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What should Mizzou expect from an immediately eligible transfer?

Here’s what we can tell about the market the Tigers mined to upgrade its roster this offseason.

In early March, Missouri fans might have scoffed if you told them a commitment by a pass-first point guard from a program in the middle of the Pacific Ocean would ease anxiety.

Six weeks later, Drew Buggs’ pledge didn’t trigger a collective exhale so much as it staved another round of panic. After targeting a dozen players and watching three pass them over, coach Cuonzo Martin and his staff can stop scouring the transfer portal.

No, Buggs and fellow commit Ed Chang, a JUCO combo forward, don’t put to rest questions about whether MU’s hunt for elusive perimeter scoring turned up success.

The reality is once wing Justin Turner decided his polished mid-range game was staying put at Bowling Green, hopes for a one-stop solution ended. A quick pivot to David DeJulius, who was recruited over at Michigan, didn’t turn up success, either. Instead, DeJulius, seeking long-term stability and clear path at point guard, picked Cincinnati.

So, MU widened its aperture, courting as many as five prospects last week, a group that included Buggs.

No matter who Martin brings in, the truth is Missouri’s chances of success — and Martin’s long-term staying power — hinges on the existing roster taking a step forward.

Increasingly, the spring signing period focuses on the hundreds of transfers — many from the low- and mid-major levels — relocating and upgrading. The temptation isn’t hard to grasp, either. With one move, a program could import a productive and experienced piece, bypassing the growing pains that come with grooming a freshman over multiple years.

A few years ago, early shoppers on the transfer market — coaches like Fred Hoiberg and Eric Musselman — often had the pick of the litter. Now, in the past two years, that’s changed. Powerhouse programs such as Kentucky, Louisville and Kansas have moved in, siphoning off top-end transfers to shore up (already) amply stocked rosters.

As a result, programs like Missouri, which has adeptly identified pieces like Kassius Robertson, Dru Smith and Mark Smith, wind up pursuing players in the next tier down who see their value inflated. All the while, fans latch on to every move made in de facto free agency.

Now more than ever, it’s worthwhile to ask what we should expect of those players and properly calibrate our expectations.

How do we quantify a transfer’s role?

For this piece, I’ve kept it straightforward. The pool consists of 32 players who were immediately eligible in the SEC over the past five seasons. For each category, I tried to correlate a change in statistical performance with increased program strength, using KenPom ratings as a gauge.

For example, combo forward Nate Sestina saw his playing time reduced by eight minutes a game after leaving Bucknell (No. 145 in KenPom) to suit up for Kentucky (No. 29) this season. Was that situation unique, a product of Sestina leaving the Patriot League for a top-flight program? Or is it more common? I tried to find an answer using the following categories.

Transfer Summary | 2016-2020

Category R-Value Correlation Avg. Avg. Change
Category R-Value Correlation Avg. Avg. Change
MPG 0.4044 Yes 22.06 -4.69
PPG 0.3484 Yes 7.93 -3.67
%POSS 0.2922 Some 18.92 -3.64
3FG% 0.0749 No 31.17 -0.15
DREB% 0.0605 No 13.29 -0.44
ORTG 0.0495 No 104.24 -0.95
2FG% 0.0178 No 43.76 -5.58
ARATE 0.0075 No 11.43 -1.55
Block% 0.002 No 1.84 -0.204
OREB% 0.00005 No 5.75 -0.28
Sports Reference, KenPom

Only three of them showed any statistical relationship between a change in a program ranking and on-court performance: minutes, usage and scoring. I won’t bore you with the particulars of R-squared, but it represents the percentage of variation explained by a linear model. The higher the percentage, the better the model.

In this case, those values range between 29.2 percent (usage) and 40.4 percent (minutes), reflecting the model isn’t lock tight. That makes some sense, though. I didn’t control for any variables, and human behavior can’t be perfectly modeled. These are back-of-the-envelope calculations.

Since 2016, immediately eligible transfers in the SEC averaged roughly 7.9 points in 22 minutes of playing time and with an 18.9 percent usage rate. While they dominate news cycles for the sport, their on-court impact is roughly in line with a role player in a high-major rotation. Understanding that profile can also help frame who coaches pursue in the portal.

Imagine for a moment that you’re in Martin’s shoes. Would you prefer one season of solid but unspectacular production? Or would you opt for a sit-out transfer with multiple seasons of eligibility left? And what do the JUCO ranks have to offer?

These are the decisions Martin is paid $3 million to make, but this quick-and-dirty analysis reveals how we can overvalue what a grad transfer has to offer.

Kentucky v Seton Hall Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Rule No. 1: Transfers play fewer minutes

In a way, Reid Travis fit the one-and-done template that’s synonymous with Kentucky. How he went about it, though, was atypical. After four seasons at Stanford, Travis, a former McDonald’s All-American and two-time All-Pac 12 selection, arrived in Lexington as a grad-transfer.

For all his burnished credentials, the forward’s calculus mirrored one used by mid-major players taking a step up: a lesser role, but better team success. Travis also served as a beta test for coach John Calipari’s first foray into the transfer portal.

Travis’ productivity dipped across the board — 11.2 points and 7.2 rebounds — but he became an anchor on the block as the Wildcats came within a shot of the Final Four. Doing so, though, meant seeing his minutes shrink by five minutes a night — or roughly the average for immediately eligible transfers over the past five seasons.

As you can see, once a player joins a program that finished 60 spots or better than their former home, lesser minutes are practically a given. Only two players saw the floor time increase: Robertson and South Carolina’s Frank Booker. Meanwhile, transfers who were making a substantial jump — usually 200 or more spots in KenPom’s rankings — had their playing shaved by at least eight minutes a night.

Have A Seat | Transfer Minutes Reductions

Season Name Former School New School Old MPG New MPG MPG Change KP Change
Season Name Former School New School Old MPG New MPG MPG Change KP Change
2017 J.C. Hampton Lipscomb Texas A&M 32.9 25 -7.9 210
2017 LaRon Smith Bethune-Cookman Auburn 25.4 12 -13.4 216
2020 Jeantal Cylla UNCW Arkansas 28.2 7.2 -21 225
2020 Micaiah Henry Tennessee Tech South Carolina 25.1 3.9 -21.2 251
2018 Jeremy Combs North Texas LSU 26.1 8.7 -17.4 254
2016 Tomasz Gielo Liberty Ole Miss 30.9 27.4 -3.5 256
2016 Anthony Collins South Florida Texas A&M 33.9 25.7 -8.2 256
2018 Wes Myers Maine South Carolina 30.1 22 -8.1 257
2018 Randy Onwuasor Southern Utah LSU 35 15.6 -19.4 267
2016 Willy Kouassi Kennessaw State Arkansas 19.3 8.2 -11.1 268
2018 James Daniel III Howard Tennessee 35.5 19.7 -15.8 325
KenPom

In almost every case, those players were joining a top-80 program, including three who signed on to rosters that had finished the previous season inside the top 50. Unsurprisingly, they were often sliding into a rotation where roles were clearly established. Not only that, but they face high-major competition each night instead of a handful of times in non-conference action.

So, what can we say about players who do see their minutes increase?

Well, out of nine players, six were transferring from one high-major program to another. One of them is well-known in Columbia, too: guard Mark Smith. In fact, further statistical analysis reveals the Illinois transfer’s increase (plus-9.3 mpg) is an outlier on the edge of a normal distribution curve, behind only Booker, Alabama’s Arthur Edwards (plus-16.6 mpg) and LSU’s Craig Victor, Jr. (plus-19.9 mpg) over the last five seasons.

While this seems like a predictable outcome, it’s the first — and strongest — reminder that we should temper expectations for players migrating in from low- and mid-major programs.

TCU v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Rule No. 2: Transfers experience a dip in usage

A year ago, the staffs working in Fayetteville and Lexington each thought they found the combo forward to plug a hole in their front court.

At Kentucky, coach John Calipari locked down Sestina as his replacement for PJ Washington, who used a stellar sophomore campaign to become a lottery selection in the NBA draft. Choosing a mid-major vet, one who averaged 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds, over a blue-chip prep prospect made sense, too. A freshman would take time to find their footing, while the Wildcats’ returners — EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards — were coming off inconsistent campaigns.

Meanwhile, Musselman followed the same rubric at Arkansas he used at Nevada — speed up a rebuild by wrangling talent from elsewhere. Daniel Gafford moved on to the NBA, while Gabe Osabhuien found a new home at West Virginia. With only Reggie Chaney and Adrio Bailey on the roster, Musselman needed depth — fast. Snagging Jeantal Cylla, who posted 13.7 points and 4.6 rebounds, at UNCW was deemed a coup.

On paper, Sestina’s efficiency and defensive rebounding outpaced Cylla, but they each saw similar minutes and usage for the old clubs. And back then, each seemed earmarked for a significant role at an SEC program.

However, they discovered that an up-transfer can not only come with pared-back minutes, but the amount of offense that flowed through them also diminished. Like peers who made similar moves, life at a high-major program meant a diminished role.

Once again, Robertson and Booker are the exception to the rule — an observation that MU fans should put a pin in moving forward.

Transfers who made a jump of 60-plus spots in program strength posted an average usage of roughly 17.6, a decline of a little more than 5.2 percentage points. Using KenPom’s classification system, almost 60 percent of SEC newcomers wound up serving as role players at their respective programs.

Reviewing our sample, a paltry seven players saw their usage increase, and three of them were moving between high-major programs. Those players were also on the outer bound of our distribution. And as was the case with playing time, the steepest declines took place among prospects making the largest jump in program strength.

Role Reduction | Transfer Usage - 2016-2020

Season Name Former School New School Old %POSS New %POSS %POSS Change KP Change
Season Name Former School New School Old %POSS New %POSS %POSS Change KP Change
2017 J.C. Hampton Lipscomb Texas A&M 23.5 13.5 -10 210
2020 Nate Sestina Bucknell Kentucky 25.4 14.8 -10.6 116
2020 Jeantal Cylla UNCW Arkansas 23.1 13.7 -10.6 225
2018 James Daniel III Howard Tennessee 30.6 17.8 -12.8 325
2020 Micaiah Henry Tennessee Tech South Carolina 20.8 6.9 -13.9 251
2018 Randy Onwuasor Southern Utah LSU 34.5 16.8 -17.7 267
KenPom

Last season, Sestina and Cylla offered a stark contrast in how the acclimation process can unfold.

In Sestina’s case, the necessity for his inside-out game diminished once Richards and combo guard Immanuel Quickley bloomed when SEC play arrived. Paired with Ashton Hagans, the Wildcats identified their three cogs in a rotation that Cal keeps tight. As a result, Sestina saw his usage curtailed by 10.6 percentage points. Instead of a starting role, the Pennsylvania native, who averaged 5.8 points and 3.8 boards, carved out a niche as a sixth man who shot 40.7 percent from deep.

For Cylla, the transition wasn’t so seamless. He saw a similar slippage in usage, but struggled to finish around the rim, rarely attacked off the bounce, and clanked corner 3-pointers. While Cylla proved sturdy on the glass, his 6-foot-7, 215-pound frame wasn’t that of a rim protector. Eventually, Arkansas rolled with a four-guard lineup around undersized centers in Bailey, Chaney and Ethan Henderson. Cylla’s sputtering production amounted to 1.0 points and 1.4 rebounds in 7.2 minutes per game.

L.S.U. v Marquette Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Rule No. 3: Naturally, scoring takes a hit

Advanced statistics aren’t necessary to reach this conclusion. It’s intuitive: a player who logs fewer minutes and has fewer possessions funneled their way is likely going to take a hit in the scoring column. Again, circumstances matter.

Take forward Kerry Blackshear, Jr., for example. When the big man moved to Florida from Virginia Tech, he became the Gators’ starter from the moment he committed. While Blackshear experienced a minor reduction in playing time (2.8 mpg), usage (1.8 %Poss), and scoring (2.1 ppg), the 6-10, 240-pound post met Mike White’s needs for an anchor on the block.

And then there’s Randy Onwuasor.

Suiting up for Southern Utah, the wing dominated the ball. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound guard finished his junior season third nationally in possessions used (856) for the Thunderbirds, according to Synergy Sports. And almost half of those touches came in ball-screens to exploit switches or in isolations, allowing Onwuasor to launch onslaughts on the rim and propelling him to 23.6 points per game.

Yet when he showed up in Baton Rouge, new LSU coach Will Wade already had reeled in point guard Tremont Waters to pilot the offense. Moving off the ball, though, meant jostling with sophomore Skylar Mays and JUCO sniper Daryl Edwards to play alongside veteran Brandon Sampson. Onwuasor didn’t mince words about the transition.

“Probably not having the ball a lot, really having to play off the ball the majority of the game, or all of the game,” Onwuasor said when asked what the biggest adjustment has been between Southern Utah and LSU. “The shots, I’m not getting the amount of shots that I got last year. That’s all been a big adjustment.”

He’s not alone, either.

Over the last five seasons, 75 percent of immediately eligible transfers to the SEC saw their scoring decline, including 11 players who saw declines of five points or more. Meanwhile, only four players — Booker, Smith, Edwards and Victor — lifted their scoring average by five-plus points per night.

Tantalizing as a mid-major transfer’s statistical output might be, the likelihood they can replicate it is slim. Among 22 players who joined a program that finished 100 spots ahead of their former home, only three saw their scoring increase, while the group as a whole saw an average decline of almost 6.5 points per game.

Quick Conclusions

  • Offensive Efficiency: Barely any change. In fact, the average was less than one point per 100 possessions. Statistically, we can’t correlate that tiny shift to change in program strength.
  • Rebounding: Again, the changes in offensive-rebound percentage (-0.28) and defensive rebound percentage (-0.44) are microscopic and not linked to program strength.
  • Passing: Ditto for assist rate. There’s no correlation between the metric and program strength.
NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Nashville Practice Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

What should we take away from all of this?

For one, Missouri has been spoiled.

When I checked standard deviations for minutes, usage and points, a pair of Tigers wound up on the outer edge of a bell curve. Admittedly, we didn’t need a Z score to tell us Kassius Robertson’s brief time in Columbia was exceptional. And before an ankle injury robbed him of 13 games, Mark Smith’s sophomore campaign was tracking a stellar trajectory.

Identifying and landing one of those players can be a tall order, but MU’s staff has plucked three — if you include Dru Smith — from the portal during their tenure. If not for the coronavirus pandemic, which kept Turner and other prospects from visiting campuses, Martin might have done it a fourth time.

While our correlations aren’t airtight, we can loosely forecast for how Turner might have performed in the SEC: 16.9 points on 26.4 percent usage in almost 31 minutes per game. Those numbers also align with Turner’s career numbers against KenPom top-100 opponents.

Justin Turner | Production vs. KenPom Top-100 Teams

Season MP PTS REB AST STL 2FG% 3FG% eFG% TS% PPS
Season MP PTS REB AST STL 2FG% 3FG% eFG% TS% PPS
2018 32.3 17 3.3 2 1 44.2 20 42.4 49 0.79
2019 31.7 16.3 4.2 2.5 0.8 47.3 27.8 45 49 0.9
2020 32.3 16.8 3.3 2.5 1 41.2 38.8 47.1 53 0.94
Career 32 16.6 3.6 2.4 0.9 44.7 32.8 43.9 49 0.88
KenPom, Synergy Sports

While some transfers accept a smaller role, Mizzou coveted a plug-and-play wing. Given MU’s need at that position, Turner’s playing time and usage would not have been dramatically curbed. Against high-major opponents, Turner’s almost resembled a volume scorer, but his efficiency might have improved with a different supporting cast in Columbia.

Once Turner made his decision, though, the Tigers remaining options fit the profile I outlined above. Out of 11 players, eight had projected usage rates below 20 percent, the cutoff in KenPom’s system for a role player. And none of those eight players had projected scoring average above nine points per game. Let’s take a look at Division I transfers who named MU as a finalist in their recruitment.

Smooth Transition | Missouri Transfer Targets — 2020

Player Grad School KP Jump MPG %Poss PPG
Player Grad School KP Jump MPG %Poss PPG
Justin Turner Y Bowling Green 61 30.7 26.38 16.92
David DeJulius N Michigan -81 26.91 19.12 9.48
Jarred Hyder N Fresno State 60 30.38 18.11 7.26
Jimmy Sotos N Bucknell 145 26.05 17.55 7.05
Drew Buggs Y Hawaii 111 30.56 17.4 5.98
KenPom

The table requires some caveats, chiefly that DeJulius, Jarred Hyder, and Jimmy Sotos would have needed waivers to see the floor next season. Let’s set that aside, though.

The logical move for MU was to pivot and identify specialists who could shore up their depth or supply a skill the current roster lacked. In evaluating the staffs search, one trait appeared paramount: comfort playing out of ball-screens, especially high pick-and-rolls.

Turner hunted for floaters and pull-ups. DeJulius could pick out shooters on the wing. Hyder might have been the best finisher at the rim. And Buggs’ efficiency as a passer in those situations stands out, including 1.15 points per possession during his career when passing to a roll man, per Synergy Sports.

If Missouri’s offense is moving toward a scheme more reliant on multiple guards creating out of ball-screens, finding players suited to that approach is imperative. Is Buggs the optimal choice? That remains to be seen, but his recruitment makes sense viewed through that prism.

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