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Mizzou Basketball Position Preview: Combo Forwards

Tray Jackson and Kobe Brown will both have opportunities to earn regular minutes at the combo forward spot. What do they offer to a team determined to “play small”?

Guess what tomorrow is, ladies and germs? That’s right — it’s one week from Mizzou Hoops season!

We’re soldiering on with our position previews this week, leading all the way up to next Wednesday’s opener against Incarnate Word. If you want to catch up with us, see our previous posts below!

Today, we’re moving on with the combo forwards, a group headlined by two of three freshmen from the 2019 recruiting class.

Tray Jackson was unarguably the highlight of the 2018 recruiting class, combining a diverse set of offensive skills with some tantalizing size and athleticism. What does he offer that Missouri didn’t have last year?

Sam Snelling, Site Manager: Jackson is a modern day hybrid-wing, the type of player Cuonzo Martin and his staff have been craving since they arrived on campus. Martin has been looking for a skilled jumbo-wing with enough athleticism and size to play on the inside and rebound, and that’s exactly what Jackson is. From the four spot, he’ll be able to finish around the rim and rebound, but he might be more of a work in progress than fans expect.

His ceiling is high, with NBA level potential as a 3-and-D guy who can rebound. Early on in his career, though, he might have a more limited role as he learns to play with a measure of consistency.

Matt Harris, Basketball Editor: By now, anyone who regularly reads our site knows that I’ve been bullish on the impact Jackson could have in Columbia.

While his game needs polishing, Jackson shows promise all over the floor. He makes himself available in the short corner, understands how to cut baseline when the defense rotates and is strong enough to post up smaller defenders. On the perimeter, he’s adept at playing in pick-and-pops or spotting up low in the corner. He’s also shown a knack for using his jumper — which needs to be consistent — to set up rim attacks against bigs who aren’t often asked to stay in front of a dribbler.

As much admiration as I felt for Kevin Puryear, the senior was a glue guy whose skill set was ill-fitting for Martin’s needs. Mitchell Smith has an intriguing frame, but his defensive woes made it a risk to play him for long stretches. And we can all acknowledge that K.J. Santos turned out to be a recruiting miss. That’s not the case with Jackson. No one should doubt his athleticism, while his game ticks off the boxes for Martin at the position.

Josh Matejka, Deputy Manager: In the year of basketball, 2019, versatility is the name of the game. Sure, some guys have size— but do they have speed? Yeah, you can hit the glass with the best of them— but how’s your long range shooting?

Tray Jackson is the most versatile player Cuonzo Martin will put on the floor in his time at Missouri (aside from the ill-fated Porter brothers). Jackson’s athleticism and skill allow him to match up nicely as a wing, while his size and nose for the ball allow him to get down low and battle against similar-sized “big men.” We talked last year about how Jontay Porter could do it all, but we never really got to see it. Jackson offers another chance to see that hyper-versatility in action, even if it may take him a year or so to fully get there. The tools are there, he just needs to sharpen them.

Kobe Brown likes to act more like a guard than a 6’8” forward, but his size makes him more D-I ready than some of his freshman counterparts. Is there an “impact” role available for Brown early on?

Sam Snelling: If you missed the Mizzou SEC preview yesterday, you may have noticed I had Brown as the 3rd string wing. But I tend to think he’s going to start at the four (as has been my long offseason contention). I might whiff on that and Martin may go with four guards, but I just think Brown’s size and skill level seems a little more college ready than his freshman counterpart. I don’t know if either player will be a guy you look to or rely upon offensively, but Brown’s experience in high school as a lead guard puts him in a good position to help early. If he can be a consistent shooter from deep (a struggle of his late in high school), there’s no doubt in my mind he can surpass the meager expectations set by his recruiting ranking.

Matt Harris: Brown’s presence is a sneaky way to slip some additional ball-handling onto the floor. With a lineup of Dru Smith, Mark Smith and Torrence Watson, Brown serves a matchup wrinkle. You can space him to a wing, let him drive into gaps and survey the floor. You can even tease of some possibilities by pairing him up with your guards in weave and hand-off actions, hunting for favorable switches that let Brown play downhill. And if that pans out, maybe you expand his role and let him selectively initiate the offense.

When I envision MU’s rotation, I tend to think of a car. You have your standard options — Dru Smith, Mark Smith, Jeremiah Tilmon — and then a plethora of packages you can add on at the dealership or from a catalog. In the Tigers’ case, the flexibility at wing and combo forward allows Martin to overhaul his approach with a few simple substitutions. Whether Brown starts or platoons for 12 minutes to 15 minutes a night, he adds a different dimension.

Josh Matejka: It depends on the matchups, but it’s pretty easy to see a world where Brown gets early minutes as a starter. I tend to agree with Sam— Brown’s size gives him an early edge over Jackson, especially against over matched schedule-fillers. He skews more toward the guard skill set, and his presence (like Matt said above) gives Cuonzo an extra ball handler in case things are rocky early on.

Once things get settled, however, Brown will need to fall back on the thing that all freshmen in a Cuonzo Martin program rely on — defense. There’s no reason to believe Brown lacks the motor to play consistently good defense (and his size, once again, offers him some advantages), it’s just a matter of when he catches on.

We’ve already talked ad nauseum about the possibility of Missouri “going small.” Assuming that’s the case, how do the two freshmen move their way into a packed rotation?

Sam Snelling: Boy, that’s the question, isn’t it? Cuonzo Martin has long talked about getting deep into his rotation, but the Tigers have seven guys who played minutes last year and are adding Dru Smith to that group, along with three freshmen with expectations coming into the season. Obviously, something is going to give or Zo really is going to play 10. At this point, I think there are going to be 10-11 guys who play on a nightly basis, but when it gets down to crunch time, that rotation will shrink to six or seven. I’m guessing, but I really don’t think we’ll see all three of the freshmen play a lot of crunch time minutes. At best, I think one can fight their way into that group, but with the experience the Tigers have, I think its more likely Martin leans on his older guys late in games. That said, it wouldn’t shock me at all if we see 10-11 guys averaging 8 or more minutes per game, with both Brown and Jackson in the 12-15 minute range.

Matt Harris: Splitting this atom doesn’t strike me as overly complicated. If we’ve learned anything about Martin, it’s that defense and rebounding are your surest path to minutes. So setting aside lineup configurations, the freshmen who can consistently supply those commodities probably get the early nod. Given the offensive balance across the backcourt and Jeremiah Tilmon’s presence inside, there’s no immediate pressure to put up eye-popping numbers in the scoring column.

When MU does play four guards, defensive matchups should dictate who’s on the floor. For example, if the opponent trots out a traditional center, keep Tilmon in the game. Conversely, a stretch forward could make Jackson, who can hold his ground in the lane but also has the agility to play in space, a better option. Finally, an opponent that’s going small all over the floor and playing at tempo could be countered with the more perimeter-oriented Brown.

To pick up Sam’s thread, I think you might see up 10 players earn minutes, but the core of the rotation should probably go seven- or eight-deep. Meanwhile, you can give spot minutes to a couple of other players based on the scouting report or as part in-game adjustments.

Josh Matejka: The current roster isn’t exactly built around the two freshmen combo forwards, so to really break into that core, they’ll need to have something that the rest of the team can’t offer.

For Jackson, his ability as a rebounder and defender may be the key. He presents match up problems for smaller wings, and in an athletic league like the SEC, his defense could be the difference in cutting those big runs Missouri has been prone to giving up. That’s not to say Jackson must become a lockdown defender to play. But look at Javon Pickett from last year — he did just enough to keep himself in the game, where he fine-tuned the rest of his skills and turned himself into a valuable rotation player.

Brown, on the other hand, will need to offer some sort of offense. His highlight video skewed toward the shooter he hopes to be, but I was highly intrigued by the moments he bullied his way to the rim. His frame will allow him to absorb contact and not fall away at the basket, creating multiple opportunities for dives and drives. This would also open up space he’ll get on the perimeter, where he can launch the three-point shot he seems so fond of. Like Jackson, Brown doesn’t need to put up 10 points a night to stick. But if he can prove himself a reliable offensive jumpstart off the bench, he could have a quick path to regular minutes.