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Mizzou Hoops Player Review: The Departures

Mario McKinney and Tray Jackson came to Missouri with a lot of promise... and were out of the program within a year. What went wrong?

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-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’re focusing on the two freshmen who left Missouri’s program — Tray Jackson and Mario McKinney, Jr. Once promising prospects, neither found their rhythm as Tigers — what went wrong?

There was some hope Tray Jackson would fill early minutes on a team starved for a combo forward, but he struggled to stay on the floor. What held him back?

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

Sam Snelling, Site Manager: Jackson, even coming into this year, was known for having tantalizing talent but a questionable motor. I had hoped that a coach who demanded effort the way Martin does would be a good remedy. It ended up never quite mixing the way you’d hope. The reality is we can see his talent and it’s not that the coaches can’t, but they see what we can’t... practice. Because we don’t see those minutes, fans tend to become more incensed by more talented guys not getting the time we feel they ‘deserve’. Tray obviously didn’t do what he needed to do in practice to earn time. It ended up being a missed opportunity for him and for Missouri, because I think we all still believe in his talent.

Matt Harris, Lead Basketball Writer: People are going to harp on Martin’s comments about conditioning. Fine. Go ahead. Even as I lobbied for Tray to get some extended minutes, you could spot the reasons why Martin hesitated to offer them. At times, he looked lost trying to keep tabs on his man and stay sound in MU’s defensive shell. He wasn’t quite comfortable against quicker guards he picked up after switching. (Go watch the first three minutes of the Auburn game.) And several times, Martin would summon him back to the bench after he missed a block out, forcing MU to go another round on the defensive end.

We call for coaches to let players work through mistakes, but what if they’re the same issues a coach has consistently pointed out in film sessions, practices or walk-throughs? None of us know to what degree that happened, but Martin’s management of Javon Pickett and Torrence Watson seems instructive. So, while Kobe Brown wasn’t flawless, he was average defending off the ball. He was active on the defensive glass. And he could poke the ball loose, creating a transition opportunities. Chances are those same traits showed up before the Tigers hit the floor at Mizzou Arena.

Josh Matejka, Deputy Editor: Certainly it can’t have been the offense, right? After all, Jackson was one of the most purely gifted offensive players on the roster. More on that in the next question... but what really did Jackson in was his defense. Sure, you expect freshmen to struggle early on the defensive end, but at some point you have to figure it out if you’re going to play, especially in Cuonzo Martin’s system. Jackson never did — he was often lost in the speed of the Division I game, becoming a sieve for opposing teams to attack. It didn’t help that he played a position where Missouri was already out-manned more nights than not.

One thing you also won’t hear about: despite his offensive prowess, Jackson boasted the highest turnover rate on the team out of players with over 15 percent minutes played.

Ryan Herrera, Lead Basketball Beat Writer: His defense held him back the most, as he never looked completely comfortable at that end of the floor. That’s definitely not what gets you extended minutes in Cuonzo Martin’s rotation. One of the things Martin did talk about in terms of Jackson’s playing time was his conditioning, and though plenty of people criticized him for that, there were times you’d see Jackson ask out earlier than Martin probably would’ve pulled him. We don’t know how he was as a practice player, which also could’ve added to Martin’s reluctance to play him more often. He flashed his offensive potential plenty of times, but it didn’t seem to be enough to earn Martin’s complete trust.

Jackson was in position to lock down a major role in 2021, but opted to transfer after one year. What will Missouri miss about him being on the roster?

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Sam Snelling: It’s a tough question to answer with so many guys returning. Jackson had the skill set to push for minutes on the wing, so maybe he ends up being the answer to Missouri’s scoring issues on the wing? Who knows. But probably the biggest thing is athleticism. The Tigers’ roster has several good players, but they’re lacking overall in high level athleticism and Jackson provided that.

Matt Harris: Last summer, Martin touted that the roster was infused with athletic players capable of attacking and creating their own offense. No doubt, Tray hit turbulence transitioning to a perimeter-oriented role, but there were flashes of what he could become: sailing in to snag an offensive rebound, driving baseline on a closeout or catching a lob in the short corner. Assuming he became a reliable off-ball defender and sturdier on the glass, it was easy to see his role expand. A versatile combo forward can be the linchpin for how Martin wants to play, and Jackson possessed all the physical tools to become that asset.

Now? Mizzou needs Brown’s jumper to become a useful weapon and for him to shore on-ball defending. Pull that off, and you have a player who can toggle between the wing and forward spots. Mitchell Smith is becoming an intriguing switch defender, but the tradeoff is a hit to offensive efficiency. Had Jackson’s development unfolded as we hoped, the Tigers would have had a high-upside combo forward—one whose production eased pressure on other areas of the roster.

Josh Matejka: Like I said above, Missouri is now down one incredibly gifted scorer. Jackson had the potential to make it work from all three levels, and had already shown how powerful he could be around the rim. Now Missouri is left with Mitchell Smith (more of a defensive specialist at this point), Kobe Brown (who boasts a lower ceiling than Jackson) and Parker Braun (who doesn’t have the natural ability as Jackson). Does that mean any of those guys couldn’t take a big step forward and turn out better than Jackson? Of course not. But Jackson showed during the year that he was already starting to round the corner on the offensive end — he just needed some more consistency. Unfortunately, that won’t be happening in Columbia.

Ryan Herrera: He was a guy who looked like he could play a huge role in the offense, which was incredibly important considering how often this team struggled to score. Though he wasn’t getting on the floor this season, it was clear that shoring up some of his weak spots would make him an integral part of the system in the years to come. An athletic combo forward could thrive in this system. Jackson had the potential to be that piece, but he’ll ultimately do that somewhere other than Columbia. I don’t think Martin will sit there and regret the way he used Jackson this season, but it could be a tough pill to swallow if Jackson ends up thriving in his new system.

Mario McKinney, Jr only played sparingly in his time at Missouri, but flashed a lot of athletic potential. What positives did you see amidst the chaos?

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Sam Snelling: McKinney was always going to be more of a project than people wanted, but he was far and away the best athlete on the team. When he flashed he flashed big. Much like the enticing YouTube videos featured during his recruitment, McKinney was always a big playmaker. I said probably a hundred times leading up to the season when McKinney hit the floor things would happen, either good or bad. He caused a lot of bad, but that fearlessness in his play hinted at a high ceiling if he could put it all together.

Matt Harris: From the start, I’ve loved McKinney’s tenacity, energy and raw bounce. At times, MU fell in love with jumpers the defense willingly offered. When McKinney checked in, though, you knew what his objective would be. You also knew there might be a forced shot amid a sea of bodies, an ill-advised turnover and maybe a breakdown from taking a gamble defensively. Look, it’s understood that Martin’s roster effuses toughness. But McKinney wanted to take the fight to the other team. It hadn’t been channeled yet and his role was nebulous, but having those qualities on a team can be a boon.

Josh Matejka: No player on Missouri’s roster got the rim like Mario McKinney. It almost got monotonous knowing what was going to happen when he got the ball in his hands — he was going straight to the basket. The thing is, he often succeeded. He wasn’t big or strong enough to muscle through Division I defenders, but he was always able to get in the general vicinity. It’s easy to see how some refinement could have made that a valuable skill in the coming years.

Ryan Herrera: He had a lot of energy, and yes, a ton of athleticism. It was a pleasure to watch him put his head down and attack the basket, and he rewarded us with a few highlights even in the limited time he got. He probably forced things sometimes, and like Jackson, we don’t really know what he was like in practice, but it’s tough to see this team now lose two really athletic players with so much potential offensively. Both struggled to get acclimated to the college game in some areas, but sometimes you have to let freshmen work through that. Unfortunately, neither will do that here.

McKinney wasn’t long for Columbia, transferring right after the team hit conference play. How could the two sides have made things work long-term?

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Sam Snelling: More patience, but McKinney is also is the kind of player who probably needed to play more. Frankly, it was unlikely to work either way. Someone like Mario needed time to cook, and Martin and his staff needed minutes from someone more reliable. I think in order for it to work long term, both sides would have needed different things. Ultimately I think they each took a chance on each other and it didn’t work out.

Matt Harris: Martin gave McKinney as much leeway as a coach can. In the end, though, it comes down to whether a player can meet the standards set down in front of them. If they can’t, both sides need to hit the refresh button. How Vashon plays the game — frenetic, high-pressure and in the open floor — is a stark contrast to Martin’s approach. By coming to Columbia, McKinney would naturally confront some compromises. But his ability to shoot gaps, run the floor and blitz the rim out of ball screens could have been integrated.

Josh Matejka: The question of fit was a red flag from the beginning — Vashon plays the game at a breakneck pace, while Martin’s approach to the game could be (generously) called “methodical.” Still, there could have been some more compromises on both ends. McKinney became predictable in his undying desire to attack, attack, attack, while Martin quickly reinforced that mistakes wouldn’t be tolerated. You can harp on McKinney for not having enough patience or Martin for not giving him enough leeway, but both sides could have done more to make things work.

Ryan Herrera: Like the others said above, the way he played in high school wasn’t going to fit with Martin’s system. Vashon ran a much quicker-paced offense, while Missouri was much less so. McKinney was intent on attacking the basket, but perhaps Martin wanted him to expand his game and open up the floor. I don’t think we could say either side made the compromises necessary for the relationship to work, but damn it would’ve been fun to watch McKinney grow offensively over the next few years.