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Mizzou Hoops Position Preview: Combo Guards

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The combo guard position should operate fluidly with the point guards, but there are some dedicated pieces to discuss.

NCAA Basketball: Green Bay at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

One week from tomorrow, Mizzou Hoops will open up its fifth season of the Cuonzo Martin era and the first season of said era to not have at least one player present in year one. Feels sort of weird, huh?

As we do every season, we’re closing out the preseason with a series of roster previews broken down by position. We started off by looking at the point guards last Friday, and we’ll continue into this week by looking at the wings and combo forwards, closing the series out with the post players next week. You can see the point guard piece below:

Today, we’re examining Missouri’s somewhat thin combo guard depth, including some players who could slide in and out of the position as needed.

Much of Mizzou’s scoring depth has come from its point guards and post players over the past few years, but Amari Davis could offer a punch from the CG spot. How will his numbers at Green Bay translate to the SEC?

NCAA Basketball: Green Bay at Minnesota Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

Matthew Harris, Basketball Editor: Historically, up-transfers like Davis, who are making a big jump in competition level, see their usage slide from a significant contributor to more a role player. That said, the two obvious exceptions in recent years — Dru Smith and Kassius Robertson — suited up in Columbia.

Now, we do see some dips in efficiency, but a player’s baseline matters. Last season, almost 24 percent of Green Bay’s possessions flowed through Davis, but he still posted a plus-11.4 net rating, per Synergy Sports tracking data. More impressively, the Phoenix were 14 points better on possessions with him off the floor. Put another way, the combo guard’s productivity isn’t reliant on hogging possessions.

Those metrics are also among the best for projected members of Mizzou’s rotation — and suggest there’s some slack in Davis’ game. Let’s say Davis’ usage is around 17 percent, which might allow him to preserve some efficiency. It also makes sense; he won’t be the prime mover of MU’s offense. I am curious whether his mid-range heavy game holds up, but Davis knocked down 43.1 percent (25 of 58) of his spot-up attempts last season.

So, it may be about picking his spots attacking the middle of the floor for pull-ups versus spacing to a wing for kick-outs. Still, you can put together an optimistic case for Davis navigating the transition to a high-major conference.

Josh Matejka, Deputy Site Manager: Like most transfers moving up in the college basketball world, Davis’ usage numbers should see a dip, meaning there might be one in the raw stats as well. However, unless Cuonzo Martin plans on using Davis as a primary scoring threat, I think Missouri fans could be surprised at Davis’ output.

The reason I say that is because Davis wasn’t exactly a possession monster in Wisconsin. His 25.9% usage rate would’ve ranked second on Missouri’s 2020-2021 team, but was closer to the rate Dru Smith posted than Xavier Pinson, both primary ball-handlers. So while the raw numbers are probably due to slide with Davis getting fewer looks, it’s also fair to think he could improve on his overall efficiency, which also wasn’t sterling. Davis won’t be the volume scorer he was with the Phoenix, but he could become a dependable secondary scoring option for Missouri, something they haven’t exactly had in spades over the past few years.

Matt Watkins, Guest Speaker: First of all, I would like to thank the fine folks at RockM for having me. The weather is cool, the harmony of leaf blowers is in full throat, 95% of college football teams are out of playoff contention and it’s time for college hoops.

For Amari, the answer to this question is: “Which numbers will translate?” Davis is a player I’m excited about, but like all players, context matters. His freshman year saw him play in a system that averaged 14.5 seconds per offensive possession, fastest in the nation. His sophomore year rolled in and with it came a new coach, Will Ryan, and a reduced offensive pace of 18.5 seconds/possession, good for 313th nationally. Ryan is the son and protege of famed “Swing Offense” architect, Bo Ryan. In the more open system, his eFG% settled at 50.2% vs. the 45.4% in the half court based system. A big reason for this was the drop in shooting percentage at the rim, going from 78.3% to 58.9%. In other words, which game are we predicting to translate?

In my estimation, Davis is a capable scorer and has that “microwave” mentality. He’s put up big time numbers against high major competition. His ability to be a consistent factor will be two-fold: First, can his three point shooting catch up with his demonstrated jump shooting ability? And Second, can Mizzou play at a pace that gives him space to operate, getting to the rim and hitting pull ups? If those two are answered in the affirmative, then yes, absolutely he can replicate, or even improve upon his work at Green Bay. If neither materialize, then struggles may follow.

Kortay Vincent, Basketball Beat Writer: I am not quite the basketball mind that others on this list are, but I’ll do my best impose some wisdom about the upcoming basketball season.

Davis was a prolific scorer the last two seasons. He led the team with 17 points per game last year, and was second team All-Horizon, but translating that to the SEC can be difficult.

Davis’ efficiency decreased from his freshman to sophomore year, and his usage rate only had a slight increase. However, he likely became a more centric part of the defensive gameplan, and that probably won’t be the case playing for Mizzou. I think Davis probably will average double digits, but not more than 14 points being a secondary scoring option for the Tigers this year.

With positionless basketball being the name of the game, do you see any unexpected names getting time at the combo guard this season? If so, who could be a sneaky good fit?

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

Matthew Harris: Multiple ball-handlers are a hallmark here, especially a combo guard who can attack after a reversal or a second-side ball-screen. Put another way: does MU have another guard who can, for example, exploit the second side of the floor? In the point guard preview, I suggested Jarron Coleman might be the best option, assuming Anton Brookshire settles in as a steady option at point guard.

In that world, Coleman and Davis split time at that position, while DaJuan Gordon and Javon Pickett are stalwarts on the wing. Martin could mix and match as needed based on the opposition. Suggesting Coleman is far from sneaky, but his skillset fits best. He showed signs of improved shooting. He’s strong enough to make plays at the rim. And he has the poise and vision as a passer to exploit defenses in rotation.

Josh Matejka: Considering the next question is about primary vs. secondary ball handlers, I’ll go ahead and say that this is where it would be interesting to see Kobe Brown get some run. I don’t know that I can point to much that indicates Brown is a useful combo guard, but Martin and staff seem to believe that his guard skills are worth exploring this season, so why not do it in a position better suited to someone who isn’t a primary ball handler? Brown at CG would probably dictate that Mizzou is playing a little bigger, maybe with Gordon at the wing, DeGray at the four and Keita at the five?

Even then, that’s pretty small... I don’t know, y’all, maybe Kobe Brown shouldn’t be getting a ton of guard minutes after all? Just a thought.

Matt Watkins: Great question. “Positionless Basketball” has become another phrase in a long line of loaded sports terminology, along with “launch angle,” “analytics,” and “fourth down strategy.” But like those other examples, the concept has been around for quite some time. The well done documentary on the undefeated Big 8 Mizzou team provides a perfect example. When interviewed, Norm quipped {paraphrasing} “We didn’t have a lot of traditional positions filled, we had a bunch of good basketball players.” Exactly!

Here, I see a lot of bodies getting time at the amorphous “non-primary ball handler” and “non-traditional post” position. With 5-out formations, inverted ball-screens and a “switch everything” defense, there may be little distinction between a combo guard and a power forward. Whether this comes to fruition remains to be seen. But it’s been a topic of conversation with Martin for years, and this roster is the first at Mizzou that truly appears capable of performing it.

Kortay Vincent, Basketball Beat Writer: Positionless basketball is all the rage these days, and when it works, it can be extremely lethal. Likewise, I think a lot of teams try and do it that aren’t capable and end up performing horribly.

With that being said, I would like to see the Tigers try it out this year. From what Cuonzo said at one of the preseason press conferences, it looks like Kobe Brown is going to get some looks as a secondary ball handler, and I would like to see it in a game. I think it’ll create matchup problems for defenses, and it would be a great change of pace mid-game to have Brown at CG.

During Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson’s tenure, a clear relationship developed which saw Smith become more comfortable working both on and off the ball, while Pinson struggled to do the latter. Do you see either of Mizzou’s rostered PGs being able to move off the ball in 2021-2022?

NCAA Basketball: MAC Conference Tournament - Toledo vs Ball State Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Matthew Harris: I jumped the gun and mentioned this above. Coleman’s the choice to shift off the ball. At Ball State, he made 51.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts last season and converted a 60 percent clip around the rim. When it comes to ball-handling, a 24.8 percent turnover rate is a tad high, but it’s closer to the national average when he’s distributing in pick-and-rolls. Based on those top-line numbers, Coleman’s versatility makes him an obvious choice.

Now, a caveat: how much stock should we put into a 13-game sample size? Consider that as a redshirt freshman, Coleman’s accuracy on catch-and-shoot jumpers was almost 20 percentage points lower (32.4 FG%) than his sophomore campaign in Muncie. Meanwhile, his penchant for turnovers is roughly the same. So there’s a world where Coleman’s perimeter shooting regresses, defenders sag off to clog driving lanes, and he struggles to make plays in tight spaces.

Josh Matejka: It has to be Coleman, mostly because we’ve already seen him have some success off the ball at Ball State. His sophomore numbers may be indicative of a small sample size, but it’s also not totally outlandish that his improvement was the real deal. Sure, Brookshire has the shooting ability, but Coleman presents more size and versatility at the combo position and also tends to be a little looser with the ball when he’s creating. In an ideal world, Brookshire would impress enough to grab the primary PG spot, sliding Coleman to the two and giving Martin options to play with in the two guard positions.

Matt Watkins: This remains to be seen. Coleman, while entering his 4th year of college ball missed a large amount of time in 2021 after redshirting his first year. Brookshire is a freshman. Neither are what I would consider “traditional” point guards. Meaning that both could theoretically project better off the ball than on. Both have shown the ability to succeed as spot up shooters at their respective levels. I believe that Coleman is probably a safer bet to take the lion’s share of the possessions on the ball early on, though Brookshire may be better optimized handling it longer term. The mixing and matching early in the season will be fast and furious.

Kortay Vincent, Basketball Beat Writer: Pretty much like everyone else has said, I think Coleman should shift to off the ball. He’s proven he can make catch and shoot threes, and his size projects better off the ball than Brookshire in my mind.

I also think getting Brookshire the experience on the ball bodes well for the future. Having an experienced ball handler is invaluable, and in a rebuilding year, I think it’s a prime opportunity to get him experience as the primary ball handler while giving him the security blanket of Coleman’s catch and shoot ability.