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Off the Mark: What’s behind Missouri’s poor shooting?

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Cuonzo Martin’s offense has taken productive steps forward, but its struggles from 3-point range may be as much about personnel as it is scheme.

NCAA Basketball: Oral Roberts at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

By almost any metric, Missouri’s anemic offense is off to a robust start this season. Building their attack around playmaking out of ball screens and selectively pushing the pace has helped the Tigers get into the paint, earn more trips to the line, and powered an undefeated start that’s lifted the program to a heady No. 12 ranking in the latest Associated Press poll.

Yet as MU prepares to host eighth-ranked Tennessee on Wednesday in a high-stakes SEC opener, a familiar question still lingers, ready to produce doubt: Will it make shots?

That’s not an idle query, either.

Last week, the Tigers shot 14.3 percent from the 3-point stripe against Bradley, only averting an upset bid after Mark Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon started applying late pressure on the rim. But the poor performances against the Braves isn’t an aberration. In their last four outings, MU’s sporting a putrid 24.4 percent clip from long range.

Overcoming woeful shooting is feasible against a foe out of the Missouri Valley Conference. The Volunteers are of an entirely different order, ranking third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. Meanwhile, four more SEC peers rank among the top 30 nationally, and just four programs — Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, and LSU — fall outside the top-50.

As the schedule shifts, MU is likely to find gaps smaller, the lane more clogged, and more agile big men protecting the rim. Stretching the floor isn’t just a trouble-shooting exercise. It’s paramount to keeping their offense humming.

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

How problematic is MU’s shooting?

Let’s be clear before we go any further: MU’s roster isn’t filled with dead-eye shooters.

That statement isn’t meant to be harsh. It’s merely an acknowledgment of reality. A year ago, the Tigers finished 329th in 3-point shooting percentage. And six games into this season, they’re hitting a 28.4 percent clip, which checks in at 277th nationally, per KenPom.

During the offseason, we mused about whether those woes stemmed from a mix of a deeper 3-point arc and zapped confidence after shots failed to fall. Along the way, coach Cuonzo Martin’s made it abundantly clear his team drains jumpers in practice. Translating it to live-action, though, has been another matter.

While Martin’s faith in his roster is understandable, the mounting pile of data tells us that the appraisal is optimistic.

How Martin’s gone about calibrating his offense is also an indication of the Tigers’ shooting prowess. Explaining why he elevated a pick-and-roll subpackage to MU’s base offense, Martin noted the Tigers often launched deeper attempts from the wing. Altering scheme not only put the ball in the hands of his playmakers but, in theory, it would produce more 3-point looks from the corners, a shot deemed the most efficient in hoops.

At least so far, the pivot to Barcelona has reaped some of its intended rewards. Almost 44.1 percent of Mizzou’s field-goal attempts are near the basket, and nearly a quarter (22.2%) come at the rim. Couple that shot selection with a 39.0 free-throw rate, and it’s easy to see how MU’s adjusted offensive efficiency checks in at 53rd nationally, a jump of almost 100 spots, according to KenPom data.

Meanwhile, MU’s managed that increase in point-blank shots while also slicing its reliance on post-ups in half from Martin’s first season. The Tigers’ dominant play-type remains the spot-up, but they’ve practically doubled their transition possessions and increased their pick-and-roll usage by 29.5 percent.

Shot Distribution | By Distance | Mizzou Basketball

Distance 2018 2019 2020 2021* %Shots
Distance 2018 2019 2020 2021* %Shots
0-4 feet 35.89 38.55 37.12 44.31 37.82
5-8 feet 8.63 11.34 9.59 8.38 9.82
9-12 feet 4.83 3.6 6.59 4.49 4.99
13-16 feet 2.95 2.81 2.76 0.91 2.74
17 feet-3-Point Line 2.1 3.26 3.24 2.69 2.87
3-Pointers 45.6 40.44 40.7 39.22 41.76
*In Progress Synergy Sports

There’s another tradeoff, too: fewer 3-point attempts. Compared to Martin’s first season, when almost 45.6 percent of MU’s shots came from long range, the Tigers have steadily pared back their reliance on jumpers.

Make no mistake, though, MU’s shot selection remains distinctly modern, with 83.5 percent of attempts coming at the rim or behind the arc. It’s simply purged mid-range jumpers and post-ups. All the while, MU’s efficiency on rim attacks has risen to 1.257 points per shot, a 9.2 percent increase from last season.

Unfortunately, that shift hasn’t made a dent in the Tigers’ efforts to space the floor. Ideally, the value of a 3-pointer is roughly equivalent to a layup, or approximately 1.1 points per shot. At the moment, those shots only net 0.87 PPS for Martin’s crew, and that’s with Mark Smith’s 37-point clip still in the mix. More worrisome, the Tigers are on track to see the value of their 3-point attempts decline for a fourth consecutive season.

Shooting Efficiency (PPS) | By Distance | Mizzou Basketball

Distance 2018 2019 2020 2021* Total
Distance 2018 2019 2020 2021* Total
0-4 feet 1.155 1.055 1.151 1.257 1.129
5-8 feet 0.789 0.727 0.736 0.5 0.736
9-12 feet 0.941 0.73 0.661 0.533 0.756
13-16 feet 0.692 0.653 0.681 1.333 0.689
17 feet-3-Point Line 0.647 0.702 0.473 0.667 0.608
3-Pointers 1.154 1.092 0.89 0.87 1.04
*In Progress Synergy Sports

The importance of 3-pointers has steadily evolved since Martin’s arrival, too. Early on, when Martin seemed intrigued by Villanova’s stylistic approach, they were a critical component of the Tigers’ offense. It was often a question about whether MU could drain enough of them, capturing the shot’s added value, to offset possessions it lost to slipshod ball-handling.

Ahead of last season, Martin touted shotmaking as a strength of the roster, one that quickly turned into a liability. The hope for this campaign was that it was an aberration. Instead, the erratic shooting appears to be more of a trait than a product of circumstance. Once you strip out Mark Smith’s shooting numbers, the rest of the Tigers are only connecting on 23.5 percent of their 3-point attempts this season.

Now, there might be some temptation to chalk the problem up to a small sample size. But dating back to the 2018-19 season, the split between Smith’s accuracy and the rest of his teammates is apparent. Over that span, which runs 69 games, the bulk of the roster has watched the moving average of accuracy on unguarded 3-balls ebb to nearly 30 percent, almost six percentage points below the Division I average.

Those struggles form the template for emerging scouting report opponents rely on.

Instead of crashing the glass, they bail out to set their transition defense to limit secondary break opportunities. Once MU sets up its half-court offense, they mix hard-hedging or drop coverage to slow down Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson in pick-and-rolls. Meanwhile, help defenders creep in to clog the middle as Jeremiah Tilmon rolls or swipes at the ball when a guard drives into a gap.

In those ball-screen coverages, defenders frequently go under the screener. And having more defenders with a foot in the lane requires them to play more than one pass away, leaving Javon Pickett, Kobe Brown, or Mitchell Smith wide open in the corners.

Four years ago, there was a toll to be paid for over-helping. Kassius Robertson, for example, became a reliable secondary ball-handler and frequently drained 3s when his man decided not to fight over the top of a screen. On the weak side of the floor, Jordan Barnett’s stroke made him a potent catch-and-shoot option. Or, in some cases, Jontay Porter stretched defenses with 3-pointers from the top of the key on roll-and-replace actions.

Surveying the current roster, though, doesn’t turn up obvious options, and it’s worth taking a look at the kinds of shots Dru Smith, Pinson, Pickett and Kobe Brown are putting aloft.

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

What’s driving poor shooting numbers?

Auditing Missouri’s misses, what stands out is how many of those shots aren’t coming from the corner, and many of them — almost 42 percent — are taken late in the shot clock.

Granted, part of that is a function of the Tigers’ offense and dependent on which player is shooting. For example, almost a third of the missed shots I examined came off the dribble, and a majority of the time, Pinson was the shooter. By contrast, Brown’s shots often came from the corner, where he spaces the floor and serves as a kick-out option for a guard driving the lane.

So, rather than lump all the errant shots together, I figured it would be easier to go player-by-player to see the types of looks they generate.

Xavier Pinson

Dissecting the junior’s shot selection is all about timing, specifically, when and where the ball comes to him during a possession. For our purposes, we’ll break it down broadly.

  • Early Clock: It’s rare for the Tigers to run the combo guard off screening actions, but there’s a specific instance when Martin’s inclined to do it—in-bounds plays. In these instances, Pinson serves tosses the ball to Tilmon in a short corner, sprints over the top of the Tigers’ big man, and takes a handoff.
  • Late Clock: When the ball isn’t in Pinson’s hands, he will set up shop in the weak-side slot for catch-and-shoots off dribble penetration or a post-up from Tilmon. Or there are instances where MU’s initial set doesn’t pan out, and the ball comes to Pinson for a ball-screen situation or isolation play.

Those distinctions matter, too. As a spot-up element, especially on the right side of the floor, Pinson’s knocked down 46.2 percent (6 of 13) of spot-up attempts this season. But when he’s on the move or operating in a shrinking window of time, he’s only hit 2 of 19 shots (10.5 percent), or 0.316 PPPS, per Synergy tracking data.

3-Point Shooting Efficiency | Xavier Pinson | 2020-21

Play Type 3FG 3FGA FG% PPS
Play Type 3FG 3FGA FG% PPS
Spot-Up 6 13 46.2 1.385
Pick-and-Roll 1 9 11.1 0.33
Isolation 0 3 0 0
Handoff 0 3 0 0
Off Screen 0 2 0 0
Transition 1 1 100 3
Miscellaneous 0 1 0 0
Total 8 32 25 0.75
Synergy Sports

Reviewing the film helps us understand how Pinson goes about creating his shots. Let’s start with handoffs, which have mostly come during out-of-bounds situations. A prime example came midway through the second half against Bradley, where Pinson exits the exchange with Tilmon, surveys the floor, and puts up a jumper from the right wing.

Handoffs and weave actions have also become more prominent in Missouri’s offense this season. Typically, the hope is to isolate a favorable switch for a guard to attack off the bounce, reading whether to drive the ball to the paint, kick to a relocating shooter on the opposite side, or dump the ball off to a post player in a short corner.

On this trip against Wichita State, Pinson sprinted over a screen from Mark Smith and into the exchange with Mitchell Smith. Dexter Dennis gets hung up fighting over the top, while Clarence Jackson sinks off. That creates an open look for Pinson, who doesn’t see his shot drop.

Studying Pinson’s misses drives home the fact that, like last season, MU turns to him when its half-court offense has stalled out. Almost half of the misses I watched came with less than 12 seconds on the shot clock, and the majority of those involved a ball-screen or isolation touch.

This possession against Liberty, whose pack line system frustrated the Tigers at times, illustrates how MU can lean on Pinson to conjure up creativity.

After inbounding the ball, Missouri runs screening action that puts two players — Tilmon and Pickett — in opposite slots, while Mark Smith and Drew Buggs are in the channels. Buggs tries to use a Tilmon ball screen with the defense lifted off the baseline, but Liberty’s pick-and-roll coverage strings out the graduate transfer. Mark Smith’s defender also lurks around the nail to tag the rolling Tilmon.

Seconds are ticking away, and Buggs maneuvers to the lane to kick the ball to Pinson in the left slot. Flames guard Chris Parker hangs back. Stationed at the elbow, Darius McGhee can stunt to slow Pinson and still recover to Mark Smith. Finally, Kyle Rode is camped out in the restricted area. With scant options, Pinson has to bomb away.

No matter time or score, though, opponents make the strategic bet that Pinson won’t punish them for their conservative approach to guarding him in ball-screen situations. For Liberty, it having its bigs show a little bit more on ball screens to force Pinson and Dru Smith toward ample help. By contrast, Illinois had its defenders go under the screen, while Kofi Cockburn loomed behind.

Depending on his pre-screen read, Pinson might decide that a one-dribble pull-up behind the arc is a quality shot. The defender can’t contest, and the dribble will let him step into the shot in rhythm. But when they don’t fall, it doesn’t force the defense’s hand to switch up its approach.

That’s a slight reversal from Pinson’s first two seasons when he shot 46.4 percent as a dribbler in pick-and-rolls. And while early returns shooting off the catch have come back positive, Pinson went into this season shooting 28.4 percent for his career. Moving into SEC play, the question will be whether Pinson can improve one without seeing a ton of erosion with the other.

Kobe Brown

To me, Brown’s formula for success remains exploiting mismatches off the dribble, timely cutting, and snatching misses for putbacks. That being said, the sophomore can’t entirely abandon his jumper. Finding a path to functionality, though, remains imperative.

Through 36 games, Brown’s only made 25.3 percent of his 3-point attempts, including just 6 of 33 taken from the corner. Admittedly, Brown spotting up and taking aim isn’t going to be a priority for the Tigers on most possessions. Still, any opponent looking over those numbers isn’t going to put much of an emphasis on minding Brown when he tries to space the floor.

This possession against Liberty’s pack line illustrates the point. MU runs a high pick-and-roll with Tilmon and Pinson, who manages to split defenders and draw in help defenders off an inbounds play. You could argue the kick out should have gone to Mark Smith in the slot, but Brown was also all alone in the corner.

Based on the rationale behind MU’s updated offense, that’s a quality look, and it left Brown’s hand before the defender has a legitimate chance to contest.

For his career, Brown’s only nailed 21.9 percent of his unguarded catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, including 2 of 9 this season. While Martin’s pitched Brown as multi-dimensional threat, the bulk of his possessions end in a spot-up, and until he’s shown some reliability in those situations, his impact will be more keenly felt on the defensive end and as a rebounder.

Dru Smith

When it comes to the senior point guard, our analysis is quibbling.

MU’s offense demands Dru help staff the engine room of its offense, working with Pinson to break down defenses off the dribble. Meanwhile, he’s also been the chief beneficiary of a more concerted effort to play in transition, where he’s averaging 1.087 points per possession, according to Synergy.

While Pinson and Dru share ball-handling duties, their roles differ when it is in their hands. When he’s on the floor, Pinson attempts almost 32.5 percent of MU’s shots, which makes for a pretty hefty usage rate. By contrast, Dru’s usage rate (20.0%) is closer to that of a role player, and 3-point shooting drives that divergent. Dru and Pinson have taken the same number of shots inside the arc (40) for the season, but Pinson’s almost doubled-up his backcourt mate from long range.

That disparity aside, their shooting profiles are the same: accurate on catch-and-shoots with struggles knocking down jumpers off the bounce.

3-Point Shooting Efficiency | Dru Smith | 2020-21

Play Type 3FG 3FGA FG% PPS
Play Type 3FG 3FGA FG% PPS
Spot-Up 3 7 42.9 1.286
Pick-and-Roll 0 4 0 0
Handoff 2 2 100 3
Transition 0 3 0 0
Isolation 1 1 3 3
Total 6 17 35.3 1.059
Synergy Sports

Context also matters when assessing Dru’s shooting out of pick-and-rolls. Against Liberty, both of his shots came at a stage in the game when the Tigers had taken control, and MU appeared content to burn the clock. Facing Illinois, though, Dru encountered the same ball-screen defense as Pinson, with the Illini defender ducking under the screener. Unfortunately, Dru didn’t capitalize on the open look it created.

What does this mean moving forward?

It’s probably time to quit imagining the Tigers as a group mired in a slump — not when there’s a couple of season’s worth of data telling us the funk is perpetual.

Right now, MU’s making roughly 30.1 percent of its catch-and-shoot jumpers, putting it almost six percentage points off the pace for Division I. That number’s more sobering when you realize Mark Smith is 11 of 21 (52.4 percent) in those situations. If the rest of the roster were operating a 30 percent clip, it would lift the Tigers to better than 41 percent as a group — giving defenses something to think about when they step toward the ball and away from shooters.

Improvement from Brown would go a long way toward reaching that goal. Yet Javon Pickett’s shooting has also slumped early. The junior is only 1 of 8 from behind the 3-point stripe, and he hasn’t made hit an uncontested look since the Tigers defeated Oregon. While the offense doesn’t demand the junior serve as an elite floor-spacer, he showed promise as a freshman, making 15 of 37 unguarded 3s before slumping last season.

Should Brown and Pickett continue to struggle, it’ll be worth asking whether Martin should start sliding more minutes to a player like Torrence Watson. Right now, Watson appears to be the odd man out of the Tigers’ nine-man rotation, and he hasn’t attempted a shot since going 2 of 5 from long distance in a season-opening win over Oral Roberts.

There’s also this reality: Martin is not going to sit Pinson or Dru Smith merely because they aren’t making pull-up 3s out of ball-screens. Would it be nice? Absolutely. But it doesn’t diminish their overall value.

If Missouri is as good a shooting team as Martin believes, it’s time for it to start showing up in games. While Martin’s been flexible enough to reorient his offense, there comes a certain point where you can’t overhaul your personnel.