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

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Picking and Choosing

Last season, a shift to a ball-screen heavy scheme gave the Mizzou momentum. But will it serve up enough rim attacks and corner 3s to power the Tigers to the NCAA tournament?

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For a moment, imagine a Missouri possession in the early season-opener against Oral Roberts on Wednesday night.

Point guard Dru Smith brings the ball up the floor as the rest of the Tigers form a box around the lane’s edges. Crossing half-court, he angles toward the left side of the floor, triggering down screens by Kobe Brown and Mark Smith to spring Xavier Pinson and Jeremiah Tilmon loose from their places on neighboring blocks.

Once Pinson reaches the 3-point line, he takes a feed from Dru Smith, pivots, and waits for a split second. From the opposite channel, Tilmon trots over and sets a firm ball screen. As the pick-and-roll begins to play out, the rest of the Tigers take their places and spread the floor. Dru Smith slides down to the left corner. Mark Smith clears to the right one. And Brown pops back out to the left slot.

For the rest of the trip, the onus falls on Pinson to make the right read after turning tight around his big man’s hip.

If the screen picks off the defender and opens a seam, it’s easy—attack the rim. However, a defense playing drop coverage might force him to thread a pocket pass to the rolling Tilmon or toss a lob for him to snag around the rim. Or if wing defenders pinch in, one of the Smiths might be left unattended for kick out that creates a catch-and-shoot jumper or a baseline drive.

So many options off such a simple action—zipper pick-and-roll—that was a part of former FC Barcelona coach Svetislav Pesic’s playbook.

By now, you likely know how coach Cuonzo Martin stripped back the Tigers’ offense late last season and elevated a subpackage named after the cosmopolitan Catalonian capital. Whether the Euroleague stalwarts directly inspired Martin remains unclear. The origin story—that the coach observed a practice during a 2018 vacation—is barebones. And he’s never provided exacting details about the system’s mechanics.

Cryptic as he might be, Martin is adamant the schematic shift, which tapped into his ball-handlers’ scoring ability, was a pivotal decision ($) over the closing stretch. Now, as he prepares to embark on his fourth season in Columbia, the program appears to be banking on the offense’s potent simplicity to unlock the efficiency that escaped it a year ago. Do that, and perhaps the Tigers could secure an NCAA tournament bid come March—or whenever the field of 68 is set.

The pursuit of Bowling Green wing Justin Turner this spring was borne out of a desire to find a proven scorer who thrived in such a setting. And after he opted to stay with the Falcons, the Tigers eventually imported Drew Buggs, a graduate transfer from Hawaii with ample experience navigating pick-and-rolls and making sound decisions. Ideally, the move lifts some of the burden on Dru Smith without paring back the volume of ball screens they can run.

Yet it’s worth asking whether data backs up the move, or if a small sample size gave a false impression.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The path to pick-and-roll

The route to Barcelona proved a meandering one, and it’s evident that it wasn’t the final destination. Instead, MU only found it after earlier stops didn’t pan out.

We don’t need to linger on how that journey unfolded. Still, possession and usage data underscore a crucial insight about Martin: for as inflexible as he appears, he’s adaptable in the way he goes about using his personnel. After MU struggled out of the gate, a chorus rose, critiquing the program’s offensive philosophy. Yet after a dozen games, Martin and his staff went back to the drawing board.

That matters, but it also highlights a key question this season: How many moves are left if this style fizzles? For now, though, let’s quickly retrace the Tigers’ steps.

The program’s first thesis hinged on playing off Jeremiah Tilmon on the low block. Feed possessions to the block while guards screen and cut off the ball. In theory, Tilmon could eat defenders alive in solo coverage and dish the ball to spot-up threats or weak-side cutters if opponents ran bodies at him.

Sure enough, opposing defenses shrank the floor, swarmed Tilmon with double teams, forced turnovers, and kept Tilmon from scoring over his left shoulder. Again, those developments weren’t a surprise. Unfortunately, Mizzou’s poor perimeter shooting—just 29.7 percent from behind the 3-point line—never punished teams when they packed the paint.

Once Tilmon injured his foot, MU course-corrected and moved on to its second schematic stop. With Reed Nikko in the rotation, the Tigers relied on off-ball screening actions to spring shooters loose. Those sets were often slow developing, and while they produced marginally better results, the Tigers only ranked 142nd nationally for efficiency, according to Synergy tracking data.

On closer inspection, though, that average performance was buoyed by Mark Smith, who averaged 1.045 points per possession, per Synergy, and the rest of teammates only posted 0.806 PPP. And it wasn’t as if Smith’s shooting prowess showed up in critical moments. He only shot 29.4 percent against Tier A and Tier B—or top-100—teams in KenPom’s ratings.

But when the junior combo guard suffered a back injury in January, Martin’s hand was forced again. Plotting the moving average for play types tracked in Synergy’s database shows us how the Tigers came upon that fork in the road after 19 games.

Before Georgia pulled into Columbia in late January, it wasn’t as if MU had exiled ball-screens from their offense. They were often used in late-clock situations after Tilmon became bogged down in the post or screens failed to produce a shot. Now, with Tilmon and Mark Smith sidelined, elevating Barcelona became the logical move.

Implementing the system didn’t require the Tigers to scrap the rest of its playbook. It just meant moving some possessions from other columns. At full strength, MU averaged 23.0 pick-and-roll possessions per game. Without a pair of key contributors, it only increased to 25.8, based on Synergy data. MU pared back its post-ups to 4.2 touches per game from 7.4, but its usage of spot-ups and screening remained roughly level.

Healthy Usage | How Missouri adapted to injuries

Roster Status Count PNR Spot-Up Off-Screen Post-Up
Roster Status Count PNR Spot-Up Off-Screen Post-Up
Full Health 16 23.0 21.9 4.7 7.4
No Tilmon 14 23.4 23.4 5.4 3.8
No Ma. Smith 1 16.0 26.0 2.0 6.0
No Tilmon or Ma. Smith 6 25.8 23.8 3.7 4.2
Overall 31 22.9 22.7 4.9 5.7
Synergy Sports

Over the Tigers’ closing 12 games, pick-and-rolls made up 30 percent or more of their offense seven times, and five of those games took place with Tilmon and Mark Smith unavailable. We can also see a concerted effort to concentrate on who was operating in those ball screens. Before nettlesome injuries, Pinson and Dru Smith were ball-handlers roughly 46.5 percent of the time. Afterward, they piloted 54.3 percent of pick-and-rolls.

Tracking the moving average for their usage makes it easy to note the not-so-subtle shift in those possessions’ distribution.

Tasked with driving the Tigers’ offense, the lead guards thrived. Pinson averaged 18.9 points per game over the back half of the conference season, and the pair combined for post 34.9 points per outing over those nine games. More importantly, MU rallied to five games and scrambled out of the SEC cellar.

For Dru Smith, surveying and slicing teams up in ball screens wasn’t an unfamiliar exercise, even if it relied more on guile than raw athleticism. The more significant beneficiary might have been Pinson, who now had a natural reinforcement mechanism to slash and get downhill. Doing so didn’t detract from Dru Smith, either, who’s savvy moving off the ball, especially on pindowns and curling actions that get him into the lane.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Mississippi Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Unlocking scoring potential?

Laying out a supportive case for using Barcelona as the base offense rests on creating the most efficient shots in the game: layups and corner 3s.

Undoubtedly, the scheme helped with the first objective. Over eight games, between a win over Georgia and a loss at Arkansas, Pinson and Dru Smith averaged almost four layups or dunks per game. This increase was modestly correlated (R=0.49) with their usage in pick-and-rolls. The duo also converted at a 52 percent clip—a bump of 3.2 percentage point from the first 19 games.

The efficiency was nothing new for Dru Smith, who averaged 1.057 PPP when he used a ball screen to work his way toward the bucket. Pinson, however, struggles at times to finish when met at the rim. Even with the late boost, he was 20-percent less efficient than his positional partner and is only a 34.7-percent shooter for his career.

Finishing What He Starts | Xavier Pinson | At-Rim Shooting

Play Type - After PNR Poss Points PPP FG% eFG% FG FGA
Play Type - After PNR Poss Points PPP FG% eFG% FG FGA
Early Jumper - - - - - - -
Uses Pick 67 45 0.672 34.7 34.7 17 49
Rejects Pick 12 12 1 45.5 45.5 5 11
Splits - - - - - - -
TO/Foul - - - - - - -
Total 79 57 0.722 36.7 36.7 22 60
Synergy Sports

How durable Pinson’s production is will be is a chief question as the season gets underway. We’ve seen flashes of brilliance, but MU put a marker down on the junior turning the corner. If that assumption proves correct, MU will have a perimeter scoring threat who complements floor-spacers in Mark Smith and Torrence Watson.

Context, however, still matters. Or, more specifically, who is trying to stop the Tigers from knifing into gaps.

Martin’s implementation of the offense not only overlapped with frustrating injuries for his team, but also its opponents. Over the final four games, MU’s steadily curbed the volume of point-guard led pick-and-rolls, while its field goal percentage on rim attacks (21.4 percent) plummeted.

Picking Their Spots | Rim Attacks Out of Ball Screens

Games PNR Poss./Game PG PNR Poss/Game PG PNR - At Rim At-Rim FG%
Games PNR Poss./Game PG PNR Poss/Game PG PNR - At Rim At-Rim FG%
No. 1 to 19 22.2 8.6 2.3 48.8
No. 20 to 27 24.5 12.9 3.6 52
No. 28 to 31 24.3 13.4 3.5 21.4
Total 22.9 10.3 2.7 44.4
Synergy Sports

To a certain extent, personnel could explain that late reversion. Tilmon and Mark Smith were back in the fold, and it was only natural that touches would flow back their way. But even if you take that into account, the finishing touch (3 of 14 FGA) from close range is still dreadful.

When we look back, the Tigers’ scintillating run was bookended by rivalry games with Arkansas with LSU, Auburn, and Ole Miss wedged in between. Whether it was defensive philosophy or a key injury, those four teams were putrid in countering ball screens. It was only during that period last season that Pinson and Dru Smith saw their improved shooting around the basket modestly correlated (R=0.48) with pick-and-roll usage.

Rack ‘Em Up | Correlations between Pick-and-Rolls and Rim Attacks

Games PNR Poss-PG PNR - PG - FG at Rim At-Rim FG%
Games PNR Poss-PG PNR - PG - FG at Rim At-Rim FG%
No. 1-19 0.78 0.46 0.07
No. 20 to 27 0.84 0.46 0.48
No. 28 to 31 0.98 0.79 -0.16
Season 0.74 0.48 -0.02

After he tried to rapidly turn over his roster, coach Eric Musselman lacked a traditional post player to anchor his defense’s back line. That would have been problematic no matter what unfolded on the ball, but the Razorbacks ranked 247th nationally in pick-and-roll defense, per Synergy.

Statistically, LSU was adequate at guarding ball screens, but in ramping on-ball pressure, coach Will Wade also freed up his guards to gamble in passing lanes. Freelancing by Skylar Mays is acceptable when there are big men like Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams lurking in the paint. Last year, though, freshman Trendon Watford would drift to the perimeter. For Missouri, it meant that LSU’s defensive shell was warped and help-side defense non-existent—ideal for average drivers like Dru and Pinson.

Then we come to Auburn. Coach Bruce Pearl’s team covets the opportunity to get in transition and, like LSU, it accepts some risk to do it. As a result, the Tigers finished 331st nationally—and dead last in the SEC—stopping dribblers out pick-and-rolls. And when they hit the road to face MU, it was without Issac Okoro, their best perimeter defender and a future top-five pick in the NBA draft.

Just how impactful was the freshman? Without Okoro on the floor, Auburn allowed 1.06 PPP, and its net rating was 23 points worse, according to HoopLens’ lineup data.

How much did the confluence of MU’s shift and its opponents’ struggles matter? There’s no definitive answer. It should also go without saying that good coaches craft game plans to exploit those favorable circumstances. But as we weigh whether Barcelona optimizes the program’s point guards, it’s not outlandish to wonder if a small sample is skewing perceptions.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Cornering the Catch-and-Shoot Market

The shooting woes that dogged MU last season have been scrutinized from just about every angle. The program’s 3-point rate didn’t differ dramatically from Martin’s second season in charge, and MU ranked 33rd nationally in unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers per game. Yet its 3-point percentage on those attempts skidded to 30.1 percent.

In terms of shot creation, the spacing and movement of Martin’s offense emphasize open 3s from the corner. Analytics wonks preach that it’s the most efficient shot on the floor. Unfortunately, MU only knocked down 29.3 percent (22 of 75) of the ones generated by a kick out after a pick-and-roll.

Ugly as that percentage is, we need to look at who is hoisting those shots. Using Synergy’s shot-chart tool, we can break down MU’s corner 3 attempts by position group, and it doesn’t take long to see one stick out like a sore thumb: combo forwards.

Corner 3-Point Shooting | By Position | Missouri — 2019-2020

Position 3FG 3FGA FG% eFG%
Position 3FG 3FGA FG% eFG%
Wings 12 30 40 60
Combo Forwards 5 30 16.7 25
Combo Guards 3 8 37.5 56.3
Point Guards 2 7 28.6 42.9
Total 22 75 29.3 44
Synergy Sports

Brown, Mitchell Smith, and Tray Jackson tallied the same volume of attempts as the Tigers’ wings, and Brown, in particular, struggled (2 of 17 3FGA) to punish defenses. By comparison, Mark Smith, Torrence Watson, and Javon Pickett combined to shot 39.5 percent (15 of 38) from the same spot on the floor. And for Watson, whose regression is well-documented, knocking down two more corner 3s would have lifted his accuracy to 40.9 percent.

Among high-majors, MU ran the 18th-most pick-and-rolls but was fourth-worst in efficiency (0.812 PPP) among 76 teams. Almost 72 percent of the time, those passes wound up going to spot-up shooters, the fifth-highest rate among power-conference teams. The wrong ones, it turned out.

So, it makes sense that Martin has said a chief goal this offseason is to adjust the kind of shot his offense yields. That starts with shifting them away from stretch fours, or find yourself one who specializes in that trade. To that end, MU added added insurance when it recruited Chang, who drained 41.1 percent of 3-point attempts at Salt Lake Community College.

Mizzou’s surge in late February didn’t rely on those shots. The volume of those remained virtually unchanged, but Barcelona tweaked how the Tigers put pressure on the rim and earned trips to the line. Instead of Tilmon going to work on the block, MU tasked Pinson with getting into a gap and playing north-south. The next step is to do it consistently enough that defense’s over-help, leaving the right shooter unattended.

As for the likes of Brown and Mitchell Smith, the offense still has a use for them. If they’re on the receiving end of a pass, they can catch, rip and go, driving hard on closeouts. Or they can back cut along the baseline if a post player helps up the lane.

Last season, Pinson and Dru Smith showed they could make good decision hitting cutters (1.214 PPP) or finding a big man rolling (1.053 PPP) toward the bucket after they turned the corner. If Brown or Mitchell Smith read the defense well and get open, MU has willing passers ready to reward them.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 18 Hawaii at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Reinforcing the Concept

Adding a player of Drew Buggs’ ilk can be viewed two ways: easing the workload for Dru Smith and insurance if Pinson’s development stalls. In either scenario, though, the Tigers acquired a pass-first point guard to serve as a specialist within their system, which is the fate of most graduate transfers.

As a redshirt junior, Buggs’ output was a reasonable facsimile of what Dru Smith, a preseason pick for the All-SEC second team, provided the Tigers. Almost 29 percent of Buggs’ pick-and-roll possessions saw him use the screen and get to the rim, where averaged 1.0 PPP, per Synergy. His efficiency as a passer (0.971) is reliable enough, while spot-up shooters converted 34.2 percent of the time—roughly the Division I average.

Compared to other distributors from mid-major conferences comparable to the Big West, Buggs’ proficiency lagged behind other high-usage players. But barring injury, Buggs should see his usage dip, and the Tigers shouldn’t rely on him as a primary scoring threat.

Favorable Company | How Drew Buggs compares to similar mid-major point guards

Player Team Poss PPP
Player Team Poss PPP
Desure Buie Hofstra 282 1.103
Jonah Radebaugh Northern Colorado 365 1.088
Marlon Stewart North Dakota 319 1.082
Austen Awosika Cal State-Fullerton 253 1.04
Thomas Funk Army 290 1.017
Drew Buggs Hawaii 241 0.971
Synergy Sports

As for the second scenario, if Buggs supplants a struggling Pinson, there’s some solace in the fact that he’s a more reliable scorer at the rim—even if he’s coming from the Big West Conference. And by pairing him with Dru Smith, the latter could go to work wriggling free off screens. All the while, you do not have to pull a shooter like Mark Smith off the floor.

Bringing Buggs into the fold is the kind of move you make at the margin, though. Ultimately, the success of MU’s Barcelona offense rests with the most experienced roster in the SEC taking a step forward. It requires Pinson’s reliability, good health for Tilmon, improved shot selection by combo forwards, and a bevy of shooters rediscovering the form they showed just two seasons ago.

If those events don’t unfold, it won’t matter how creative and adaptable Martin can be.

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