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Mizzou Hoops Position Preview: Wing

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Led by Javon Pickett, Cuonzo Martin has a few experienced vets to pull from along with one mysterious freshman.

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

We’re steadily marching on toward opening night for Mizzou Hoops, and our countdown is officially now inside of a week. As we prepare for Central Michigan, we’re continuing our roster preview through the position groups, which will conclude the day before the season opener. You can find the first two posts in this series here:

Today, we’re covering the wings (no, not the ones with Paul McCartney), who are led by Mizzou’s longest tenured player and feature two brand new faces.

Leading the way at the wing position is a name Mizzou fans will be familiar with, a rare occurrence on this year’s roster. We’re all familiar with what Javon Pickett brings to the table, but is there anything new for him to offer in his senior season?

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Matthew Harris, Basketball Editor: By now, we know Cuonzo Martin has a deep affinity for the senior, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he leans on the Belleville East product in the season’s early days. That said, Pickett’s net rating checked in at minus-11.1 last season, and his presence on the floor was a net zero for the team’s efficiency. Meanwhile, some of the Tigers’ least efficient lineups were those where Pickett and other reserves featured prominently.

That’s not an effort to slag Pickett, either. His minutes decreased but his offensive rating rose last season to 104.2, per KenPom, improvement driven by improved jump-shooting, timely putbacks, and exploiting MU’s quicker tempo to score in transition. And even with all the roster turnover, those assets are still valuable. There’s no shame in being the sixth or seventh man in the rotation, and Pickett’s shown he’s best utilized in that role.

Parker Gillam, Basketball Beat Writer: On a team without a lot of proven contributors returning, it is safe to assume that Cuonzo Martin will be looking to Pickett early for leadership. However, as Matthew pointed out in his statistics, Pickett has not been a game-changer for the Tigers in years past. He has a role, and he plays it. The issue this year is that this team will need more from him, especially on the offensive end.

This is his chance to make a name for himself within this program and prove that he is much more than just an athletic defender. In all likelihood, Pickett’s offseason work will determine if that occurs. If he is the same player he has been previously, then he won’t find himself in a larger role.

Matt Watkins, Guest Speaker: Yes, I think so. In Martin’s 4 seasons at Mizzou, his lineups have featured 10 rotation pieces in their senior seasons. You could make a strong case that 7 of those players had their best season in their final year at Mizzou. Now, just because others have done it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that Pickett will. But there’s something to be said about a history of players going out at their best.

With Pickett individually, the keys for him will be to continue to embrace the “role” in which he thrives. Namely, an off-ball threat that runs the wings in transition for easy buckets, grabs second chance opportunities for put backs, an active cutter and can consistently knock down open jumpers. If he can routinely do those things he can strike that perfect balance of usage and efficiency. Asking him to be a creator or the focal point of the offense is not an ideal role with the body of work up to this point.

In an odd twist of fate, Mizzou pulled off a sort of trade with Kansas State that saw wings Mark Smith and DaJuan Gordon switch places. How will that swap play out for Mizzou?

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Conference Tournament-Kansas State vs TCU Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Matthew Harris: The parties in this swap are a study in contrasts. Smith’s best trait was draining catch-and-shoot jumpers (1.117 PPP), while Gordon (0.691 PPP) posed little threat as a floor-spacer at Kansas State. Yet, Gordon’s finishing around the rim (1.143 PPP) was far superior to Smith, who converted just 33.3 percent of his attempts. As for defense, analytics can’t quite quantify impact, but Gordon grades out better on that end and has a little more of a knack for creating takeaways. Meanwhile, Gordon is far and away a better rebounder for the wing position and might be as effective as some stretch fours when it comes to getting on the glass.

As to how this plays out, Gordon left K-State looking for a stylistic change. In Manhattan, Bruce Weber’s team never fully embraced a fast-tempo, and his offense—despite some tweaks—is still somewhat similar to the motion-based system he learned as a Gene Keady disciple. Ironically, Cuonzo Martin, who was coached by Weber and Keady, has steadily come around to modern trends. Yet, both coaches covet defenders of Gordon’s ilk.

By now, I’m not sure Gordon grows into a sniper behind the arc, but maybe he bounces back to something close to average. Meanwhile, more transition chances and sets that emphasize attacking early in the clock might cater better to Gordon’s skill set and boost his productivity at the margins.

Parker Gillam: K-State has been up and down as a program in recent years (went from Elite 8 run to bottom feeder in the Big 12), but the caliber of player has never been the issue. DaJuan Gordon is a prime example of this. He is going to be a high-effort guy that crashes the glass and plays tough defense, something we all know Cuonzo Martin values heavily in his players. That toughness will automatically give him minutes, so then it just comes down to how he can contribute offensively.

People will likely look at the lost shooting from Mark Smith and expect Gordon to be a similar player in this swap, but that just will not be the case. Gordon is iffy from the outside but excels around the rim, especially off of rebounds and put backs. The major key will be if Gordon can at least make defenders respect him outside of the arc. He doesn’t have to be prolific, but if defenses can just not worry about him outside when he is playing the 3 or 4, then it will harm the offense as a whole, and Tiger fans will begin to think they lost this trade.

Matt Watkins, Guest Speaker: Well, I believe that sometimes a change of scenery can lead to a soft reset with production following shortly. Starting off with Mark Smith, he was a valuable player for Mizzou over the course of three seasons. For much of his time, he was often the best threat from 3-point range for the Tigers, but that number slid from 45% in 2019 to just 31.5% in his final season. So too did his glass numbers, which slid from a defensive rebound rate north of 19.5% in 2019 to only 10.2% in 2021. Mark’s strengths seem to play better in a more half court-oriented game where he can be counted on for the bulk of his opportunities coming on spot-up jumpers. Simplification may allow for a reset to his strengths.

As for Gordon, count me as a believer. He was not lethal spot up man in his freshman campaign, but he was alright, posting a mark of 0.924 points per attempt. Year 2 brought a lower body injury, some technical adjustments, and a rate that bottomed out south of 0.60 points per attempt. If he is able to regain that even mid-level acumen on the jumper, look out. His bag of tricks includes a profile for an up-tempo system, an incredible defensive motor and upper level athleticism to go with it. The former Chicago Sun POTY has the skills to be an upper level high major difference maker. The question will be can that jump shot come around, and if not, can the other things that make him effective become his focus.

No name is more shrouded in mystery on this roster than Sean Durugordon, a freshman highly touted by some recruiting services and barely regarded by others. Durugordon has been with the team for almost a year and seems to offer a high ceiling. Can he crack the rotation in his first season?

Matthew Harris: This is where the backcourt starts to get crowded. Against Creighton, a box score of unknown provenance reported Durugordon logged just five minutes, while Pickett and Gordon ate up the vast majority of floor time. It goes without saying that the redshirt freshman will have to displace somebody. But who? The veterans in front of him tick a lot of boxes for Martin and have ample experience.

In theory, Durugordon has the physical dimensions (6-foot-7, 215 pounds) and shooting stroke (44.0 3FG%) to emerge as a 3-and-D wing in this rotation. Perhaps he could slide down to the four in small-ball lineups. Or maybe there’s a scenario where Gordon’s jumper doesn’t come around, and MU wants a little more length on the floor in its regular rotation. All of those could be pathways to more time.

Just how much Durugordon plays is something to monitor over the first three games, as Mizzou faces three opponents rated lower than 250th in KenPom. If the Tigers are tidy about their business, Martin might tinker with his lineups—and give Durugordon an opening to make a case for larger role in an eight-man rotation.

Parker Gillam: The easiest path I can envision for Durugordon to earn ample playing time is if DaJuan Gordon’s shooting woes continue in Columbia. The 6-foot-7 product of Connecticut has a solid stroke for his size and could be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. It just all comes down to his development within the offense.

There is certainly a reason that programs like Auburn, Arizona State, and DePaul were after this kid, and I do feel like this Missouri basketball program is close to finding out why. Personally, with Pickett and Gordon in front, I don’t think this is Durugordon’s time yet. He still deserves to get some opportunities early on in the season, and who knows, this wild card could turn up aces.

Matt Watkins, Guest Speaker: I see Durugordon having a highly-translatable skill set to the high major game. The issue in the coming season, however, is the number of mouths to feed, so to speak. As mentioned in a prior preview, I’m a believer that there will be a max of effectively 3 positions on the court: Primary on-ball, traditional Post and everyone else. Durugordon does not possess the profile that fits in the first two categories, so he goes into the bullpen, or is it the arm barn? No matter, his minutes will have to be earned by practice effort and game time production.

Early on, Durugordon can project nicely as a player who can grab some playing time by being an active defender and rebounder, as well as producing in spot up opportunities. His plus size and upper level athleticism can help. Assuming those things bear fruit, finding his niche on offense and performing when called upon could move him up the board.