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Median Expectations: Setting the bar for Mizzou’s freshmen

Over the past seven seasons, roughly 275 freshmen have suited up in the SEC. Their performance can provide us baseline for the Tigers’ trio of newcomers.

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Freshmen Mario McKinney’s quick first step and downhill style are a nice addition to Missouri’s rotation.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

When June arrives, there is a state of unbridled optimism that takes hold of a fanbase.

The condition’s pathology is easy to explain, too. You see vital veterans pass on jumping to the professional ranks, the type of continuity some of your rivals might lack. Yet there’s just enough attrition at the bottom of the roster, opening up minutes you can spread around to role players and freshmen. Next, your coaching staff finally has time to get eyes on all its components and discern which veterans are on the come and the newcomers who might usurp them.

In our little patch of the web, we’ve already started the tentative process of projecting Missouri’s rotation and gauging which returners might have the most impact. Meanwhile, it sounds like the schedule — outside of locking in Utah and learning where the Tigers will go for the SEC-Big 12 challenge — is mostly locked into place. Finally, we surveyed the rest of the conference and walked away with a sense of where MU fits in a fluid hierarchy.

In Columbia, the melding process is already well underway. Ten days ago, freshmen Tray Jackson, Mario McKinney Jr. and Kobe Brown moved into summer housing. By last Tuesday, we saw strength and conditioning coach Nicodemus Christopher had handed his charges. And a couple of days later, coach Cuonzo Martin posted up at Lakota Coffee Company for a chat with beat reporters and pointed a common trait among the trio.

Each one of those guys has the ability to make a play. I can make a play without a screen or needing this to happen. They can just get the ball and make a play. That helps your offense a great deal because now you have multiple guys. They can make a shot, too.

As the rest of summer unspools, the news cycle slows, and projections about what that group can provide will likely get rosier.

Admittedly, this outlet is bullish about Jackson and McKinney, and we understand why the staff is intrigued by Brown’s tools. But when it comes to setting expectations for what each can provide, what’s a realistic bar? Can we quantify the typical out generated by an SEC freshman? And who exactly qualifies as an instant-impact talent?

What criteria should we use?

Well, let’s keep it simple and borrow our parameters from former Sports Illustrated writer Luke Winn. Three years ago, Winn labored to build a model to spit out data-heavy preseason projections. The first objective: identify players that would likely be efficient starters — a group whose members play at least 50 percent of available minutes and an adjusted offensive efficiency rating of 110.

For this piece, our timespan only stretches back seven seasons, starting when the SEC brought Mizzou and Texas A&M into the fold. As for our data, we can obtain all of it quickly.

  • Recruiting Rank: 247 Sports’ composite index*
  • Analytics: KenPom
  • Traditional statistics: Sports Reference

*Recruits included in the pool were rated better than No. 250 in their respective class

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Georgia
Point guard Xavier Pinson’s play wasn’t far off the SEC standard for freshman efficiency last season.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

What’s the baseline?

Culling data points from those three sources let us assemble a sortable spreadsheet of data for 274 freshmen. While that’s not embedded in this piece, the straightforward graphical representation of nicely sums up its contents.

The graph doesn’t include a player’s recruiting ranking, position or basic stats such as points, rebounds and assists. Instead, it shows a simple relation between the volume of minutes a freshman receives and how efficiently they play when on the floor.

While all the dots are askew, we can make sense of their meaning by using a line of best fit.

See it slicing through all those splotches? It reflects a linear relationship — how an increase in minutes influences offensive rating — and slopes upward. What it shows is obvious: Boosting a freshman’s minutes also lifts their efficiency. We can also pick points along it, put them in a table and create a crude baseline.

Setting the Trend | SEC freshmen efficiency — 2012-2019

%Minutes Trend ORTG
%Minutes Trend ORTG
10 90.74
20 93.28
30 95.82
40 98.36
50 100.9
60 103.44
70 105.98
80 108.52
KenPom

Again, professors in MU’s Department of Statistics would probably wretch at our methodology, but it’s a short-hand way for us to assess a freshman’s performance. We can see that a player who’s getting 50 percent of available minutes typically posts 1.009 PPP — meaning an efficient starter is posting roughly 10 points more per 100 possessions.

Obviously, having an example would help, so I looked at the volume of minutes doled out to each freshman on last year’s roster, calculated a baseline offensive rating and compared to what each player produced.

Baseline Efficiency | Missouri Freshmen — 2018-2019

Player %MIN Trend ORTG Actual ORTG Eff. Gap
Player %MIN Trend ORTG Actual ORTG Eff. Gap
Torrence Watson 56.7 102.6 103 -0.4
Xavier Pinson 44.2 99.4 95.9 -3.5
Javon Pickett 62.6 104.1 90.6 -13.5
KenPom

Taken together, we can see — spatially on the graph and the table — how last year’s crop of talent fared against an objective standard. And when we review each player’s profile in KenPom’s database, we can parse out reasonable explanations for their respective performances.

In Torrence Watson’s case, he was a low-usage (15.9 percent of possessions) when on the floor, but his spot-up shooting turbo-boosted his efficiency. Xavier Pinson’s struggles with turnovers and finishing around the rim may have acted as a drag on his game. Finally, and as we’ve written before, Javon Pickett’s production nosedived over the season’s final month — a span where he was dealing with nagging back issues — and compounded shooting woes.

By plugging in a player’s minutes into a linear equation, we could build similar tables for every SEC program and get a thumbnail impression of how they performed. We can also carry out a finer parsing of high-impact freshmen, but I’ll get to that later. For now, segmenting the market for impactful freshmen is our next order of business.

Before he was dismissed from Auburn, wing Shaquille Johnson’s debut season was a barometer for SEC freshmen.
USA Today Sports

Who is a ‘typical’ freshman in the SEC?

One way we to make data tangible is a composite character, one player whose profile bears a striking resemblance to the conference’s “average” newcomer. In that case, he came and went several years ago, and only stuck around one season: Auburn guard Shaquille Johnson.

When Johnson committed in early 2012, he was a bouncy four-star talent — No. 109 in the 247’s composite — known for acrobatic flourishes in a game reliant on attacking the rim and finishing through contact. As a prep product out of Georgia, he’d been an undersized power forward, but his frame — 6-foot-5, 210 pounds — was that of a classic ’tweener. Once he reached the Plains, he would need to clean up his jumper and transition to a spot on the wing. That process would take time, but the raw material was in place for Johnson to evolve into an elite wing defender and a reliable member of four-guard rotations.

By February of his freshman campaign, Johnson strung together eight games — one where he averaged 8.5 points and 2.9 rebounds — that hinted the process was coming along. While Auburn floundered, finishing 9-23, Johnson professed loyalty to coach Tony Barbee. “I’m at Auburn,” he told reporters after the Tigers exited the SEC tournament. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Four months later, though, his bags were packed. After an arrest for misdemeanor marijuana possession, Barbee booted Johnson, who took a one-year detour to Northwest Florida State before landing at Longwood.

The final act of Johnson’s arc isn’t one any player — or their coach — wants to reenact, but his starting point is a familiar one.

What gets lost is how quickly freshmen performance drops off once you get outside the top 50 prospects in any given glass. Scrolling on your web browser and looking at rankings doesn’t precisely convey the gap, either. Often, freshmen ranked between Nos. 51 and 100 are described as players who can make an immediate impact. However, many don’t find their footing until their sophomore season.

The delineation is evident when we break freshmen into tiers based on their respective rankings and isolate median values for minutes, offensive efficiency and a trio of traditional stats. Finally, we can compare the median effectiveness for each tranche of talent to ratings generated by the trend line established earlier.

Median Performance | SEC Freshmen - 2013-2019

Rank Rk %MIN ORTG Trend ORTG PPG RPG APG
Rank Rk %MIN ORTG Trend ORTG PPG RPG APG
No. 1-50 18 60.9 107.3 103.7 10 4.1 1.4
No. 51-100 72.5 43.8 99.1 99.3 5.2 2.3 1.1
No. 101-150 127.5 34.9 97 97.1 4.5 2.1 0.5
No. 151-200 171 24.8 92.8 94.5 3.4 2 0.6
No. 201-250 222 22.6 94.5 93.9 3.4 1.7 0.5
Overall 101.5 43.2 99.6 99.2 5.3 2.6 0.8
247 Sports, KenPom, Sports Reference

Now the gap is visible. Players in the back end of the top 100 tend to be less efficient — roughly four points per 100 possessions — and half as productive on the stat sheet. Additionally, the margin between players slotted between Nos. 51 and 150 narrows.

Divvying up the data by position doesn’t show any remarkable trends, but we can see in aggregate that the benchmark for a newcomer is pretty modest.

Median Performance | SEC Freshmen - 2013-2019 - By Position

Position Rk %MIN ORTG Trend ORTG PPG RPG APG
Position Rk %MIN ORTG Trend ORTG PPG RPG APG
Combo Forward 108 28.8 101.5 95.5 3.9 3 0.4
Combo Guard 123 46.5 97.2 100 6 2.7 1.3
Point Guard 95 47.1 95.7 100.2 5.8 2.1 2.7
Post 49 37.1 106.4 97.6 5.1 4.5 0.4
Wing 130 30.5 95.3 95.9 4.6 2.6 0.6
Overall 101.5 43.2 99.6 99.2 5.3 2.6 0.8
247 Sports, KenPom, Sports Reference

The takeaway: root for freshmen to become potent reserves in a clearly established rotation. Even if there’s a season in lag time, players who start out playing efficiently can maintain it as playing time grows, and they expand their role. For example, Winn found players that play starting-level minutes and post a sub-100 offensive rating become efficient starters just 11 percent of the time.

Often, we talk about a freshman outplaying their ranking in anecdotal terms, but now we can have a higher degree of precision. Take Torrence Watson, for example. The expectation was the Whitfield product would easily slide into vacancy on the wing. Instead, the acclimation period took longer than anyone might have guessed. Yet when you compare his profile to similarly-rated talent and at his position, Watson lived up to the billing.

Beating the Standard | Torrence Watson - 2018-19

Player %Min ORTG PPG RPG APG
Player %Min ORTG PPG RPG APG
Torrence Watson 57.6 103 7.1 1.5 0.5
Nos. 101-150 34.9 97 4.5 2.1 0.5
Wings 30.5 95.3 4.6 2.6 0.6

In Xavier Pinson’s case, we can see that the Chicago native played at a level commensurate with trends for his recruiting ranking and position. (His scoring, rebounding and distributing scaled up proportionally with the volume of minutes he earned.) None of this takes away from what Pinson brings to the table. Instead, it keeps us from over-inflating expectations moving ahead.

Meeting the Standard | Xavier Pinson — 2018-2019

Player %Min ORTG PPG RPG APG
Player %Min ORTG PPG RPG APG
Xavier Pinson 44.2 95.9 6.6 2.6 2.3
No. 201-250 22.6 94.5 3.4 1.7 0.5
Point Guard 47.1 95.7 5.8 2.1 2.7
247 Sports, KenPom, Sports Reference

The template used by Martin and his staff is time-tested: Build a cohesive core of veterans, help sophomores take enormous strides, and use high-upside freshmen to fill in the margins. In an offseason filled to the brim with roster turnover and coaching changes, MU is banking on stability to be its main asset.

Last season, necessity forced Martin’s hand to a degree, too. To have any semblance of perimeter depth, the Tigers used three freshmen more than most programs. Now, entering Martin’s third year on the job, he has the kind of roster balance to be more selective in using his youth. Ideally, continuity becomes self-perpetuating, easing the pressure on incoming talent to produce immediate returns. It also means prospects of the caliber MU is chasing in 2020 — Josh Christopher, Caleb Love and Cam’Ron Fletcher — are an additive to a mixture that’s already potent.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina vs Kentucky Alumni Game
Karl-Anthony Towns is one of the many elite freshmen to pass through Kentucky.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Where can you find high-impact freshmen?

The Leviathan in Lexington, that’s where.

Over the past decade, the notion that Kentucky coach John Calipari’s recruiting model wasn’t sustainable has popped up every so often. Turning a roster over each spring is generally a poor proposition, but the Wildcats are shopping at the recruiting equivalent of a luxury boutique.

Consider: Of the 38 recruits who’ve signed on in the last seven years, roughly 60 percent have played 50 percent of available minutes and posted an offensive rating better than 100. In essence, Coach Cal can rely on three newcomers to slide into his starting five and produce — a seven-fold difference between UK and its SEC peers.

Isolating efficient starters only heightens the contrast, too. No, Cal isn’t perfect, but a 42-percent hit rate laps most of Kentucky’s rivals.

Cat Colossus | High-Impact Freshmen at Kentucky — 2013-2019

School Impact Players Avg./Yr. Avg. Rk. Total Recruits Hit Rate
School Impact Players Avg./Yr. Avg. Rk. Total Recruits Hit Rate
Kentucky 16 2.29 14.1 38 42.1
Rest of SEC 18 2.57 68 236 7.6
247 Sports, KenPom

Why bring up a state of affairs that, quite honestly, isn’t all that new or surprising?

Scarcity.

In the past seven seasons, a paltry 12.5 percent of SEC freshmen have met the two qualifications for an efficient starter — and almost half of them have resided in Lexington. The hit rate for the conferences other 13 programs: 7.6 percent. If we divvied up the remaining top-end talent around the rest of SEC, each team would get 0.19 — or one-fifth — of a player each year.

No, recruiting rankings aren’t gospel, and the scouts who compile them aren’t omniscient. But they do a bang-up job identifying the top-end of the market and freshmen who will play at a level comparable to a veteran. Since 2012, nearly a third of top-50 recruits who signed with SEC program met our threshold for a high-impact starter. And of the 34 players in that pool, 73.5 percent came from that sector of the index.

Who are high-impact freshmen?

247 Range Overall Count Impact Count % Total %Impact %Range Avg. Rk Median Rk
247 Range Overall Count Impact Count % Total %Impact %Range Avg. Rk Median Rk
No. 1-50 76 25 9.1 73.5 32.9 19.2 16
No. 51-100 50 4 1.5 11.8 8 73.3 72
No. 101-150 52 4 1.5 11.8 7.7 124.8 126.5
No. 151-200 56 1 0.4 0.3 1.8 170 170
No. 201-250 40 0 0 0 0 - -
Total 274 34 12.5 - - 42 27.5
247 Sports, KenPom

Meanwhile, a paltry 7.8 percent (8 of 102) prospects rated between Nos. 51 and 150 cleared that threshold — or a little more than per season. And just one, Arkansas guard Isaiah Joe (No. 170), came from outside the top-150 of the composite index.

Classifying elite freshmen by their position again underscores the concentration of prospects toward the top of the rankings, especially those inside the top 30. In most instances, the expectation should be that a program is acquiring a double-digit scorer whose efficiency is worth at least 10 points more over 100 possessions.

Meet in the Median | High-Impact Freshmen — Position

Position Rk %MIN ORTG Trend ORTG PPG RPG APG
Position Rk %MIN ORTG Trend ORTG PPG RPG APG
Combo Forward 27 61 111 103.7 9.8 5.9 1.1
Combo Guard 30 68.3 113.1 105.5 12.2 2.8 1.8
Point Guard 22.5 64.2 110.7 104.5 12.6 2.6 3.8
Post 24 57.6 116.1 102.8 11.5 6.7 1
Wing 19 78.2 115.1 108.6 13.6 3.8 1.8
Overall 31 68.3 114 105.5 12 4.2 1.6
247 Sports, KenPom, Sports Reference

There’s the obvious temptation to focus on outliers as evidence that recruiting rankings aren’t bulletproof. As a tool, though, they’re a reliable instrument — if used in the right context. Circling back to Watson again, my colleague Sam Snelling was adamant in his stance that the wing was undervalued, but the difference between being rated No. 80 instead of No. 112 — in practical terms — is slim.

Yet when you look at the composition of the SEC’s All-Freshman squad, the vast majority of its membership is comprised of former top-40 recruits. (Note: I’d swap Blake Hinson for A.J. Lawson.) While only three players posted offensive ratings better than 110.0 — our cutoff for efficiency — almost all of them posted above-average numbers.

Cream of the Crop | All-SEC Freshmen — 2018-2019

Player Position 247 Rk. %Min ORTG Trend ORTG
Player Position 247 Rk. %Min ORTG Trend ORTG
Kira Lewis Jr. PG 39 78.8 106.2 108.2
Isaiah Joe Wing 170 74.7 114.6 107.2
Andrew Nembhard PG 23 81.3 105.7 109.9
Tyler Herro Wing 37 80.9 118.1 108.7
Keldon Johnson Wing 13 76.3 112.8 107.6
Reggie Perry Post 31 59.3 112.2 103.3
AJ Lawson Wing 146 69.4 98.4 105.8
Naz Reid Post 18 64.5 103.9 104.6
247 Sports, KenPom

So far, Martin’s had two players you would likely include in this company: Michael Porter Jr. and Jontay Porter. The brothers shared the floor for a mere three games and only suited up in 35 between them during their time with the Tigers.

Jon Lopez / Nike

What do all these numbers mean for Missouri?

Now that you’ve slogged all the way to this section, let’s try to put some benchmarks in place. To be clear: these are not predictions. If you’re craving those, head over to Bart Torvik’s website, where he’s already projected Mizzou’s lineup for the 2019-2020 season.

Instead, I’ve paired a brief scouting report with a table that compiles historical trends based on recruiting ranking, position, and Torvik’s expectations.

Tray Jackson: Since the Detroit native popped up on the radar last summer, we’ve been bullish on the combo forward’s potential. He can post up on the block, loom in the short corner as a release valve, space the floor as a spot-up threat in the corner and drive the ball from the elbow. In other words, his tool kit fits the direction Martin wants to take his offense and could be the best representation of what positionless basketball entails under this regime.

Setting Standards | Tray Jackson

Category %MIN ORTG PPG RPG APG
Category %MIN ORTG PPG RPG APG
No. 51-100 43.8 99.1 5.2 2.3 1.1
Combo Forward 28.8 101.5 3.9 3 0.4
Torvik 38 106 4.6 2.8 0.5
247 Sports, KenPom, Sports Reference and Bart Torvik

Mario McKinney Jr.: Soon after McKinney committed, we labeled the Vashon product a catalyzing agent. The combo guard’s athleticism and ability to ignite transition offense are perks for a roster could a slashing presence. By now, you’ve also been beaten over the head hearing that McKinney could tighten up his handle and become more consistent as a shooter. Those critiques have merit, but Martin made a salient point to reporters last week.

I don’t want him to become a 3-point shooter to where he’s solely relying on 3-point shots like you’d describe Mark or Torrence because he can get to the basket and has one of the quickest first steps I’ve ever seen and his ability to get to the rim and shoot the pull-up around the rim.

Developing McKinney doesn’t entail abandoning what made him an attractive component to plug into the rotation. It’s merely a matter of directing a swashbuckling style toward productive ends. .

Setting Standards | Mario McKinney Jr.

Category %MIN ORTG PPG RPG APG
Category %MIN ORTG PPG RPG APG
No. 101-150 24.8 92.8 3.4 2 0.6
Combo Guard 46.5 97.2 6 2.7 1.3
Torvik 12 106 1.6 0.5 0.9
247 Sports, KenPom, Sports Reference, Bart Torvik

Kobe Brown: In the weeks since Brown hopped aboard, I’ve worried that my initial impression came off sour. Undoubtedly, there are questions around the Alabama native’s game, but his presence contrasts nicely with Jackson, who was initially rooted on the block. If Brown can stretch defenses, operate as a secondary ball-handler and capitalize on preternatural passing instincts, the personnel groupings Martin can fashion get interesting. And as Sam Snelling noted, the competition for minutes at combo forward appears to be wide open.

Setting Standards | Kobe Brown

Category %MIN ORTG PPG RPG APG
Category %MIN ORTG PPG RPG APG
No. 201-250 22.6 94.5 3.4 1.7 0.5
Combo Forward 28.8 101.5 3.9 3 0.4
247 Sports, KenPom, Sports Reference

Again, we’re simply trying to assemble a loose frame of reference. Unlike Winn — and the economist he worked with — we’re not tweaking the data based on a specialized developmental curve. Additionally, there aren’t adjustments accounting for a player’s teammates. This is a thumbnail sketch using median values and a trendlines, not a pointillist painting on canvas.

There’s ample time for MU’s freshmen to prove the expectations are too modest.

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