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Mizzou Hoops Player Review: Xavier Pinson

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The Chicago guard saw his star rise during a torrid stretch in the middle of the season. What sort of improvements does he still need to make — and will he even be back?

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

As we do every year, we’re wrapping up the Mizzou basketball season with Q&As on every one of Missouri’s major contributors. To catch up on the other posts in this series, see the link below:

Today, we turn to the player who rallied the troops and led Mizzou on a late season tear, injecting some much-needed excitement along the way — Chi-town point guard Xavier Pinson.

It’s safe to say that Pinson was the breakout star of the season, especially as he turned it up a notch toward the end of the year. What was the key to Pinson’s late-season star turn?

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

Sam Snelling, Site Manager: Is it too cheesy to say confidence? Probably. But Pinson is a guy who’s excelled periodically, and he got a little more consistent down the stretch run. Pinson was able to get to the line with more frequency, but he was also better about converting his open opportunities. Missouri looked to spread the floor for him (and Dru Smith) and let their guard operate, which is something right in Pinson’s wheelhouse. He’s very good at breaking down defenders off the dribble and the offensive change to give him the ball in those situations provided a boost for both Pinson and the Tiger offense.

Matt Harris, Lead Basketball Writer: It’s been hinted at and mentioned that Missouri’s offense shifted as its rotation absorbed injuries to Mark Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon. The Tigers adopted a more ball-screen heavy system called Barcelona, which might be an allusion to Svetislav Pesic’s scheme for FC Barcelona. Put simply, it blends some motion principles with lifted and side ball-screens, and it enables Pinson and Dru Smith to attack downhill.

The opposition also helped. Down the stretch, MU played six games against squads —Alabama, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt — that lacked a true rim protector. In seven of the season’s final 10 games, Pinson reached double figures, and he converted 50 percent of his attempts around the rim, a vast improvement over 43.4 percent the rest of the season. Meanwhile, Pinson’s spot-up shooting (37.5% on 3-point attempts) ticked up.

Pinson deserves credit for capitalizing on Cuonzo Martin’s tweaks and favorable matchups.

Josh Matejka, Deputy Manager: Late in the season, Missouri was still desperate for an offensive spark, and it seems like the team switched up its offense to rely more on guard creation rather than inside-out play. That style is right in Pinson’s wheelhouse, and all it took was a strong game to get the ball rolling. That confidence likely led to his brief uptick in jump-shooting efficiency, turning Pinson (briefly) into a dynamic lead guard.

Ryan Herrera, Lead Basketball Beat Writer: Not that Pinson was buried on the bench prior to Mark Smith’s injury, but when both he and Dru Smith were holding down the starting guard spots, Pinson wasn’t relied on for much besides providing a spark off the bench. Once Mark Smith went down and Pinson took over in the starting five, his confidence took off. In the 20 games prior to Smith’s injury, Pinson averaged about 21 minutes per game in his reserve role. In the next 11, he averaged 29 MPG as a starter. That uptick in playing time and the usage that came with it gave Pinson that opening he needed. Plus, the loss of Jeremiah Tilmon forced Missouri to adjust its offense for more guard creation that inside-out play. All these factors came together at the right time for Pinson’s emergence.

Despite his improvements, Pinson still struggled with his jump shooting and defense. What key improvements does he need to make to round out his game?

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Snelling: Well if we’re being honest here, his defense is still bad. He gets lost off the ball a lot, misses switches, and generally doesn’t move his feet well enough on the ball. Getting stronger through his lower body will help there some, but more than anything he’s got to care more. I sometimes hate the cliche about defense being mostly mental but for most guys it’s about overcoming the mental part of it, and I think that’s true of X. He also need to be better about fouling, and finishing around the rim. He’s so good at getting by people, but too often went to a cute finish with a flip off his fingers instead of absorbing the contact and finishing the play.

Matt Harris: Sam already hit on my observations of Pinson at the defensive end of the floor. You can point to a specific example against Xavier where a botched switch gave Naji Marshall a clean look to force overtime. Pinson grades out as average in many areas from an analytics perspective, but you can see there’s some cleaning up he can do.

And as I mentioned above, for a player who wants to attack off the dribble, his finishing skills need to improve. Too often, he’ll beat a defender and try a scooping underhand shot once a big rotates over. You rarely see him go straight up, absorb contact and put the ball off the glass. If that’s not going to be part of his game, developing a toolkit of runners and floaters might be worthwhile.

Josh Matejka: Despite what the numbers tell me, I still have some faith in Pinson’s jump shot. He shot over 40 percent from three in his freshman year, and likely suffered some statistical regression in Year Two. Is he a deadly sniper? Likely not, but I wouldn’t be surprise to see him settle in the 37 to 38 percent range at some point.

The real key for Pinson, in my humble opinion, is his defense. X is a lot of fun to watch on the offensive end of the floor, but it’s hard to keep that in the forefront of your mind when he’s immediately getting burned on the other end. That’s not to say he’s a horrible defender — but he is too easily lost in the motion of another team’s offense, and still isn’t big enough to physically body bigger guards. If Pinson wants to take his game to another level, he’ll become as aggressive and exciting a defender as he is a driver.

Ryan Herrera: As others stated above, working on his defense has to be a priority for Pinson. It was fun to watch him take over offensively during games last season, but when that is balanced out by a lack of being able to stay in from of his own man on the other end, it’s an issue. His smaller size definitely exacerbates those defensive struggles, so continuing to try to add size would help in that area. More than anything, though, it could just be Pinson being in the right defensive mindset. He’s got to care more. He’s got to be aware of what the opposing offenses are doing around him. He’s got to know where screens are coming from and how to get around them. And he’s got to be wary of being too aggressive and committing unnecessary fouls. Taking care of the mental side of defense will get him on the right track to being even a serviceable defense down the road.

Pinson surprised some by announcing he’d test the draft waters, and now it seems possible that he could leave Missouri after two seasons. What’s your expectation, and would it be wise for Pinson to leave this early?

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

Sam Snelling: I’ll never fault a kid for leaving to play professionally when there are as many opportunities as there are today. Until the NCAA gets their act together on NIL laws, kids are always going to leave to make money and turn their skill sets into monetary gain while they can. And I’m still not sure what Pinson’s ceiling as a player is just yet. I’m don’t think he’s an NBA player, but I do think he can make a lot of money playing. Maybe it just depends on what his goals ultimately are. Getting started on your professional career isn’t a bad idea because it allows you to focus on your craft full time. Is that the right move for Xavier? Only if he thinks it is. I think there’s more he can accomplish at Missouri as well.

Matt Harris: There are a number of routes to an NBA deal now that a player doesn’t need to be a first-round pick to score a guaranteed deal. Life as a free-agent or shuttling between the G League and NBA, though, is a test of work ethic. And often, a player has to hone a couple of skills, latch on to a reserve role and hope to expand it.

I say that because while Pinson has some intriguing tools, can any of them be a calling card? At the moment, his passing ability figures to be it. Yet out of 10 SEC players with 150-plus possessions as a pick-and-roll passer, Pinson ranked eighth (0.895 PPP) in efficiency this season. Meanwhile, his frame and strength would need to improve to hang in defensively. And in a league that’s become binary in shot selection, Pinson’s rim finishing and spot-up shooting are inconsistent.

I’m not trying to imply Pinson is a bad player, but as a pro prospect, I think there’s more he can do to round out his game. In that way, going through the process, collecting feedback and using it to improve is logical.

Also, the market for secondary ball-handlers isn’t going to dry up. Waiting a year is less likely to hamper Pinson than Jeremiah Tilmon, who is seeing the demand for traditional bigs diminish. Ultimately, though, if Pinson is ready to make hoops his vocation, I won’t fault him. Most players have a decade to capture their true value, not three decades.

Josh Matejka: This question always boils down to the following for young basketball players: what do you want to do with your basketball career? Is the NBA your lone goal? Are you willing to move far away from home to earn a living on the hardwood? How each individual answers those questions dictates what is wisest for them.

Pinson is a gifted player and could have the potential to be a breakdown, energy guy off an NBA bench at some point. But if that’s his goal, he needs a lot of seasoning — and Missouri is likely the place to do it. However, it’s possible Pinson just wants to earn a paycheck doing what he loves. If that’s the case, there’s no reason he shouldn’t leave — he’s undoubtedly good enough to find a landing spot somewhere in the wide world of basketball.

As for what I think he’ll do? I have no insider information to share, but it wouldn’t surprise me one way or the other.

Ryan Herrera: I definitely don’t fault Pinson for entering his name in the NBA Draft. Why wouldn’t he test the waters and get his game critiqued by some of the best minds in basketball? As far as him leaving Missouri, it’s hard to tell. He’s not at an NBA player-level right now, so I don’t see him getting drafted or even landing an undrafted free agent deal. If that’s his endgame, coming back to Columbia is probably best. Now, is he fine with jumping to the NBA G-League or going overseas just to get a paycheck playing basketball? If so, there’s a slew of opportunities out there for him to do so. It really just depends on what Pinson’s goals ultimately are, but we likely won’t know more until the draft process is over.