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Commitment Analysis: Kobe Brown’s game is a black box

The combo forward ended a recruitment shrouded in mystery, but what he brings to the table and the role he’ll fill at Missouri remain open questions.

After combo forward Kobe Brown committed to Missouri, I watched my cursor blink on the screen for three minutes as I mulled how to start this piece. All the while, a question kept pinging around my brain.

How much do you trust coach Cuonzo Martin?

Bringing Brown into the fold is in some ways a proxy for how you might respond. The pledge likely caps off the program’s recruiting for this class, bumping it up to 36th nationally and eighth in the SEC. It’s also another instance of Mizzou placing a long-term bet on a prospect who otherwise doesn’t seem all too compelling.

No, Brown, who picked Mizzou over Penn State, Vanderbilt and Minnesota, won’t torpedo the program, but you can’t help but notice the downward slope of the Alabama native’s trendline. So it makes sense to dispense with that issue early.

Three years ago, recruiting analysts ranked Brown among the nation’s top-50 sophomores — a projection that can be based as much on physical makeup as skill. A year later, Brown slipped out of the top 100, and by last fall, he’d tumbled all the way to 181st in 247 Sports’ composite index.

You don’t have to look very far the cause of his slide.

Kobe Brown | Adidas Gauntlet - 2018

15 60.7 23.3 9.5 3.4 1.3 107.5 54.7 46.7 20.5 64.5
Open Look Analytics

Last summer, the 6-foot-7, 220-pound Brown ran with Game Elite, ranking second in minutes and tops in usage rate only to produce an otherwise pedestrian statistical profile. Now consider who else was on the roster: future Kentucky point guard Ashton Hagans, Louisville signee Josh Nickelberry, Auburn signee Jaylin Williams and Mississippi State signee Elias King.

Being surrounded by that level of talent ensured evaluators had ample opportunity get a live look at Brown, who also happened to share the floor with the caliber of teammates he’d find at a winning college program. The outcome: scouts dropped him almost 50 spots.

Suiting up for Huntsville Lee High School, Brown’s stat line glittered — 24.1 points, 12.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game — as he became a finalist for the state’s Class 6A Player of the Year. Prodigious output didn’t prove persuasive, and Brown plummeted to 248th in his class.

To be clear, rankings are a tool, not a gospel. There’s also nothing in Brown’s stat lines that should induce nausea. Instead, they point to a reasonable conclusion: Brown’s peers closed the gap or passed him altogether. Moving forward, though, the question is how much potential is left for Martin to mine.

At least for me, it’s hard to know how big the deposit might be and how accessible it is. Without having seen Brown live and his camp operating in radio silence, it’s proven hard to get a handle on his game, his development and why opinions cooled on him.

The collective doubt expressed by the scouting community could fuel Brown’s work ethic. Perhaps a summer with strength coach Nicodemus Christopher transforms his body. And joining a roster returning ample production might ease the need for him to make an early dent, allowing him to slip on a well-tailored role.

If my tone seems sour, it’s not because I’m offended by Brown’s game or fetishizing rankings. As a general rule, I’m skeptical of taking on a prospect this late in the calendar. There’s a joke I once heard that sums up my sentiment: This spring’s signees are next spring’s transfers. Whether they’re the result of a coaching change or a mass exodus to escape a toxic locker room culture, the compressed timeline of recruitment’s this time of year can lead some coaches to gamble.

The past two months offer up some evidence in support of that quip. Of the forty-five freshmen who have left power-conference programs, half committed and signed this time a year ago. The median recruiting ranking for that group was 359th nationally, and the vast majority checked in below No. 240 in 247’s index. Often, a coaching change spurred those shotgun weddings.

While I’m not predicting Brown will be bailing a year from now, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if he’s found the right fit.

That being said, Brown’s quiet survey of the market after pulling the plug on Texas A&M — a move spurred by the firing of coach Billy Kennedy — could allay those concerns. Two months passed as Brown weighed his options, which included opening the door to Penn State and Vanderbilt while circling back to a pair of familiar suitors in MU and Minnesota.

At the same, Martin and his staff were equally prudent. Increasingly, the spring signing period has evolved into the sport’s version of free agency as high-majors pick over a transfer market filled with mid-major talent looking to move up. Yet the Tigers didn’t scurry about. Instead, the program was coolly deliberate, only pursuing Duquesne transfer Eric Williams Jr. It was only after Williams picked Oregon that the Tigers pivoted back to Brown.

Without a doubt, there are questions about Brown’s game and developmental trajectory. However, the program’s put in plenty of legwork by conducting multiple in-home visits, watching several workouts and bringing Brown to Columbia for an official visit last fall. At the end of the day, you trust your scout, and it’s exactly what MU is doing with Brown.

Put another way, both parties should know what the expectations are moving forward. What are they? We’ll have to wait and see.

What does Kobe Brown do well?

Let’s engage in a two-part thought exercise. First, watch the mixtape embedded above. Next, consider these questions about Brown:

  • Do you trust him to lock and trail an elite wing through a maze of screens?
  • Would you want him matched against an elite point guard such as Kira Lewis Jr. in space?
  • How often will he be asked to handle the ball and initiate MU’s offense?

To me, those get at an early frame touting Brown as a combo guard. Without a doubt, he seems comfortable on the perimeter offensively, but, at least for us at RMN, we think who you guard is the ultimate arbiter of your position. Using that logic, Brown’s likely a combo forward — or at that’s where he’ll start out. If MU is still using Fred Hoiberg’s scheme as its chassis, Brown could evolve into a point forward, but I’ll stay away from that minutiae.

Now, this is where I put out a caveat: This video is not optimal. We can’t see full sets. The vantage point is from the floor level on the baseline. Post-production editing means we can’t get an accurate gauge of game speed. And the play selection is suboptimal — run-out dunks, lobs, and jumpers where we only see the shot go up. Typically, I can find at least three full games of a player. Not so with Brown.

So we’re left to form general impressions.

First, Brown’s range stretches beyond the 3-point arc, and he’s comfortable spacing out to be a catch-and-shoot option. Next, he’s athletic enough to finish plays off one or both feet, and despite his size, Brown’s flexibility and body control help him complete some finishes in traffic. When he does post up, he seals off a smaller player, establishes a solid passing angle and presents a big target for an entry play. Lastly, his vision and instincts as a passer are intriguing, especially in confined spaces around the paint.

Assuming his shooting translates, Brown could emerge as a spot-up threat, whether its stationed in the corner or sprinting from the paint to the key in roll-and-replace actions. Even better, his comfort handling the ball make him a threat out of hand-offs or other actions to isolate favorable switches. His passing ability could also punish teams who over-help, getting Jeremiah Tilmon hyper-efficient touches at the rim.

Over the past two years, the players populating the combo forward position have been more stationary threats, relying on spacing to warp defenses. Brown could help the offense take the next step by not only putting opposing bigs in space but also force them to move.

Where can he improve?

Was the poor shooting Brown showcased last summer an aberration? Even if his shooting percentage isn’t nearly as dreadful, the difference between hitting at 30 percent clip and 35 percent is vital — enough to determine whether his defender sags off to shrink a gap or feels compelled to stay close by.

The lack of footage doesn’t help assess how he’ll hold up on the interior at either end of the floor, but if he has the same plight as Kevin Puryear, who struggled to score over the top of defenders, then the ceiling gets considerably lower. For now, that’s more of a question mark than it is a critique. Last summer, Brown shot 61.5 percent inside the arc, but without knowing how those shots were generated, we can only take the number at face value.

Defensively, there’s no useful footage to help us reach a sound conclusion about what utility he brings to that end of the floor. But just watching the way Brown moves around the floor doesn’t lead me to think he’ll be a guy you want playing in acres of space. And at 220 pounds, how well will he hold up when asked to dislodge or front a traditional big?

What role can he play?

There’s still a summer’s worth of workouts and a preseason camp left before the season starts, but I can envision a situation unfolding similar to what we saw last year with Javon Pickett and Torrence Watson. On paper, Watson, the highest-rated prospect in MU’s signing class, was slotted into a starting role. Yet Pickett earned the trust and admiration of Martin for grinding away in the practice gym, defending consistently and going to the glass.

While Watson shrank the gap over the final month of the regular season, there was a considerable lag time before the Whitfield grad’s production aligned with expectations.

For as much potential as Tray Jackson possesses, the knock on him coming out of high school was a motor that doesn’t always run smoothly. Now, maybe that’s changed after a breakout last summer playing in the EYBL and getting burn for Sunrise Christian Academy this past season. Assuming he’s locked in from the moment he arrives in Columbia, Jackson could stake a strong claim for the majority of minutes.

If he’s not engaged, the door might crack open for Brown, whose game is more perimeter oriented. All the while, Mitchell Smith’s still around, but he struggled at times knocking down jumpers and holding up defensively. There are 40 minutes of playing time available, but who claims the lion’s share isn’t a prediction I’m willing to make right now.