Can you feel it? Can you smell it? Can you taste it?
It’s basically basketball season, y’all.
We’re nearly 24 hours away from Missouri’s opener against Incarnate Word, and we’re nearly finished with our preseason diatribes on this year’s team. If you want to catch up on our series of position-related previews, see below. If you want to check out any of Sam’s SEC previews, click here.
Today we’re ending our series of position previews by looking at the post, the most experienced area on Missouri’s roster.
While he wasn’t the prize of that fabled 2017 class, Jeremiah Tilmon has become a figurehead for the new promise of the Cuonzo Martin era. All the pieces seem to be there— is this the year Tilmon finally realizes his massive potential?
Sam Snelling, Site Manager: What does that mean exactly? I’d be happy if Tilmon were able to be about the same player but be more reliable at staying on the floor. I think he’s already a great player, and he’s taken steps toward the reliability part. Tilmon’s numbers per 32 minutes are quite good, 13.3 points, 7.7 rebounds... thought I’m not sure Missouri needs him to play 32 minutes a night. Last year he was around 24 minutes and I think an extra four minutes per game is enough for Tilmon to have the right impact on the game.
Matt Harris, Basketball Editor: Tilmon’s close to being the player many expected. Like Sam said, seeing roughly 28 minutes a night helps him reach his destination. Then you hear Friday night’s exhibition, where Tilmon was tagged with three fouls in nine minutes, and it doesn’t quell your anxiety.
Setting aside that issue, Tilmon’s lofty recruiting ranking required some context. Those evaluations hinged on his elite physical tools, but scouts were also clear: patience was necessary. Last season, Tilmon demonstrated he could play longer stretches when saddled with four of them. He’s also steadily improved as a passer since coming to Columbia. Lastly, Tilmon’s a sound positional defender around the rim.
What comes next? Martin hinted recently the offense might move Tilmon around more. That’s heartening. Tilmon’s nimble feet and soft hands are ideal for a roll man, and he’s shown growth as a screener. Getting off the block also reduces the odds he’ll get tagged for hooking or hand-fighting while posting up. We already know he can score effectively on the left block and fire passes out of double teams. Evolving into a reliable pick-and-roll partner further warps the dimensions of the defense.
Josh Matejka, Deputy Manager: If you think about it, there’s really only one thing holding Tilmon back from being one of the SEC’s most dominant inside threats — staying on the floor. Tilmon has already shown how valuable he is when he’s playing. He’s an athletic rim protector with improving passing ability and soft touch around the rim. All that needs to happen is for him to spend less time on the bench. Given that he took a step forward last year (though it may not feel like it), it’s reasonable to think that we’ll see Tilmon anywhere from 27 to 30 minutes a night. That’ll do.
Reed Nikko and Mitchell Smith present a study in contrast. While Big ‘Sota is about as dependable as it gets, Smith brings a murkier but exciting set of skills to the table. Do we see any role changes for these two?
Sam Snelling: Reed Nikko is who he is at this point, and I think he’ll continue to be just that. He’s big, he plays hard, he’ll catch a body if you’re sleeping on him, but ultimately he’s not super mobile and is just an okay rebounder. As long as Tilmon is healthy and not racking up fouls, he’s the guy. Smith gives them a different look, but I think he’s probably just as likely to see time with Tilmon than without.
Matt Harris: On Friday night, Nikko showed what utility he has to offer. When he was spelling Tilmon, MU post a plus-10 net rating — four points better Tilmon’s mark. Granted, the opponent was Central Missouri, but Big ‘Sota has settled into a useful role: leaning on opposing centers, hammering the glass and hanging out in the dunker spot. Those meat-and-potato skills still have a place, and it helps that Nikko doesn’t act as a drag on MU’s efficiency after he checks in.
As for Mitchell Smith, it still looks like he’s running third in the rotation. Meanwhile, MU’s initial lineups appear to rely on Kobe Brown and Tray Jackson splitting the bulk of the reps at combo forward. There’s a minute crunch, and Smith could get squeezed out. That’s before you consider how much he has struggled at times defensively. In the Tigers’ exhibition, Smith was manning the five when UCM used a run to take the lead in the first half. Any expansion of his role requires shoring up his work on that end of the floor.
Josh Matejka: That’s a no on the Big ‘Sota. Not to say that I don’t love him — on the contrary, I would die for him — but Reed Nikko is who he is. We should be celebrating that fact and not expecting more.
Smith, on the other hand, still seems like he has more to offer. He’ll never be the sort of body that Nikko is down low, but his athleticism and shooting ability make him a potential match-up nightmare on the outside. The problem is his defense — when he’s asked to fill minutes for guys like Tilmon and Nikko, he often struggles. If Smith can find a way to shore up his play on that side of the ball, we may see him take a bigger piece of the minutes pie. Otherwise, it’ll be a lot of the same from last year.
Axel Okongo is a mystery, but we know now that the big man will be on campus for two years and not one, so the pressure isn’t as high to make an impact this year. Should fans expect any sort of meaningful contribution, or is he strictly a project?
Sam Snelling: I just don’t see how you can count on him to give you much this year. Tilmon should eat a healthy amount of the minutes, Nikko will be his primary backup. Okongo still needs some time to develop and I think you hope he comes along fast enough to give you good minutes next year. Maybe he catches on by conference play, but I think that’s an optimistic outlook.
Matt Harris: Based on Dave Matter’s reporting, it sounds like Okongo might be on the shelf working back from a toe injury. That’s on top of arriving later than some other newcomers, putting him slightly behind in learning the ins and outs of Martin’s system.
Now that the JUCO product is guaranteed two seasons in Columbia, I’d expect him to be brought along slowly. First and foremost, get healthy. Use that time to also reap the rewards of a fully stocked training table and bonafide strength program. All the while, use your practice reps to gain a sense of comfort.
Martin’s mentioned that Okongo might be the fastest big sprinting end to end, which jives with the scouting report we got in the spring. No one is selling the French native as a plug-and-play replacement for Tilmon, either. He’s a big man of times, meaning he subsists on rim runs, rolling to the basket or corralling passes in the short corner. That requires mobility and chemistry with ball-handlers — all of which requires time and comfort.
Once Okongo is healthy and working steadily with assistant coach Chris Hollender, maybe you assess whether it’s viable to feed him spot minutes. Until then, I’d expect Tilmon, Nikko and Smith to be the primary options inside.
Josh Matejka: Martin likes to stick to the guys he knows, and Okongo would appear to be on the outside looking in at this point. That isn’t to say he isn’t valuable — there’s a chance all three of the guys ahead of him in the rotation are gone next year. Okongo’s priority should be similar to a redshirt — develop, stay healthy and learn the ropes in practice. He may get his share of minutes here and there, but next year is when the Frenchman will show his value to Missouri fans.