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SEC Returners, Pt. 4: Can these players break out — and carry their team with them?

Sophomores Ashton Hagans and Reggie Perry seem ready for the limelight, while Mark Smith’s return could help Missouri scale the standings.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, we began breaking down talented returning players in the Southeastern Conference. In that initial post, we outlined the criteria that helped us segment these 25 players into five tiers.

We’ve reached the layer where the boundary is more fluid, where low-usage starters, heavily used bench players begin to blend.

The strata are defined by freshmen who are looking to push their way toward the surface as sophomores, reserves that now find their path unobstructed, and a guard whose season was derailed by an injury.

What they all have in common: a break out could prove pivotal to setting the ceiling for their program.

At Kentucky, the Wildcats again wrangled enough top-end talent to contend, but Ashton Hagans’ development is a central question. By now, coach John Calipari’s also shown us he’s capable of pushing a group that looks stilted in non-conference play toward cohesion. The real assessment of UK under Hagans direction comes in March.

The more intriguing story arc might be in Starkville, where Mississippi State lost three starters off a squad that ended an NCAA tournament drought but suffered a first-round upset. The margin between bubble contention and a harder reset comes down to whether four reserves capably fill the gap — and whether junior guard Nick Weatherspoon can stay on the floor.

Finally, no other SEC team might be as far off the grid as Missouri.

Slumping to a 15-17 finish in coach Cuonzo Martin’s second season partially explains how the Tigers have slipped from the public consciousness. However, as we’ve noted before, few programs in the conference epitomize continuity like Mizzou. The Tigers already experienced life without a Porter on the roster, and Jordan Geist is the only major statistical contributor to exit the program. Kevin Puryear’s presence didn’t always manifest itself in the box score, but after him, the Tigers’ turnover occurred at the bottom of the roster.

Assuming Jontay Porter’s knee hadn’t buckled and Mark Smith hadn’t stepped on a foot in Fayetteville, there’s a universe where MU gets within shouting distance of the bubble. Before Smith’s ankle injury, Martin’s group could have fought its way to an NIT bid. Unlike his first season on the job, the Tigers’ couldn’t quite grit their teeth and pull through.

A lack of preseason buzz also stems from a lack of proven star power and a style of play where the workload is disbursed across the entire rotation. As we’ve noted, Martin’s rotation could easily go nine players deep, while Torvik’s model projects just two players — Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon — as double-digit scorers. After that, a cluster of four players — Torrence Watson, Javon Pickett, Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson — are expected to offer up between seven and nine points per night.

Taking a collective approach to production might not produce headliners, but the Tigers won’t mind going incognito if they land a spot in the field of 68.

Tier 4: On the Cusp

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

SEC Returners | On the Cusp

School Player Poss. %Min %Poss Player Net On/Off Diff Torvik PPG Torvik RPG Torvik APG
School Player Poss. %Min %Poss Player Net On/Off Diff Torvik PPG Torvik RPG Torvik APG
Kentucky Ashton Hagans 1711 70.7 18.7 -1.6 -8.5 12.4 3.7 4.4
Mississippi State Tyson Carter 1079 63.6 17.9 10.8 9.8 15.5 3.1 2.1
Mississippi State Reggie Perry 1082 59.3 21.2 11.3 7.4 11 7.8 1.1
Tennessee Lamonte Turner 1320 59.2 18.6 13.1 -11.8 14.2 3.2 3.6
Missouri Mark Smith 876 41.8 18.8 47.6 12 15.3 4.8 1.9
Hoop Lens, Ken Pom, Bart Torvik

Let’s start and dispense with Hagans, who will get plenty of pub in the run-up to the season.

For just the second time in his 10-year tenure, coach John Calipari brings back a starting point guard, one whose fortunes might be a barometer for the Wildcats. Like Lewis, Nembhard, and Lawson, the Georgia native arrived a year early in Lexington, speeding up his NBA draft clock in the process. Despite his youth, Hagans swiped the third-most steals in the SEC, earning Defensive Player of the Year honors. As a passer, his 27.2 assist rate is comparable to forerunners in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and De’Aaron Fox.

Like his peers, Hagans struggled at times to find the melody or beat when conducting UK in the half court. For example, he ran the third-most pick-and-rolls in the SEC, but his efficiency (0.825 PPP) ranked 37th, according to Synergy Sports. While he won’t be asked to put up massive scoring numbers, only making 29.4 percent of his jumpers won’t suffice.

Filling it up won’t be a problem for Tyson Carter, who was a microwave scorer off the bench for Mississippi State. It’s slowing down the opposition that could be a problem. With departures of Lamar Peters and Quinndary Weatherspoon, coach Ben Howland might have to be willing to strike a compromise.

That won’t be the case inside with sophomore Reggie Perry.

Over the back half of last season, the Bulldogs big man posted 12.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. While he pulled his name out of the NBA draft, Perry’s stock has continued to climb in recent weeks as a member of USA Basketball. During the U.S. run to a gold medal, Perry averaged 13.1 points and 7.1 rebounds at the FIBA U19 World Cup in Greece, picking up MVP honors along the way.

The book on Perry as a prep product pegged him as a versatile combo forward who could do a little bit of everything. He had the size and strength to abuse smaller defenders in the lane, but his handle and enough agility also enabled him to face up against traditional bigs. While his jumper needed some work, his range extended to the college 3-point line.

In Greece, though, Perry stripped his game down to the essentials, camping out in the dunker spot waiting for dump-offs, busting his hump in transition and manhandling defenders when he did post up. And you’ll lose track of how many times he rotated over from the weak side to swat shots.

It wasn’t a far cry from his role in Starkville, either. Roughly 75 percent of his touches came around the rim, but only 15 percent came via a post-up. His leading sources of shot creation: cutting to the rim and snagging offensive rebounds — touches that yielded 1.21 PPP. While he graded out as an average defender, Perry finished fourth in defensive rebound percentage (22.6) and fifth (13.2) at the offensive end.

For Howland, that meat-and-potatoes game granted him lineup flexibility. When Aric Holman, whose perimeter stroke stretched defenses, came checked in, Perry moved down to play center. If State needed a more traditional post tandem, they could summon Abdul Ado from the bench and pair him up with the freshman.

As Perry went through the audition process for NBA scouts, a recurrent critique kept popping up: his jumper lacked consistency. At best, he projected to go off the board late in the second round, where guaranteed contracts still aren’t a given, making a sophomore season the logical decision.

If he consistently knocks down perimeter shots and shows comfort as a switch defender, Perry could be the SEC’s breakout player.

Earlier in the week, I touched on the task awaiting Lamonte Turner at Knoxville, where he’ll be tasked with taking over for Jordan Bone. Evaluating his readiness, however, requires a caveat: analytics don’t exactly give him a fair shake. Chief among them: The Vols’ difference in the Vols’ net rating — minus 11.8 — when the junior is on the bench versus when he’s on the floor is noticeable When you dig into the numbers, there’s no difference in offensive efficiency (1.16 PPP), leaving a defensive dip as the only explanation.

Overall, Turner holds up his end of the bargain (0.814 PPP) as a defender — when he’s on the ball. Per Synergy, Turner and Bone is a pairing that struggled at times to consistently lock and trail shooters or close down space on kickouts. That inconsistency partially explains how UT winds up allowing almost 11 more points per 100 possessions when Turner’s seeing action, according to Hoop Lens.

Factoring in his minutes, usage rate, and the defensive drag, you can see why Turner slid into this tier.

What’s also worth monitoring is how Barnes divvies up the ball-handling duties. Turner was solid but not spectacular as a distributor, and the Volunteers don’t run a ball-screen heavy scheme. Last season, Bone ran roughly three pick-and-rolls per game, but still ranked sixth in the SEC with a 30.2 assist rate. Splitting up the job makes sense if freshman Josiah-Jordan games, who was the No. 21 prospect in the nation, can pick up the slack as a 6-foot-6 combo guard.

So at last, we come to a member of Missouri’s roster.

When Mark Smith switched sides in the Braggin’ Rights rivalry, he was coming off a freshman campaign undermined by poor health and putrid shooting. Few foresaw the change in scenery — and scheme — yielding the kind of early return Smith provided.

The combo guard’s 47.6 net rating would fall at the tail end of almost any distribution, driven the byproduct of modest usage (18.8%), leading the SEC in 3-point shooting at 45.0 percent. On possession run in the half court, that percentage rose to 47.9 percent. And as we detailed early last season, the Edwardsville, Ill., native quickly emerged as Mizzou’s best defender.

If not for an ankle injury that robbed him of 13 games, Smith might have entered the conversation as one of the SEC’s top two-way wings. This summer, he’s out of a walking boot and trying to round back into form. Still, several question marks surround his junior campaign.

First, will Smith show any inclination to attack off the dribble? n the rare event he received a ball screen, Smith was more apt to throw the brakes on and launch a pull-up jumper, while only driving to the rim eight times against a closeout. While MU’s tried to address a lack of straight-line drives through recruiting, Smith can’t use it as cover to be one dimensional.

Chances are his shooting cools down a bit and his defensive rating takes a bit of a blow, but that might be offset if Watson carries over his late-season run into this season.