward the baseline with his hands ready?

Instead of digesting this dervish off the ball, your gaze stayed fixed on the mano-a-mano match unfolding under the rim.

Slowly and steadily, offenses are purging those tussles from their playbooks. Yet in Columbia, there’s still a time and place amid the pace-and-space revolution to let Tilmon lean on another center. Quite often, opponents send reinforcements to help, whether it’s another forward, a guard digging down from the wing or a point guard dropping in from the nail.

While Tilmon has soft hands and assured feet, watching him operate down low isn’t regal. By and large, the junior powers to the rim or tries to position himself for a hook shot over his left shoulder. And this all assumes he hasn’t picked up a whistle for hand-fighting while a fellow Tiger tries to create a passing angle.

A tension exists during each post-up. On the sideline, coach Cuonzo Martin covets tapping into Tilmon’s prowess, balancing it against the not-insignificant risk it results in a foil. For Tilmon, it requires navigating a decision tree under varying degrees of duress. Pass or shoot? If it’s the former, who’s open? And is it worth firing a pass that way?

Unlike Jontay Porter, distributing isn’t how Tilmon makes sense of the game. To Porter, it was preternatural, while MU’s staff has slowly nurtured it in Tilmon, who was billed as big more at home running rim to rim, snatching lobs, and swatting shots. While no one would deem Tilmon as Porter’s doppelgänger, he’s tailored to find a fit.

With Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson handling the point this season, Mizzou likely has two creative catalysts to fuel an offense with an ample supply of shooters arced around the floor. Yet if you take a longer look down low, you might find another set of hands more than capable of helping out.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Auburn vs Missouri Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last decade, the burgeoning analytics movement has become — at least in some quarters — an inquisition and a purge. With heat maps and copious spreadsheets, it can seem like zealots are trying to purge staples like mid-range jumpers and post-ups from the game.

Admittedly, I’m probably guilty of preaching a strain of that gospel a little too vigorously.

Yet these discussions aren’t binary, and not all shots and possessions can conveniently be lumped together. What gets lost is a discussion about the quality and context of a shot. Tossing the ball inside and having four guys stand and watch a big get stoned before attempting a contested hook shot? That’s not only a bad shot, but it’s also bad offense.

All analytics has done is to apply a value to provide some similar means of evaluating one shot against each other. But we can’t strip out nuance, either. For example, when Tilmon sets up on the left block and works over his right shoulder, it’s far more efficient — almost 0.5 points per possession more — than when Puryear tried to make a play on the right block.

But as we’ll see, deferring and moving the ball can be more productive than either of those shots. While Tilmon might be closer to the basket, that spatial relationship is canceled out by simple math: three points are more than two.

Last season offered more evidence lending credence to devotees of pace and space. Across Division I, feeding a big on the block only yielded 0.833 points per possession, and a field-goal percentage that’s average at best. Meanwhile, spot-ups — whether it’s a jumper, dribble pull-up, or rim attack — were worth 10 points more for 100 possessions.

What is efficient offense? | NCAA Division I — 2018-19

Play Type PPP FG%
Play Type PPP FG%
Cut 1.131 60.6
Offensive Rebound 1.09 56.6
Transition 1.027 51.1
Pick-and-Roll Roll Man 1.003 48.3
Spot-Up 0.935 36.8
Off Screen 0.883 36.2
Handoff 0.848 37.6
Post-Up 0.833 46.5
Isolation 0.802 37.8
Pick-and-Roll Ballhandler 0.772 38.7
Synergy Sports

If you were to make a checklist for a high-usage, high-efficiency post player, these might be the loose criteria.

  • Possessions: 100 or more
  • Efficiency: 0.935 PPP or more
  • Turnover rate: 18 percent or less
  • Program: High-major

How short is the supply nationally? Out of 1,267 players in Synergy’s database, only 14 — or 1.1 percent — hit those benchmarks, which required their touches to be as efficient as a spot-up. Furthermore, that number gets chopped in half a player needs to average at least one point every time they snagged an entry pass and went to work.

The Best of the Bigs | Power Conference — 2018-19

Player Team Poss PPP FG% TO% %Score
Player Team Poss PPP FG% TO% %Score
Luke Garza Iowa 152 1.178 58.6 7.9 58.6
Grant Williams Tennessee 179 1.173 55.5 11.2 58.1
Juwan Morgan Indiana 153 1.085 57.1 11.8 54.2
Kerry Blackshear Jr. Virginia Tech 163 1.043 52.1 11.7 50.9
Chris Silva South Carolina 151 1.007 50.6 13.9 51.7
Kaleb Wesson Ohio State 217 1.005 52.9 17.1 51.6
Luke Maye North Carolina 115 1 46.7 8.7 49.6
Synergy Sports

When there’s no more than a handful of centers who score efficiently, is it logical to make that action the focal point of your offensive system? Not really.

In Mizzou’s case, Tilmon’s post-ups were actually below average (0.803 PPP) when measured in raw efficiency, while his turnover rate (23.60 percent) was among the lower quarter nationally. The case gets sturdier when you consider the amount of shooting coach Cuonzo Martin imported to Columbia. Even with Torrence Watson’s battled bouts of inconsistency, the dividend of him launching a catch-and-shoot jumper (1.09 PPP) is 30 percent more valuable than Tilmon backing his man down.

The analytics movement has steadily eroded conventional wisdom about the value of back-to-the-basket bigs. Increasingly, post players operate farther from the baseline at the elbow and slot, and in actions such as short rolls and pick-and-pops. The trend is the outgrowth of big men refining their skills, but the premium placed on them stems from the desire to spread out defenses and exploit mismatches.

Over the past decade, playing through the post might have become outmoded, but playing off the post remains a viable way to punish opponents. A center capable of dissecting plays and making sound decisions as a passer while stationed on the block is invaluable. For example, in Division I last season, a spot-up derived from a pass from the post was 22.9 percent more efficient than a big man attempting to score, according to Synergy data.

Only 4.2 percent of spot-ups and cuts in Division 1 resulted from passes out of the post, but they netted 1.064 PPP.

To Pass or Shoot? | NCAA Division I — 2018-19

Play Type PPP - No Post Pass PPP - Post Pass
Play Type PPP - No Post Pass PPP - Post Pass
Spot-Up 0.933 1.024
Cut 1.127 1.312
Overall 0.982 1.064
Synergy Sports

Heretical as it might seem to pass up a shot near the rim, a center capable of discerning when to attack and when to move the ball expands the menu of options for an offense. It also upholds the axiom many of us were taught when we were kids: You pass up a good shot for a better shot.

As we’ve seen, a capable distributor pinging passes out of the paint can also alleviate pressure on a point guard to create with the ball in their hands.

Under Martin’s direction, MU has sought to carve out a middle way, letting Tilmon operate from spots that make him feel comfortable and letting Porter use the block as a playmaking hub. When Porter crumpled to the hardwood during a secret scrimmage last fall, his torn ACL also seemingly shredded plans to have the offense orbit around the sophomore.

Quietly, though, MU’s Tilmon became adept at the job.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

How does Tilmon go about creating shots?

He’s not cagey about his intentions, and the actual act of delivering ball doesn’t always look feathery or smooth. Style points, though, take a backseat when the pass finds the right guy in the right place and at the right time.

Once the ball goes inside, the rest of the Tigers can’t become spectators. In reality, standing still constricts Tilmon’s options, making it more likely he takes a poor shot.

In the past, we’ve talked offhand about how MU plays off the ball, namely actions on the weak side of the floor. You remember split cuts. Well, those fit under an umbrella of principles you can apply to understand the action swirling around Tilmon.

Rather than break down tape based on specific sets, I’ve tried to apply those principles for a macro view of Tilmon’s traits as a passer.

Hit and Space

First, look at which guard is making the pass to Tilmon. Quite often, the player punching the ball inside was one of Missouri’s better shooters. The rationale is straightforward. A common tactic defenses deploy is to have the man defending the passer dig once Tilmon puts the ball on the floor. Doing so, though, requires a tradeoff: pester a center or temporarily abandon a lethal spot-up threat.

It’s why spacing the floor after the entry pass is crucial.

Once the guard feeds Tilmon, they either drift toward the corner or the slot – the point where the 3-point line and outer edge of the lane would intersect – to create a passing angle and more ground to cover on a closeout.

On film, you frequently see Tilmon take this option, waiting for the guard to lunge at him before kicking the ball out in the opposite direction of the oncoming pressure. This tactic worked even when sent the dig from a different angle by having a defender pinch down from the top of the key.

Where MU introduced a wrinkle was in its weak-side philosophy. Instead of sending a cutter, the Tigers would occasionally have wings screen for each other or simply swap places between the wing and slot. Regardless, a Tiger guard is “clocking” toward the ball.

You can how this plays out in a clip from Missouri’s loss to Kansas State at the Paradise Jam. The initial action stalls out, so Mark Smith bounces a pass into Tilmon on the left block. Puryear slowly trots down from the top of the key to the right block, while Pinson fills in behind and Geist floats from the right corner to the slot. Finally, notice how Geist’s defender – guard Barry Brown Jr. – is standing under the basket on the midline.

Once Tilmon turns his shoulder, Brown pounces to spring a double-team, but the Tigers center has an easy skip pass to Geist. The closest defender is Cartier Diarra, who sprints toward Tilmon and launches himself to contest the jumper.

Hit, Space and Make an Extra Pass

Not all kick-outs produce a shot immediately on the catch. Instead, a defender might commit to a controlled closeout, but MU still benefits from the numbers game. For example, if the hard double-team comes from across the lane, help rules might dictate that a guard slides down from the perimeter to prevent a big-to-big pass from Tilmon. Doing so means leaving a shooter open.

When that sequence unfolds, Tilmon zips to the man left alone, forcing another defender to sprint and contest. The trickle-down effect is one more pass to another open spot-up threat.

Hit and Cut

Another option is available, too: Feed the post and cut through.

If they guard on the wing catches their defender ball-watching or going to double, that’s a cue to cut to hard toward the rim. For Tilmon, the read is easy. He makes a crisp and low bounce pass leading the cutter. And if the play isn’t there, balancing the floor is straightforward. The guard clears to the weak side, and shooters bump over.

Dissecting the run of play is easy, too. In three clips, a defender turned their head and opened up their hips, creating a gap and losing sight of their man. Once they took a step toward Tilmon, the Tiger they were guarding bolted. Tilmon’s positioning also helped. He stayed in the vicinity of the block and didn’t take defenders toward the elbow, which would have cluttered the space needed for the cutter.

Meanwhile, a big on the weak side of the floor is still a viable option. They can flash to the baseline or toward the high post. Or they can do what Puryear does against Mississippi State: hang out in the short corner. When his defender crossed the lane to help double, Tilmon whipped a pass Puryear’s direction.

Hit and Attack Closeout

It’s an open secret that Mizzou has struggled to make plays around the rim. Last season, they ranked last in the SEC in possessions and efficiency, which partially explains why their free-throw was also the lowest in the conference.

By now, we’re acutely aware Tilmon alters the shape and grabs the attention of defenses, a focus he can exploit to put five people on tilt. With a kick-out to the weak side of the floor, an opposing defense is put in rotation. Once this happened, MU’s guards savvily made an extra passes, creating a catch-and-shoot jumpers for their teammate. Yet there were possessions where the ball didn’t swing completely around the arc, missing an opportunity to force a hard closeout and

When MU’s guards had an obvious blow-by opportunity, Tilmon could seal off another big man rotating over to contest the driver once they reached the paint. However, that sequence of events rarely unfolded.

Throughout the offense, Martin’s talked about how the Tigers’ freshmen — Mario McKinney Jr, Tray Jackson and Kobe Brown — have the athleticism and capacity to “go make a play.” A rim attack off a ball-reversal is an ideal situation. At the same time, an offseason of strength work and skill development could help Pinson, Pickett and Watson, who collectively averaged 0.797 PPP and shot 38.5 percent, be more effective scorers off the dribble.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Basketball Tipoff Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Five years ago, Tilmon’s soft hands and impressive footwork caught the attention of scouts at Nike’s Global Challenge, but Draft Express analyst Mike Schmitz noted how the big man frequently brought the ball down in traffic and “crumpled” against double teams.

Since then, Tilmon’s toiled to shirk the stigmas around his game. Yet the conversation around one topic remains circular, never-ending and stale: Can the East St. Louis native avoid foul trouble and stay on the floor?

It’s not an unreasonable question, but it has also crowded observations about the real progress Tilmon’s made since arriving in Columbia.

As a sophomore, he found ways to play longer stretches while saddled with four fouls, offering up 8.3 points and 5.2 rebounds. Tilmon also navigated pressure sent his way. Last season, he faced 85 double teams, which was third-most among high-major big men, and lifted his raw efficiency to 0.882 PPP from 0.627 PPP. And when you account for turnover rate, Tilmon’s performance was comparable to Maryland’s Bruno Fernando, who went 34th overall in the NBA draft.

Quibble with the turnover issue all you want, but at times, Tilmon was as productive facing two defenders as some his peers are matched up solo.

Tilmon’s poise also helped provide a simulacrum of Porter’s most coveted skill: distributing the ball from the post. How can that be, though, when his assist rate was a paltry 6.4 percent?

Using Synergy data and the following parameters, I tried to winnow down the list of passing big men in power conferences

  • Post-Up Passes: 50 or more
  • Percent of Time: 20 percent or more
  • Efficiency: 1.0 PPP or more

When I was done fiddling with the spreadsheet, there were eight names that fit the bill, including Tilmon, who trailed Fernando, Ethan Happ, Grant Williams and Kaleb Wesson in passing volume but rated out sixth (1.254 PPP) in efficiency. It’s impossible to know how Porter would have fared, but Tilmon did exceed the mark (1.056 PPP) his former teammate put up as a freshman.

Top Post Passers | High-Majors — 2018-19

Player Team % Time Poss PPP FG% aFG% %TO %Score
Player Team % Time Poss PPP FG% aFG% %TO %Score
Kaleb Wesson Ohio State 25.70% 75 1.293 50.00% 65.40% 4% 50.70%
Jeremiah Tilmon Missouri 27.30% 67 1.254 56.10% 71.90% 9% 49.30%
Juwan Morgan Indiana 26.40% 55 1.364 54.90% 70.60% 5.50% 52.70%
Grant Williams Tennessee 31.70% 83 1.265 46.20% 60% 1.20% 48.20%
Bruno Fernando Maryland 38.30% 134 1.246 48.40% 62.70% 5.20% 47.80%
Jessie Govan Georgetown 22.60% 54 1.315 60.50% 72.10% 7.40% 61.10%
Ethan Happ Wisconsin 36.60% 159 1.22 47% 62.20% 2.50% 46.50%
Kerry Blackshear Jr Virginia Tech 24.90% 54 1.278 46% 63.00% 3.70% 46.30%
Synergy Sports

Notice, too, how Tilmon’s passes produced the highest effective-field-goal percentage out of the group and the highest turnover rate. After reviewing cut-ups, only two of those giveaways would have been charged to Tilmon — passes he airmailed while trying to kick the ball out and lead to a backcourt violation. Otherwise, those gaffes were the result of fellow Tigers fumbling passes or getting stripped on drives to the rim.

The table also hints at the tantalizing potential for Tilmon to ease the burden falling on Smith and Pinson to facilitate for their teammates.

Breaking down metrics for usage and efficiency reveals that Tilmon’s assist rate lags well behind other post players in the pool. And it’s also where his foul-prone ways act as a drag on his game, costing him five minutes to seven minutes of floor time each night. You could reasonably estimate it cost Tilmon an additional 16 pass-out possessions last season. Finally, his overall usage rate (24.2 percent) lags behind the rest of the group.

Top Post Passers | Usage, Efficiency, Impact — 2018-19

Player Team MPG Arate %Poss FC/40 NET-On Net-Off Diff
Player Team MPG Arate %Poss FC/40 NET-On Net-Off Diff
Ethan Happ Wisconsin 32 35.6 34.90% 3.2 9 14 -5
Grant Williams Tennessee 31.9 18.3 27.10% 3.8 21 1 20
Kerry Blackshear Jr Virginia Tech 30 17.3 27.30% 4.3 20 14 6
Kaleb Wesson Ohio State 25.9 17.3 29.90% 5 2 9 -7
Bruno Fernando Maryland 30 14.4 23.80% 3.6 13 -9 22
Juwan Morgan Indiana 29.9 14.1 25.40% 3.8 7 0 7
Jeremiah Tilmon Missouri 24.2 6.4 24.20% 5.9 5 -4 9
Sports Reference, KenPom, Hoop Lens

Or think about it this way: Those factors cost Mizzou at least 20 points last season. No, that meager production wouldn’t boost MU’s overall efficiency, Tilmon’s absence in road games against Ole Miss and Florida — he only played 15 minutes in each — arguably cost the Tigers at least one win. And in the far right column, you’ll also notice that the difference between Tilmon playing and sitting is almost nine points over 100 possessions, trailing only Fernando and Williams.

Now, with the season, just a couple of weeks away, you can also make a compelling case for Tilmon to be included among the best returning low-post passers in a power conference. Setting aside turnover rate, he’s fairly comparable to Blackshear, who transferred to Florida and was tabbed as the SEC’s Preseason Player of the Year.

Best Returning Post Passers

Player Team % Time Poss PPP FG% aFG% %TO %Score
Player Team % Time Poss PPP FG% aFG% %TO %Score
Kaleb Wesson Ohio State 25.70% 75 1.293 50% 65.40% 4% 50.70%
Kerry Blackshear Jr* Florida 24.90% 54 1.278 46% 63% 3.70% 46.30%
Jeremiah Tilmon Missouri 27.30% 67 1.254 56.10% 71.90% 9% 49.30%
Lamar Stevens Penn State 30.60% 45 1.222 50% 65% 6.70% 48.90%
Derek Culver West Virginia 24.90% 45 1.222 53.80% 61.50% 4.40% 55.60%
* Transferred to Florida Synergy Sports

All of this sounds plausible in theory, but Martin has also hinted that the staff might tinker with Tilmon’s role “after looking at analytics.”

“A lot of things we will do will go through him,” Martin said. “You have to use him in a lot of ways. We’ve found he’s better when he’s diving into the rim as opposed to already set in the post. Now it’s harder for him to make moves. Now he’s hard to guard.”

None of these comments should be particularly surprising, either.

Despite a relatively modest tally of possessions, Tilmon’s shown promise as an elite roll man (1.4 PPP) and finally has a point guard in Dru Smith capable of forming a potent pick-and-roll duo. Mizzou might also have the personnel to make roll-and-replace and pick-and-pop actions staples of their offense, especially if Brown and Jackson can shoot the ball consistently.

The irony: Should those schematic developments come to pass — more slashers, high pick-and-rolls, and spot-ups from combo forwards — the less dependent the Tigers might be on Tilmon to facilitate. Of course, symbiosis would also benefit the big man in the form of the paint remaining uncluttered and teams unwilling to pay the tax to send a double team his way.

Each of these puzzles, though, are welcome. Chances are Martin and his cadre of coaches relish the thought of melding Tilmon’s evolving instincts as a passer into scripted sets. All the more reason to watch, too.

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