To see a snippet of why Missouri coveted Dru Smith, cue up a clip from an otherwise innocuous win in January 2018. Late in the second half, the point guard hunches over at the top of the key, using his left hip to shield his dribble. He scans the right side of the floor, watching Dalen Traore set a screen for Ryan Taylor, juking right and selling a fake backdoor cut. Instead, Taylor bolts left, peeling around Traore and slicing toward the elbow – finding a simple bounce pass from Smith arriving in his mitts.
Taylor rises, snaps his wrist, and watches his jumper splash through.
Nothing about the assist is gaudy. Smith surveyed the floor, read the action and made a prudent decision. Watch enough footage, though, and that trait becomes the one that jumps off your laptop screen.
It’s also what drove me to pester Synergy Sports and swamp their help desk with e-mails. My subscription, I was told, only afforded me access to the reams of analytics they churn out. Understanding Smith’s essentialness, though, meant pulling up more than 470 clips stashed in a digital vault.
Since late April of 2018, we’ve had to surmise what the transfer might bring using a three-minute reel and spreadsheets. Until recently. For the past month, I’ve been sifting through the trove of video to understand why the Smith might be the missing element as coach Cuonzo Martin enters his third season at the helm in Columbia.
Affixing the label of ‘game manager’ to a player often takes on a derogatory connotation. Not for Smith. In his case, it’s high praise. If you need spot-up shooting, he can knock in jumpers off kick-outs. He can carve out space running off screens. As a driver, he can deploy an arsenal of head fakes and deft footwork to find space in a canopy of long arms. And at the defensive end, savviness and toughness offset average agility.
Smith should shore up shaky ball-handling — MU’s biggest issue under Martin — and grant his new coach maximum flexibility in crafting lineups. Meanwhile, his unruffled and steady persona is one you hope infuses the roster.
For now, a cloak of anonymity still shrouds the point guard, but it’s possible to peak behind the veil, one that will be lifted if Smith makes Mizzou a contender in the SEC race.
Five Things to Love About Dru
The low Q-rating makes sense once you understand Smith’s path to Columbia.
Growing up in Evansville, Smith spent his prep career at Reitz High School, whose program was solid but unspectacular in basketball-mad Indiana. On the grassroots circuit, he stuck with a local program in Pocket City Basketball, which meant spending the spring and summers away from events sponsored by shoe companies. For the most part, his college suitors were local mid-majors: Indiana State, Ball State and Evansville.
Meanwhile, his game never hinged on raw athleticism. As Smith mulled over his options last spring, N.D. Kendrick, who coached for Pocket City, told me the point guard’s smarts, sense of pace, and toughness defined his game. For example, Smith would draw the toughest defensive assignment for Pocket City — even if it meant scrapping in the paint. “We’d have him guarding centers,” Kendrick told me back then, “And he held up.” The same tenacity served Smith well at Reitz, where he played at the top of the Panthers’ press.
So when Smith initially picked the Purple Aces, a five-minute commute east along Lloyd Expressway, the question wasn’t whether he’d fit into Marty Simmons’ system. Instead, it was just a matter of how soon.
During his sophomore season, Smith posted 13.7 points, dished out 4.6 assists and swiped 2.0 steals per game. However, his nagging plantar fasciitis eventually ruptured. Total, recurring foot injuries robbed him of nine games, including six in Missouri Valley Conference play. When you look at Evansville’s net rating with Smith on the floor — 13 points per 100 possessions — it’s evident how keenly his absence mattered. No other regular rotation player was within spitting distance.
On-Court Impact | Evansville — 2017-18
|Player||Games||Poss/Gm||NET - On||NET - Off||Difference||Per 100|
|Player||Games||Poss/Gm||NET - On||NET - Off||Difference||Per 100|
While Loyola Chicago ran away with the conference title, the rest of the race was compacted. Seven teams finished within three games of each other, and there’s a compelling case that the Purple Aces would have finished closer to 10-8 than 7-11 with a healthy Smith in the lineup. Had that unfolded, it’s possible UE would have retained Simmons — and Smith, too.
Instead, the school hit the refresh button, and Smith sought a new home.
Moving on not only meant leaving the cocoon of Southwest Indiana, but a stark stylistic shift. Over 11 seasons, Simmons led his alma mater using a vintage scheme. Today, pace, space and, spread pick-and-rolls are in fashion, but Evansville kept running the same motion offense Simmons learned from Jim Crews, a protege of Indiana’s Bobby Knight.
Instead of erecting an offense out of sets, the motion imparts screening and cutting principles, which become second nature the longer a player is in the program. Eventually, a quintet’s chemistry, a scouting report and an ability to read the defense dictate the action. If you turned your eye to the sideline, Simmons wasn’t constantly barking out sets. Instead, he’d be pacing with arms folded. On any given possession, he wouldn’t know the precise order of operations.
The upshot is that scouting a motion-based squad can be imprecise. Aside from a short call sheet, isolating specific actions and personnel is difficult when any player on the floor can screen, cut and pass. On top of that, Simmons’ teams played at a controlled tempo, putting opponents through a meat grinder of screens that played out over long possessions.
At some point, a poor switch or drifting attention creates a situation the Purple Aces can exploit. Since 2010, only Wofford has been more reliant on off-ball screening since 2010, while familiar names such as Davidson and Virginia also pop up around Evansville.
Evansville | Offensive Profile — 2010-2018
|Season||AdjT (Rk)||ORtg (Rk)||PNR (Rk.)||Off-Screen (Rk)|
|Season||AdjT (Rk)||ORtg (Rk)||PNR (Rk.)||Off-Screen (Rk)|
|2018||65.7 (295)||99.3 (266)||9.2 (286)||17.9 (2)|
|2017||66.8 (248)||104.1 (182)||5.4 (344)||24.0 (1)|
|2016||68.6 (140)||108.3 (110)||4.5 (344)||14.6 (2)|
|2015||66.2 (83)||106.6 (122)||5.6 (333)||14.9 (2)|
|2014||65.6 (128)||103.1 (212)||5.6 (327)||15.6 (2)|
|2013||64.6 (176)||106.4 (110)||6.4 (299)||20.2 (2)|
|2012||66.4 (105)||110.7 (52)||5.4 (303)||19.0 (1)|
|2011||66.2 (121)||101.9 (198)||6.8 (212)||20.6 (1)|
|2010||65.4 (200)||97.8 (253)||6.0 (217)||18.7 (1)|
Usually, there might be questions about Smith’s fit with a Missouri program looking to model itself on modern attacks used by the likes of Fred Hoiberg or Jay Wright. If you look at the table, you’ll also notice the point guard operated in an offense that rarely asked him to create out of pick-and-rolls. However, assistant coach Chris Hollender, who played for Crews at Evansville and spent time several seasons on Simmons’ staff, has a background that should ease any nerves.
While MU put in a waiver request to get Smith eligible immediately, the NCAA nixed the request. To a degree, that might have been a boon. Instead of being pressed into service, Smith had an entire season behind closed doors to translate his game, especially playing out of ball screens.
Upon further review, he also came equipped with five ways to fit into MU’s plan.
1. Stepping out—into high ball screens
While Evansville rarely utilized on-ball screens, they were a timely hack when its motion bogged down. Late in the shot clock, a big stepped out, usually from the strong-side elbow, set a screen in the channel and let Smith go to work.
The allure is they’re not difficult to install, while the defense might be disoriented and worn down. Smith excelled in these situations, punishing defenders who tried to cheat under the screen, knocking down 60 percent of his pull-up jumpers. And among Division I players, Smith ranked third nationally in efficiency on dribble jumpers, posting 1.688 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports.
But when Smith does turn the corner, he gets to his spots under control and changing speeds.
Take the possession against Valparaiso, which is in the montage. After Traore screens at the left elbow, Smith initially rejects the screen before working back to his left and turning tight around his big man’s hip. Notice how the floor is overloaded, and the only obstacle is a big man stationed at the nail. Smith throws on the breaks, freezes the defender in drop coverage, gets by and then uses the rim as a shield.
2. It’s a drag... ball screen
When Mizzou hired Cornell Mann, Martin touted the assistant coach as bringing an NBA-inspired scheme with him from Iowa State, where he’d served on Hoiberg’s staff.
Part of the playbook entails using drag screens, dribble handoffs and weaves early in a possession. Again, the design is rudimentary. When a point guard brings the ball up, he veers toward a big, who has set a screen at the top of the key. Meanwhile, guards are spaced on each wing, while a mobile post player camps out in the short corner.
The decision tree is natural, too.
If the opposing forward switches onto Smith, he drives down the lane, where he can attack the rim, hit the rolling big, or dump the ball off to the dunker. Sometimes, an opposing guard stunts in from the wing, but it creates an easy kick-out to a spot-up shooter. Or the guard can skip all those options: pull-up from behind the 3-point arc and let fire.
Dru Smith | High Pick-and-Roll Passing — 2018
|PNR - Roll Man||10||1||50||50||Average|
|PNR - Spot-Up||13||1.231||45.5||59.1||Excellent|
|PNR - Cutter||3||0.667||33.3||33.3||-|
In Simmons’ final season on the job, the use of drag screens was a small concession to modernity. The offense Smith will orchestrate in Columbia, though, could use them far more liberally. MU has a trio of big men — Jeremiah Tilmon, Tray Jackson and Kobe Brown — with the athleticism, footwork and soft hands to be prime pick-and-roll partners.
Again, the sample size of possessions is small, but Smith posted a solid efficiency rating as a passer in these situations, especially when dishing the ball (1.231 PPP) to shooters. That should be good news for Mark Smith and Torrence Watson. We’ve also been waiting to see MU perk up the pace, and while I don’t expect the Tigers to play at a dead sprint, having ball-handlers capable of attacking early in possessions can achieve a similar affect.
3. Ole Reliable: the catch-and-shoot
During the editing process, I wound up with a batch of clips showcasing Evansville facing zone defenses. Obviously, having shooters who can punish a collapsed defense is an asset, but it’s also a bet made by the opponent.
When you come across the possession against Bradley, you can see the value in having a spot-up threat. The Purple Aces keep rolling through screening actions, a cascade of switches that slowly warp the defensive shell. The instant a defender gambles, such as briefly pinching in and leaving Smith uncovered, UE punishes you.
Dru Smith | Catch-and-Shoot Jumpers — 2018
An open question is how often MU will utilize Smith as a secondary creator and have him operating off the ball. Two seasons at Evansville likely mean he’s more than comfortable in those situations. However, he only attacked closeouts six times out of spot-ups, hinting that he might be slightly one dimensional.
4. Pinning Dru Down
Distilling Evansville’s offense to its essence is impossible, but one action might be as good a representation as you’ll find: the curl. The sequence is straightforward, too.
Typically, a pair of bigs set staggered screen parallel to one side of the lane, while a guard fakes ducking back door and sprints toward the arc and veers into the lane at the elbow. The beauty of the curl is you can run it at any point in a possession and present a passer at the key with an easy read.
And as I pointed out earlier, any of the Purple Aces’ guards is capable of executing it. In the case of Smith, the curl is also representative of his ability to use screens in assorted ways, whether it’s a flare, pindown or staggers along the baseline. For those listening carefully, Martin has explicitly stated that MU doesn’t slot its guards into particular positions and each needs to have a diverse skillset.
Spending two seasons in Simmons’ motion engrained and refined Smith’s feel for playing off the ball. While he’s slightly more efficient coming off to this left, posting 1.174 PPP, Smith still shot 51.4 percent (18 of 35) when utilizing screens.
5. Surveying his options
Evaluating Smith’s ability as a passer also offers a tour of Evansville’s approach. Notice how often the guard is stationary and scanning actions in front of him. Is the back cut open? Is there an alley to whip a pass to an uncovered big? Should I hit the man curling at the elbow or the one coming off a pindown?
Make no mistake, there are plenty of possessions where Smith picks the right teammate out of the crowd, but what’s equally impressive is how often he makes the simple play.
Over half the assists I watched were instances where he simply made an extra pass to an open shooter, often passing up opportunities to take shots in rhythm against a late closeout. And sometimes, the play was simply finding a teammate flashing into the soft middle of a zone defense.
Now, the question is how well that discerning eye and prudence translates when putting the ball on the floor. That might be a a more pressing matter if Smith wasn’t coming off what amounts to a gap year spent mastering MU’s system.
In Simmons’ system, player movement warps a defense, while his point guard’s judgment is a crucial commodity. While MU doesn’t play at a breakneck speed, the Tigers are uptempo relative to Smith’s old team, and its offense asks him to use the same prudence while putting the ball on the floor.