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Switch Up: Exploring Mitchell Smith’s defensive versatility

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The senior’s length, positional flexibility, and ability to play all over the floor offer Cuonzo Martin an ideal piece to fit the Tigers’ needs. 

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

In theory, Arkansas coach Eric Musselman probably salivated at the sight unfolding before him.

After walking the ball up, Jalen Tate dribbled toward Nolan Richardson Court’s right side toward Connor Vanover and Davonte Davis. Angling over Vanover’s screen picks off Missouri wing Javon Pickett. Dru Smith hangs back to keep Tate from turning the corner, allowing Davis to pop out to the top of the key.

Emerging from the scrum, the Razorbacks have what they want: a favorable switch with Davis isolated on MU combo forward Mitchell Smith.

Yet Davis can’t shake the redshirt senior with his first step going left. A spin move at the free-throw line doesn’t shed Smith, either. Instead, he slides along the freshman guard before slipping behind once Davis is practically beneath the rim.

A half-hearted underhand flip goes up, and MU’s Xavier Pinson comes down with a rebound.

Last season, the faint notion of Smith emerging as a versatile switch defender would have been charitably viewed as optimistic.

The lithe Smith, who is 6-foot-10, 220 pounds, projected as a post player who could face up at the elbow— an ideal fit for coach Kim Anderson’s outdated version of the high-low offense. Then came a torn ACL during his freshman season, an injury that figured to sap the kind of agility required to slide and stay in front of guards playing in space.

Instead, like several Anderson holdovers, Smith saw his career rejuvenated during coach Cuonzo Martin’s first three seasons in Columbia. No, his jumper hasn’t stabilized, and it’s likely Smith’s offensive production remains defined by opportunism. But as we saw against Tennessee and Arkansas, he’s sculpted and carved out an unexpected niche.

With Martin’s persona rooted at the defensive end, it’s only a slight surprise Smith hasn’t cracked the Tigers’ starting rotation. That said, he’s often the first Tiger off the bench, and among MU’s higher-usage lineups, he’s effectively splitting time with sophomore Kobe Brown. And given how flexible Martin can be with his lineups, the distinction isn’t all that important.

What matters is the commodity Smith provides, which has been on vivid display early on in SEC play and a season where he and the Tigers are confounding expectations.

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

Free-range four

The shades change on your screen, but Synergy’s shot tracking display shows you the vast expanse Smith covers on the defensive end of the floor.

Since last season, only 34.9 percent of possessions that finished with Smith defending a shot came in the lane. Instead of patrolling the paint, Smith’s point of confrontation fits the era in which he plays: a spot-up jumper launched from behind the 3-point arc.

Diving into play-by-play data helps us narrow down where Smith operates frequently and how successful he is in those locations. To make it easier, I’ve highlighted the five most common play types and shooting areas, which comprise roughly two-thirds of the field-goal attempts Smith’s defended over the past 39 games.

Play Type, Location and Efficiency | Defense | Mitchell Smith — 2019-21

Play Type Location FG FGA Points PPS %Poss
Play Type Location FG FGA Points PPS %Poss
Spot-Up 3-Pointer 10 46 30 0.652 31.51
ISO Lane 6 14 12 0.857 9.59
Spot-Up Lane 2 12 4 0.333 8.22
Post-Up Lane 6 12 12 1 8.22
PNR BH Mid-Range 3 8 6 0.75 5.48
Total All 27 92 64 0.696 63.02
Synergy Sports

Again, Smith spends more time closing out shooters than he does walling up in the lane. Despite playing a traditional front-court position, he’s only guarded a dozen attempts generated from a post touch. And ironically, it’s those encounters where he grades out worst, allowing 1.0 points per shot, per Synergy’s tracking data.

Instead, Smith’s assignments call on him to roam the perimeter and operate in open space.

A couple of years ago, the idea of Smith matched up against a wing would have been seen as problematic. Yet the last two seasons have shown he’s acclimated well to the job. He’s only allowing 0.652 PPS on contested 3-pointers, and perimeter players haven’t been able to exploit playing off the dribble (0.333 PPS) when attacking his closeouts. And isolating a guard on him doesn’t yield any better outcome when driving (0.857 PPS) to the paint.

Eight games into this season, he’s spending less time than ever matched up on the block, facing only 10.2 percent of his shots on post-ups. The most plausible explanation: a healthy Jeremiah Tilmon is one explanation. With the Tigers’ backline anchor at full strength, combo forward is the logical spot for Smith to ply his trade.

Play Type, Location and Efficiency | Defense | Mitchell Smith — 2020-21

Play Type Location FG FGA Points PPS
Play Type Location FG FGA Points PPS
Spot-Up 3-Pointer 0 5 0 0
Spot-Up Lane 1 4 2 1
PNR BH Mid-Range 1 4 2 0.667
ISO Lane 1 4 2 2
Post-Up Mid-Range 0 3 0 0
Synergy Sports

To date, Martin’s allotted the sinewy Smith almost 37.1 percent of available minutes, and the vast majority have seen him used as a straight substitute for Brown, usually trotting to the scorer’s table before the first media timeout. The guard trios surrounding him and Tilmon can be diverse, especially at point guard and combo guard, but MU’s better off when Mark Smith stays on the floor to provide the lineup some semblance of perimeter shooting.

According to Hoop Lens data, with Mitchell Smith alongside MU’s remaining starters, the Tigers’ only cede 0.83 points per possession. That’s eight points better per 100 possessions than other lineups, and regardless of the peers he’s placed with, MU’s defensive overall efficiency (0.91 PPP) doesn’t sag with him on the floor. By contrast, the Tigers become a tad leakier, allowing two more points over 100 possessions, with Brown seeing action.

Ideal Fit? | Defense with Mitchell Smith and Starters

PG CG Wing Wing/CF CF/Post %MIN Poss PPP eFG% TO% OR% FTR Margin
PG CG Wing Wing/CF CF/Post %MIN Poss PPP eFG% TO% OR% FTR Margin
D. Smith Pinson M. Smith Mi. Smith Tilmon 7.58 36 0.83 39.7 13.9 17.4 0.379 15
Hoop Lens

While the permutations are diverse, the reality is Smith has spent roughly 44 percent of his playing time alongside a more traditional post player. The offenses he’s confronting are also relying more on stretch forwards, prioritizing skill to fit into schemes that put more of a premium on playing fast, using a blend of pick-and-rolls and spot-up shooting that optimizes their spacing.

It’s an environment that puts a premium on defenders who are agile enough to switch cleanly, possess length to disrupt reads and passes, and active enough to rebound outside their immediate area.

And over the past five seasons, the volume of post-ups run by college programs has also steadily declined, changing the role of back-to-the-basket posts in the process. Yes, some teams have a traditional big man in their lineup, but as pace-and-space has come into vogue, programs have started to covet length, mobility, steady hands, and the ability to face up. Those traits are vital for bigs who will get touches as a roller, running rim to rim, snag dump-offs in the short corner, or drain pick-and-pop jumpers.

Despite Tilmon’s deft feet and ample athleticism, those lineups can still play him off the floor. And that’s where Smith’s dexterity is a boon.

When Smith slides down to play as a small-ball center, Brown tends to stick around, ensuring the Tigers don’t entirely sacrifice a size advantage up front. Yet Smith’s presence empowered Martin to embrace shrinking his lineups and pushing the tempo. That tinkering produced four-guard groups around Smith, often utilizing Pickett, who is rugged on the glass and a low-usage driver on offense, at the four spot.

There’s a clear kink, though. Neither Smith nor Pickett make defenders quiver and quake. Often, when they space the floor below the break, the man guarding them will play more than one pass away, pinching in to ensure there’s ample help clogging the lane for would-be rim attacks by Pinson and Dru Smith.

The simple workaround: keep MU’s starting backcourt on the floor. Ball-handling remains assured, and the Tigers can still run their base offense. And again, Smith does what he can to punish teams playing a pack line.

Just as important, however, is the fact Martin avoids making a potentially painful tradeoff defensively.

According to Hoop Lens, pairing three starting guards with Smith and Pickett has only resulted in MU allowing 0.92 points per possession. That scaled-down lineup has also limited opponents to just 28.6 percent shooting inside the arc and a 17.1 offensive rebound percentage. Even better, they’re pocketing enough takeaways (23.1 TO%) to catalyze a transition offense that enables MU more opportunities to score on the break.

But even if Brown still runs at the combo forward spot in tandem with Smith, the defensive results — albeit modest — have generally panned out well for the Tigers.

Going Small | Common lineups with Mitchell Smith at center

PG CG Wing Wing/CF CF/Post %Min Poss PPP eFG% TO% OR% FTR
PG CG Wing Wing/CF CF/Post %Min Poss PPP eFG% TO% OR% FTR
D. Smith Pinson M. Smith Brown Mi. Smith 2.58 11 1.18 55.6 36.4 50 44.4
D. Smith Pinson Pickett Brown Mi. Smith 2.13 5 0.4 16.7 20 33.3 0.333
Buggs D. Smith M. Smith Brown Mi. Smith 1.59 9 0.78 41.7 11.1 0 0.333
Hoop Lens

Out of the 91 lineups MU’s used so far, Smith has been involved in half of them, and pigeonholing his role is impossible. Broadly, he moves among three types of lineups, all of which go through the natural process of executing diverse scouting reports. So one night might call for Smith to be vigilant guarding roll-and-replace, another might have him guarding a big who likes to drive from the elbow, or he might be targeted for isolation possessions after a dribble-handoff.

The last week alone offers ample proof of how each outing comes with a unique challenge.

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

The ins and outs of Smith’s defense

Let’s start with Tennessee’s demolition job. The Volunteers’ 20-point rout rooted itself on the defensive end, where the they limited the Tigers to 0.754 points per possession. (For you record-keepers, that’s the sixth-worst performance of Martin’s tenure.) But as Sam laid out in his autopsy report, the bludgeoning stopped after the first eight or so minutes.

After building a 17-point lead, coach Rick Barnes’ club made a concerted effort to pump its offense through the paint, a shift the had the unintended consequence of bogging down possessions. And when we review the film, we witness how Smith short-circuited Tennessee’s low-post offense.

Let’s begin with the sequence, one where Smith’s spelling Tilmon. After the Volunteers trot through some screening action, including a curl by Jaden Springer, John Fulkerson tries and doesn’t establish a deep post position. Yet the floor’s balanced enough for Yves Pons to toss a clean entry feed.

But once Fulkerson makes the catch, his options are limited. Take Mark Smith, for example, who can dig down and still recover on a potential kick-out to Victor Bailey Jr. stationed at the top of the arc. Meanwhile, Brown’s available for middle help after sliding down the lane while tracking Pons to the short corner.

While Fulkerson has length, he’s not a bruising post player and won’t bury a shoulder in a defender’s chest to open up slight operating room. Instead, he’s reliant on footwork and fluidity. Unable to dislodge Smith, Fulkerson almost drop-steps toward the baseline and reverse pivots to create separation for a fall-way jumper.

Later on, the Volunteers’ big men shifted the conflict zone toward the slot, popping out from the paint to take a ball reversal or from dribble penetration.

Again, the Vols’ primary option is a guard — this time Santiago Vescovi — curling off the baseline. When that fails, they reset with a high ball-screen for Bailey, but instead of looking for Fulkerson dive-bombing down the lane, Fulkerson sprints to the right block. Once Bailey kicks the ball to the weak side, Josiah-Jordan James has the option to dump it down.

Instead, James drives the baseline, forcing Mitchell Smith to rotate down toward the baseline as Mark Smith races to recover. Once Smith steps over, it triggers a pop out from Fulkerson to the wing. Once James is headed off, his best option is to pitch the ball back. Watch how Smith closes out with a high hand, forcing Fulkerson into an awkward runner.

On this possession alone, Smith was all over creation. He played drop coverage, briefly tried to front a post-up, served as help, recovered on a closeout, and forced an inefficient mid-range attempt.

Now we come to the ball reversal. Failing all else, Tennessee cleared out a side of the floor for Pons and let him exploit favorable matchups to assault the rim.

That decision is a marked departure from their free-flowing sets, but Pons, who at 6-foot-6, 215 pounds, might be the best pure athlete in the SEC. The preceding two possessions saw him unleashed in the same action to go solo against Parker Braun in space. (Spoiler: They went poorly for Parker.) So, why not go back to the well again?

No, Smith’s athleticism isn’t in the same territory as Pons, but it’s enough to ride his hip and elevate when Pons attempts to bank a shot home. Unfortunately, Tilmon gets caught ball-watching and fails to box out Fulkerson, who has an open path to tip home the miss.

Squaring off against bigger players, Smith’s aptitude for positioning his body and measuring distance is just as vital as his physical measurables. At Tennessee and Cal, Martin’s rosters featured more assertive rim protectors in Jarnell Stokes and Ivan Rabb. While MU’s big could try to swat more shots, history shows hunting for blocks would put it at risk for foul trouble, especially in the case of Tilmon.

Instead, MU forces tough, contested shots, knowing it has three of the conference’s best board men in Brown, Smith, and Tilmon — all of whom rank among the top 15 for defensive rebound percentage.

Arkansas

With MU looking to bounce back quickly, the Tigers ventured to Arkansas to face an offense operating at the other end of the stylistic spectrum. Under Eric Musselman, the Hogs still want to live in transition but default to a pro-style half-court system, which makes sense given their coach’s curriculum vitae features stints as a head coach in the CBA, G League, and NBA.

When it came to Smith, Musselman’s game plan singled him out as a target in isolation and for favorable switches during pick-and-rolls.

This sequence served as the intro to our piece, and its mechanics are easy to grasp. On the right side of the floor, Vanover will practically set two simultaneous screens on Tate’s defender and for Davis to sprint to the top of the key. In the process, Smith draws the dribbler.

Again, Smith doesn’t crowd Davis, but he doesn’t retreat needlessly, either. The freshman’s only attempted a pair of 3-pointers all season. He’s also not explosive, preferring to play with pace and use his crafty left-hand dribble. Once Davis puts the ball on the deck, Smith ushers him back toward his weaker hand. A brief stunt in from Pickett helps push Davis under the rim, where Smith’s length only increases the degree of difficulty for the finish.

Early in the second half, however, Arkansas goes back to the same action and again on the floor’s right side. The only difference is Tilmon’s presence, which alters the Smith and the Tigers’ approach.

Arkansas still gets its desired matchup, but notice what Pinson and Tilmon do before Davis takes on Smith. First, Pinson fights over the top of the screen and crowds Tate’s pass. Meanwhile, Tilmon briefly flashes toward the would-be dribbler and then recovers back to Vanover — preventing Davis from immediately attacking or whipping a high-low feed to the post.

Bodies are crammed all over the right side of floor, so Davis opts to go left. Maybe another guard blows by Smith, but that’s not Davis. Again, Smith sticks to his man’s hip, ready to contest. It also helps that Dru Smith bailed on tracking Desi Sill’s angle cut to provide extra help.

Muss also dusted off a pretty standard weave action to put Smith on an island after he wound up cross-matched against JD Notae. In theory, this should be problematic for Smith. Yet Notae’s inclined to hunt for pull-up 3-pointers after taking a dribble-handoff. And standing just 6-foot-1, he doesn’t have the physical profile of an elite rim finisher when playing out of DHOs or isolation, averaging only 0.888 PPS this season, per Synergy.

Turns out, turning Notae, a transfer from Jacksonville, into a driver is the better outcome. The combo guard fails to get the first step and only musters a half-hearted attempt near the restricted area. All the while, Tilmon was ready to rotate over and increase the degree of difficulty.

Three minutes later, Notae ran into the same problem after Moody sprinted in front of Smith, allowing the guard to drive the ball. Smith gives ground and stays even with Notae. Meanwhile, Jaylin Williams would-be butt screen doesn’t pick off Smith, who faces little difficulty forcing a miss.

Parsing the metrics after Missouri’s 13-point win, which ended a seven-year winless drought in Fayetteville, shows Smith’s fingerprints, too. The Razorbacks finished the day a ghastly 8 of 30 on shots taken near the rim, a woeful performance that stemmed in part from dealing with Smith’s length all over the floor.

Whether analytics remain favorable to Smith, whose 0.596 PPP allowed ranks in the 87th percentile nationally, holds up will stay up in the air. Later this week, he’ll have to contend with the epitome of the modern a stretch four in LSU’s Trendon Watford and may find himself singled up against the best freshman scorer in Cam Thomas. Ten days later, a gaggle of athletic wings from South Carolina pays a visit to Mizzou Arena. And then there’s a return trip to Knoxville three weeks from today.

Yet he has banked more than enough political capital with Martin, who finds ways to build lineups that incorporate Smith’s fundamentals and smarts and still pack enough offensive punch. Who knows, maybe it prompts the Tigers’ head man to switch up his starting lineup.

Regardless, it seems likely Smith’s versatility will help keep steady minutes in his clutches.