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How Jeremiah Tilmon’s skill is finally merging with Mizzou’s scheme

The senior has been on a torrid run, but the Tigers’ victory over TCU showed a player at his apex — one that might make the big man the SEC’s best. 

NCAA Basketball: Texas Christian at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Thirty-five seconds was all Jeremiah Tilmon required to show what he had in store for TCU on Saturday. On Missouri’s first possession, the Tigers’ big man rolled hard to the rim, jumped from the left block, and reached aloft to mash down Xavier Pinson’s high-arching lob. If not for Kevin Samuel backing into the senior, a highlight-reel day might have started with a crescendo.

Instead, it was one of the few plays Tilmon, who poured in a career-high 33 points on 13 of 16 shooting, couldn’t pull off. Granting relief is easy, though, to a veteran who convened a masterclass of low-post play in the Tigers’ 102-98 overtime victory against the Horned Frogs.

And to think, it was nearly squandered until a madcap rally – headlined by Pinson’s shooting clinic – from a dozen down in the final four minutes.

Now, the virtuoso performance isn’t entirely surprising. Ahead of this weekend’s brief non-conference side trip, the East St. Louis native spent the bulk of January bruising SEC foes, posting 14.9 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in his last seven games. And aside from Kevin Samuel, coach Jamie Dixon didn’t trek to Mizzou Arena with a deep arsenal of proven players to lean on Tilmon.

Of course, how Tilmon is used has also undergone revision.

Plenty of ink and pixels have been used to muse whether Tilmon might assemble a complete mosaic out of his beguiling physical tools. The notion that he might be the body around which MU’s offense orbits collapsed last season when opponents sent hard-doubles his way and scattershot jump-shooting did little to exact a price.

During the offseason, we fixated on how coach Cuonzo Martin’s elevation of Barcelona, his pick-and-roll premised sub-package, to MU’s base offense might benefit his ball handlers and manufacture more efficient spot-up 3-point attempts. Perhaps Tilmon’s struggles and injury woes dampened its impact as a topic of conversation. However, the upside of schematic shift could reap dividends for Martin’s frontcourt anchor.

Tilmon’s physical tools are diverse, but his deft feet, soft hands, and comfort in space also posed tantalizing possibilities from putting him on the move. I’ve banged the drum loudly for MU at various stages to ramp its Tilmon’s usage in pick-and-rolls, where he seemed like a natural lob threat. Now, was it prudent to suggest he could evolve into a stretch five who knocks down 3-pointers, reverse pivots in a Horns set for an elbow jumper, or makes snap passes from short rolls? For those suggestions, I’ll humbly take my mulligan.

Instead, Martin’s adaptations expanded Tilmon’s portfolio enough to offer him new opportunities without straying too far from what he does well. It’s why MU pays him $3 million, and why I write for this website.

While Tilmon’s efficiency as a scoring threat around the bucket hasn’t changed dramatically, he’s taking 80 percent more — yes, you read that correctly — of those shots per game this season than he did as junior, per Synergy tracking data. Not only that, but the attention he commands from defenses is reflected in his free-throw rate, which, as you can see below, has steadily increased each season in Columbia.

Point-Blank Proficiency | Jeremiah Tilmon | Scoring At Rim

Season Games FG FGA PPS FTR Points Poss PPP
Season Games FG FGA PPS FTR Points Poss PPP
2021 14 4.71 6.36 1.483 0.279 11.43 7.93 1.441
2020 17 2.65 3.53 1.5 0.214 6.12 4.12 1.486
2019 31 2.9 4.74 1.224 0.192 6.97 5.39 1.293
2018 32 2.72 4.25 1.279 0.175 6.38 5 1.275
Synergy Sports

The productivity formula isn’t hard to grasp: more shots and more free throws nets you more points. Just as importantly, though, Tilmon’s not fumbling those touches away. This season, his turnover rate sits at 15.4 percent, which down almost 10 percentage points from a season ago, according to KenPom. Those gaudy metrics stem, in part, from his role in Martin’s system.

Through 14 games, Tilmon’s generating twice as many layup attempts from post-ups compared to last season, per Synergy. You don’t turn your nose up at that, either. Those shots account for 31.9 percent of his overall increase in attempts around the hoop. However, a more in-depth look at his shot composition unearths how MU’s offense unlocks Tilmon’s latent potential.

Tilmon’s Touches | At-Rim Shooting By Play Type

Play Type Shot 2020 2021 CHG %CHG
Play Type Shot 2020 2021 CHG %CHG
Post-Up Layup 0.882 1.786 0.904 102.5
PNR - Roll Man Dunk 0.176 0.643 0.467 265.3
Transition Layup 0.176 0.643 0.467 265.3
Transition Dunk 0.118 0.571 0.453 383.9
Off. Reb. Layup 0.471 0.643 0.172 36.5
Off. Reb. Tip 0.118 0.286 0.168 142.4
Off. Reb. Dunk 0.235 0.357 0.122 51.9
PNR - Roll Man Layup 0.235 0.357 0.122 51.9
Post-Up Dunk 0.235 0.143 0.092 -39.1
Cut Layup 0.235 0.286 0.051 22.08
Cut Dunk 0.647 0.643 0.004 -0.6
Synergy Sports

The key takeaway: Tilmon’s sourced his additional shots from dunks after rolling toward the rim and sprinting rim to rim in transition. In other words, letting lead guards power the offense and push the ball, especially after defensive rebounds, doesn’t sacrifice Tilmon’s usage. Instead, Barcelona’s found new ways to optimize him.

It’s not often you see the entirety of a player’s repertoire in a single game, which only makes Tilmon’s performance more lustrous. What’s more, he packed it all into a roughly 10-minute stretch to start the game. After halftime, TCU ramped up the physicality and started sending more bodies in his direction.

But we can still glimpse all the ways Tilmon’s development and MU’s approach coalesced early on.

How the offense creates a movable feast

To illustrate how Tilmon’s mobility meshes seamlessly, I’ll show you the possession that led off this piece. Once the ball is in Tilmon’s hands, Pinson circulates the floor-trotting from the top of the arc before accelerating through a pair of staggers screens intended to shed Mike Miles. Back at the top of the arc, Tilmon returns the favor with a hand-off.

Pause the clip for a second, too.

Miles is recovering. Nembhard could jump to the ball from the wing, but he doesn’t. Samuels finds himself in a sticky spot playing drop coverage. Helping up the lane creates a pocket pass for Pinson, while retreating opens up a middle drive. So, he plants his feet and gets big. With no one slowing him down, Tilmon’s path is clean, and he’s an easy target.

Rim Running

The Tigers’ newfound embrace of pace is on display two minutes later, with Tilmon as the chief beneficiary. Off the top, TCU’s transition defense is woeful. No one sprints back to the rim, and the Horned Frogs don’t build a wall. A secondary break is a triage. Do the big things first: protect the hoop and stop the ball.

Instead, Tilmon sprints past four guys clad in gray, and without any pressure applied, Kobe Brown makes the easy hit-ahead pass to his teammate busting it. The decision to play on the break partially explains why Tilmon’s thrown down a dunk 29 times this season — and on pace to more than double his previous best (32) from his freshman season.

Rolling, Rolling, Rolling

Leap ahead toward the latter stage of the first half, and Tilmon’s comfort in space crops up again. Missouri works out of this alignment enough that I practically consider it their base setup. MU feints a side pick-and-roll in the slot on the left side of the floor, reverses the ball, and tees up a high ball-screen pairing of Tilmon and Drew Buggs.

TCU’s coverage does its job, but the Horned Frogs’ help defense again whiffs on tagging Tilmon. Assuming PJ Fuller grasps the scouting report, he should know it’s kosher to bail on Pickett in the left corner. If there’s a weak-side kick-out, all Fuller needs to do is close out short and force the Tigers’ wing, a 31.6 percent 3-pointer shooter, to hoist up a jumper.

Ultimately, Fuller doesn’t commit to either option. He stunts in toward the lane, doesn’t hold up the roll man, and leaves the scene as Buggs whirls around the lane. Left unoccupied, Tilmon receives and corrals a dump-off for the finish.

Second Chances

Synergy’s charting system designated this clip as an offensive rebound. That’s, well, generous. Frankly, Tilmon simply claimed what he thought was rightfully his and cared little about what Taryn Todd, who deserves credit for trying to box out the fellow, wants or desires.

Through Saturday, Tilmon ranked 44th nationally with a 13.8 offensive rebound percentage, and he’s second (12.9 percent) in the SEC during conference play. Modestly boosting second possessions presents easy scoring chances, too, and Tilmon’s taking advantage.

In the past, one argument lodged against increasing Tilmon’s utility as a ball-screener rested on the fear he’d be whistled for moving screens. At least so far, those worries can be put aside, with Tilmon only averaging 4.2 fouls per 40 minutes. Think for a moment, too, about how he accrued those fouls on the offensive end: hand-fighting and jostling on reposts and hooking a defender while trying to make his move into the middle of the lane.

Fortunately, veteran guards in Pinson, Buggs, and Dru Smith understand how to use Tilmon’s screens and the angles he sets them. Those nuances keep Tilmon stationary and whistles silent. Meanwhile, the possibility of a charge call goes down, too, because opponents often decide to have their post player either show hard or lurk in drop coverage. The first-order problem is to stop the driver, while, as we’ve established, a help defender picks up Tilmon.

Taken together, Tilmon’s not scrapping on the block, can get a relatively clean touch, and might be finishing against an undersized defender. And if the dribbler keeps the ball for a rim attack, a broken floor and garbled block-out responsibilities allow Tilmon to troll for putbacks.

New places and composure on the block

Setting up shop on the low block, Tilmon could be a load for any defender to handle when singled up. And if you lost the battle for deep position, aggressively trying to front him could work out poorly.

Naturally, enough possessions piled up to create a concise scouting report. Tilmon prefers the left block, where he can turn toward the middle for a hook shot. So, defenses wait for his first dribble before a guard digs down from the wing or a defender crosses the lane to sneak up from the baseline to nudge the ball away.

Last season, Tilmon confronted a hard-double 65 percent of the time he caught the ball on the left block, and 16 percent of the time, extra pressure yielded a turnover. Ideally, Tilmon would whip a pass to a shooter, preferably in the opposite slot, for an open jumper, keeping defenses honest. Yet MU only averaged 0.688 points per possession on those passes and sank a woeful 26.7 percent of their attempts.

While Tilmon remains most at home on the left side of the floor, he’s willing to travel to find quality post touches. And once again, Martin’s offense tries to nurture that variety. Perhaps it uses a roll-and-replace action to set up a high-low look between Mitchell Smith and Tilmon, who ducks into the middle of the lane. Or instead of following up a pin down by screening for a guard on the wing, Tilmon tries to bury a smaller defender after a switch.

We needed scant time to see it Saturday.

As soon as Tilmon’s feet reach the paint, he tries to pin and seal Jaedon LeDee near the restricted area’s top. It’s unsuccessful, but Tilmon’s undeterred. The early work continues when he relocates as the right block, establishes a wide base, gets LeDee on his hip, and presents an easy target.

The entry feed is straightforward for Kobe Brown, and notice what Tilmon does after the catch. He uses a dribble to maneuver under the rim and utilizes the rim as a shield. Keeping Samuel on his back, Tilmon’s finish is easy enough.

Assured Step (Through)

Cue up this sequence to digest my earlier point about MU tweaking sets to manufacture post-up chances creatively

Tilmon’s camped at the left elbow on this particular trip, where he functions as a stationary delivery station for a potential handoff. Theoretically, Pinson sprints into a screen for Pickett, who rockets past Tilmon, takes the rock, and turns the corner for a middle drive. No such luck this time. Instead, Tilmon slides down to the left block and goes to work.

Frankly, Tilmon’s set up a tad too far from the lane. Yet he’s able to keep his dribble and alive and slip his shoulders under Samuel after he walls up. This isn’t a true double-team, but it’s close enough given how forward Kevin Easley rotates over as the help defender. As Easley arrives, Tilmon does panic. He merely takes an extra-long stride, stepping through and laying the ball off the glass.

Taking Countermeasures

By now, we shouldn’t be surprised the game has slowed down for Tilmon, but it’s still heartening to see him keep a cool head when he can’t bully his way to his favorite spot on the floor.

When Samuel committed to cutting off a path to the middle of the lane, Tilmon adroitly sensed where the opposing big men put his weight and evaded it. For example, in the first half, he kept his pivot foot, reversed course, shoulder faked, and stepped toward the baseline.

Fast forward to Tilmon’s first proper post-up chance in the second half. After a rip screen from Brown sets him deep on the block, Tilmon senses Samuel on his left hip and uses a dribble to move up the lane, creating space for him to spin toward the baseline for a contested finish.

To be fair, we’ve witnessed similar plays in the past, but perversely, they were exceptional because they were sporadic. They teased the staff and all of us watching about what Tilmon could be when self-actualized and consistent. If this the long-awaited great leap forward, the timing couldn’t be more fortuitous.

NCAA Basketball: Bradley at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Poised to Peak?

The best version of Tilmon has always been a hypothetical All-SEC selection and, in theory, a stalwart for a roster poised for a deep foray when the calendar rolls around to March. That means keeping up this pace for another eight weeks. Based on all available evidence, it’ll follow a path dotted with accolades.

Coming into the season, the SEC’s depth at the post position lacked known entities. There’s a reason Olivier Sarr, a third-team All-ACC performer at Wake Forest, received so much buzz once he received a waiver to suit up for Kentucky. Nearing the halfway mark of conference play, there’s a compelling argument that Tilmon is its most productive interior scorer, just ahead of Tennessee’s John Fulkerson, Florida’s Colin Castleton and Mississippi State’s Tolu Smith.

Who Are These Guys | Top Interior Scorers | 2020-21

Player Team Post-Up Poss. Around Basket Poss. Total Points PPP
Player Team Post-Up Poss. Around Basket Poss. Total Points PPP
Tolu Smith Mississippi State 41 80 121 141 1.165
Jeremiah Tilmon Missouri 47 47 94 124 1.319
John Fulkerson Tennessee 38 53 91 103 1.132
Colin Castleton Florida 30 59 89 108 1.213
Justin Smith Arkansas 15 70 85 85 1
Synergy Sports

Broadening our scope, Tilmon’s offensive output also rates among the best nationally. Among high-usage post players from power conferences, Tilmon’s efficiency around the hoop (1.319 PPP) ranks eighth out of 25 players. It wedges him between Stanford’s Oscar Da Silva (1.321 PPP) and USC freshman Evan Mobley (1.317 PPP), the latter of whom is a likely top-five selection in the NBA draft.

That Tilmon is trying to work his way in from the periphery of that discussion is a testament to how he’s gone about capping his career.

Belated as it might be, a flourishing Tilmon is vital for a roster defined by a collective — and sometimes inconsistent — spirit pervades. Dynamic as Pinson can be with a live dribble, his scoring output and decision-making can wander afield. Given a lack of proven shotmakers, Mark Smith’s a crucial spot-up component, but he’s only a 31.6 percent shooter in 31 games against top-50 KenPom foes. The closest thing to a metronome is Dru Smith, with three players rotating through as his partner.

Quibble with the timing all you want, but if Tilmon’s broken through, the moment is ripe.

Off the floor, it’s no secret Tilmon’s worked just as diligently to strengthen his mind ($), trying to deploy a toolkit to short-circuit the frustration that detonates foul trouble. Now, the former top-50 talent’s using them deftly ($). He’s shushing the doubts that whisper and showing vividly how he translates lessons from the workouts to live-action.

And if Saturday’s any indication, they’re finally in potent practice.