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Who will keep Mizzou’s pick-and-roll evolution alive?

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The Tigers saw three veteran ball-handlers depart, and Cuonzo Martin will hope the prowess of newcomers translates as they make the jump to the SEC.

Syndication: The Star Press Jordan Kartholl / The Star Press via Imagn Content Services, LLC

We’re down to less than a week before Cuonzo Martin’s overhauled and retrofitted roster takes the floor for a season-opener against Central Michigan, and the only hint we have of what it might look like comes from a box score of mysterious origin.

Upon initial inspection, the sheet of paper bears a striking resemblance to something passed out quickly on press row. The math adds up to a 61-61 tie against Creighton. And Official Kipp Kissinger, who makes his home in Omaha, makes stops at the CIH Health Center.

Let’s say it is the real thing. Caution is still required. Analyzing the document is like reading a screenplay, where all the action and context are stripped out and left purely to the reader’s imagination.

What we do know is the 40-minute dress rehearsal involved two programs undergoing complete reboots. Like Mizzou, Creighton only returns a pair of role players — Alex O’Connell and Ryan Kalkbrenner — and shed 89 percent of its scoring and 85 percent of rebounding. Importing a top-10 recruiting class helps, but coach Craig McDermott still has nine underclassmen on his roster.

Stylistically, they’re a fine match, too. Each wants to keep the pace peppy and spread positionally malleable talent all over the floor. The only difference is the end-game. MU wants to exploit gaps and assault the rim. Creighton bombards opponents from deep.

And we can glean some basic insights from the 68 or so possessions summarized here:

  • Mizzou was (slightly) more efficient, posting 0.97 points per possession to CU’s 0.903
  • MU dominated the paint, outscoring CU 44-28
  • CU didn’t shoot well from behind the arc (24.1 3FG%), but MU was worse (15.8 3FG%)
  • Ball-handling might have tipped the scales, with turnovers costing MU six possessions

Even if we take those data points at face value, it raises some lingering questions as we whittle away the final days of the preseason.

  • How will MU replace experienced guards who were the prime movers of its offense?
  • Will the newcomers shoot the ball consistently enough to maintain spacing?
  • And how do you fill the void left by one of the SEC’s best rim finishers in Jeremiah Tilmon?

Today, we’ll tackle the first query.

NCAA Basketball: Liberty at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

How did Mizzou evolve?

By now, every newly hired coach includes boilerplate language in their introductory remarks. No team in the country will play faster. Fans will be treated to an NBA-inspired offense. And that fusion will prove intoxicating for elite prospects.

If you don’t believe me, Hoop Vision’s Jordan Sperber spliced together the proof.

In March 2017, Cuonzo Martin stood at a podium and made the same pronouncement to a crowd inside Mizzou Arena. Even if Martin professed that desire, three years elapsed before his words became deed. In 10 of his 13 seasons as a head coach, Martin’s teams finished lower than 200th nationally adjusted tempo, including three seasons below 300th, according to KenPom. The hallmarks of his offense remained spot-ups or playing off the post.

But as is well-documented, Martin and his staff switched gears midway through his third season, abandoning Jeremiah Tilmon as an offensive fulcrum and elevating a pick-and-roll-heavy sub-package to the base offense. Again, the logic was obvious—leverage MU’s depth at lead guard and pair it with Tilmon’s mobility.

Doing so required tradeoffs, too. Ball screens replace post-ups, while spot-up attempts are swapped for slower-developing off-ball screening action. According to Synergy Sports tracking data, MU averaged almost 11.5 pick-and-roll possessions per game, the highest tally of Martin’s career. But more importantly, the Tigers asserted themselves on the secondary break. Last season, roughly 32.4 percent of MU’s initial shot attempts came in transition, ranking 34th in Division 1, according to Hoop Math. So, how big of a jump was it? Try 296 spots.

Instead of plodding into the frontcourt and entering the ball to Tilmon, MU snatched down rebounds, outletted the ball quickly, and had its guards run wide and deep. If they didn’t score off that secondary break, they put Xavier Pinson and Dru Smith into early pick-and-roll action, spacing Mark Smith to a wing and having Kobe Brown hold down a corner.

The result: Mizzou finished 49th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency – the second-best performance in Martin’s decade as a high-major coach.

And then all of the players powering that long-awaited shift left.

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

What is Mizzou replacing?

Well, everyone. But what kind of distribution void needs to be filled? Let’s quantify creation, shall we?

Per Synergy, three ball-handlers generated 91.3 percent of MU’s pick-and-roll passes: Xavier Pinson, Dru Smith, and Drew Buggs. The trio posted 0.967 points on those possessions – or the same as the SEC’s average (0.966 PPP). Unsurprisingly, they’re behind programs with the one-man hierarchy at the position: Vanderbilt’s Scotty Pippen Jr., Florida’s Tre Mann, Georgia’s Sahvir Wheeler, and Auburn’s Sharife Cooper.

Still, their collective efforts made them a slightly more efficient version of Minnesota point guard Marcus Carr. In other words, the committee approach to on-ball creation mostly succeeded.

Pick-and-Roll Passing | 2020-21 | By Player

Player Poss/Gm Poss Points PPP FG FGA FG eFG% TO%
Player Poss/Gm Poss Points PPP FG FGA FG eFG% TO%
Xavier Pinson 4.04 105 110 1.048 41 85 48.2 56.5 10.5
Dru Smith 3.5 91 78 0.857 29 82 35.4 42.1 4.4
Drew Buggs 2.5 65 67 1.031 25 55 45.5 52.7 6.2
Total 10.04 261 255 0.967 95 222 42.8 50.2 7.3
Synergy Sports

It’s also easy to identify the drag on the group’s efficiency. Their passes that created spot-up possessions netted just 0.847 PPP, according to Synergy. I’ll touch on this in another piece, but MU’s jump-shooting was putrid. The Tigers were 7 percent less efficient than the national average on those touches, and while the program’s overall spot-up efficiency ranked fourth in the conference, it was just 167th nationally.

Pick-and-Roll Passing | 2020-21 By Pass Type

Pass Type Poss Points PPP FG FGA FG% eFG% TO%
Pass Type Poss Points PPP FG FGA FG% eFG% TO%
Roller 73 92 1.26 36 59 61 65.3 5.5
Spot-Up 177 150 0.847 53 153 34.6 43.8 8.5
Cutter 11 13 1.182 6 19 50 60 0
Total 261 255 0.967 95 231 42.8 50.2 7.3
Synergy Sports

How much responsibility falls on the passer when their teammate doesn’t deliver? For example, Dru Smith averaged 1.087 PPP when dropping dimes to a roller or cutter after getting a ball screen. Yet, Smith kickouts only yielded 0.779 PPP. They weren’t infrequent, either. Instead, they made up almost 34.5 percent of the trio’s pick-and-roll opportunities.

Once you inventory the work done by Pinson, Smith and Buggs, the efficiency for their top five play types – roughly 80 percent of their touches — is just 0.849 PPP. But within the context of Division I, it’s less than 1 percent below average.

Given that Martin wants to deploy the same base offense, he entered the offseason searching for ball-handling to replace 11 or so pick-and-roll passing at average or better efficiency. To do that, he leaned heavily on the transfer portal and signed Springfield Kickapoo product, Anton Brookshire. Now, it’s a matter of figuring out where to place the bar for the newcomers.

Syndication: GreenBay Sarah Kloepping/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, Green Bay Press Gazette via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Who’s at the controls?

Pivoting to Barcelona also brought with it the use of multiple on-ball creators, and based on Martin’s recent remarks, the Tigers will likely split the duty once again. The likely candidates: Brown, Brookshire, fellow freshman Kaleb Brown, and Ball State transfer, Jarron Coleman.

First, let’s tackle the idea of the Brothers Brown handling the point. If you watched any tape of the pair from Lee High School, you know their father wasn’t shy about having them in that position — experience Martin touted before each arrived on campus.

But do you know how many times Kobe Brown’s been asked to run a pick-and-roll? A dozen times. And how many of those saw him serve up a pass? Five. That’s 0.09 possessions per game. That’s not to say Brown couldn’t dabble in ball screens to exploit mismatches. There’s just no sample size for us to evaluate. Skeptical as this site might be, though, I’ve included the junior to cover my bases.

Kobe Brown | Pick-and-Roll Passing | 2020-21

Pass Type Poss Points PPP FG FGA FG% eFG% TO%
Pass Type Poss Points PPP FG FGA FG% eFG% TO%
Roller - - - - - - - -
Spot-Up 1 2 2 1 1 100 100 0
Cutter - - - - - - - -
Total 1 2 2 1 1 100 100 0
Synergy Sports

As for Kaleb Brown, he only saw four minutes of action against Creighton — the smallest allotment of PT among four freshmen. (Trevon Brazile didn’t play.) So who has minutes siphoned away to make room for him in an eight-man rotation, much less to run the offense?

The omission of Green Bay transfer Amari Davis is also surprising. Admittedly, he’s been cast as a potent mid-range threat, especially after receiving a screen in the slot and attacking the nail for a pull-up or a floater in the lane. But the 6-foot-3 combo guard possesses sneaky creation ability, too.

Last season, he served as a PNR passer on 50 possessions — almost on par with Buggs’ usage — and posted 1.12 PPP, per Synergy. The actions priming him to score open opportunities to hit a big slipping from the wing or teammate cutting to the short corner, and he averaged 1.105 PPP when making those passes.

Amari Davis | Pick-and-Roll Passing | 2020-21

Pass Type Poss Points PPP FG FGA FG% eFG% TO%
Pass Type Poss Points PPP FG FGA FG% eFG% TO%
Roller 12 12 1 3 8 37.5 43.8 8.3
Spot-Up 31 35 0.886 10 26 38.5 50 20
Cutter 7 9 1.286 4 7 57.1 57.1 0
Total 50 56 1.12 17 41 41.5 50 16
Synergy Sports

That brings us to Coleman, who played in systems at Cathedral High and Ball State that relied on two ball-handlers. The Indianapolis native has always possessed the preternatural vision and a knack for making competent but unspectacular reads. The question is whether that translates on a roster where he might get the bulk of the minutes at point guard.

Now, he was undoubtedly productive last season in Muncie, averaging 1.098 as a PNR passer, according to Synergy Data. Admittedly, 13 games isn’t a hefty number, but the redshirt sophomore averaged 3.9 possessions per game. That volume is roughly equivalent to Pinson’s workload, and Coleman was slightly more efficient (4.7 percent) with his touches.

Jarron Coleman | Pick-and-Roll Passing | 2020-21

Pass Type Poss Points PPP FG FGA FG% eFG% TO%
Pass Type Poss Points PPP FG FGA FG% eFG% TO%
Roller 12 17 1.417 7 10 70 80 0
Spot-Up 32 29 0.906 10 28 35.7 48.2 9.4
Cutter 7 10 1.429 4 6 66.7 66.7 0
Total 51 56 1.098 21 44 47.7 57.8 5.1
Synergy Sports

Collectively, these three veterans averaged 5.9 PNR passing possessions that netted 1.118 PPP, per Synergy. That’s not a bad place to start. However, there’s the natural question about what sort of dip in efficiency Coleman and Davis might experience as they transfer up,

The data is a mixed bag. Over the last five seasons, 15 point guards and combo guards transferred from mid- and low-major programs into the SEC. As a group, their usage as PNR passers dipped by a whopping 0.01 percent. Some saw their efficiency as playmakers fall off a cliff, but again, the collective average is a more modest decline of 4.9 percent.

Now, there is a weak relationship between a big jump in program quality, measured by the difference in KenPom ratings, but none at all for efficiency. The circumstances at a playmaker’s new home probably play a more significant role.

We’ve seen that play out in Columbia since Martin’s arrival. Kassius Robertson wasn’t recruited as a lead guard, but two mid-year transfers expanded his role. The grad transfer’s PNR passing usage jumped by 20.5 percent compared to his final season at Canisius. Yet Robertson’s efficiency improved by 23.2 percent – helped by better spot-up shooters ringing the perimeter. By contrast, Dru Smith’s usage jumped four-fold while efficiency slid by 21 percent. Unlike Robertson, Smith’s first season was spent on a team that ranked 326th in the nation on catch-and-shoot efficiency, per Synergy data.

Even if Davis and Coleman saw their efficiency decline by about five percent, it would still settle around 1.05 PPP. That would have ranked fifth in the SEC last season, but again, it’s also dependent on the talent sharing the floor with them.

Syndication: Springfield Nathan Papes/Springfield News-Leader, Springfield News-Leader via Imagn Content Services, LLC

What about Anton Brookshire?

If there’s a position where SEC programs tend to stockpile elite prospects, it’s at lead guard. But, unfortunately, it also creates a skewing effect. Because the likes of Kentucky, Florida, Alabama, and Auburn recruit the position so well, there’s a moderate relationship between a player’s composite rating and playing time.

But for prospects like Brookshire, who sits just on the cusp of the top-150, their rating has no connection to how much they see the floor. What we do see, however, is that when players of his ilk see a ton of action, it’s moderately linked (R=0.434) with a lower win tally.

That creates tension. Brookshire needs experience, but you also hope that Coleman thrives and puts a cap on the freshman’s reserve role. Since 2017, freshmen rated similarly to Brookshire averaged about 42 percent of minutes — or 16 each night — and averaged 67 PNR passing possessions – or a little more than two each outing. As for the efficiency of those passes, they netted 0.914 PPP, per Synergy.

Freshmen Forecast | PNR Passing | 2017-2021

Count Avg. Rating Avg. %Min Avg. Poss Avg. Points Avg. PPP FG% TO%
Count Avg. Rating Avg. %Min Avg. Poss Avg. Points Avg. PPP FG% TO%
14 0.8916 41.8 67 61 0.914 39.2 13.1
247Sports, KenPom, Synergy Sports

For simplicity’s sake, we’ll use that historical data as baseline Brookshire. Next, we can apply the average efficiency dip for transfers to Coleman and Davis. Finally, we can put all three together to get a really rough guesstimate of combined efficiency, which comes out to around 1.000 PPP on almost eight PNR passing possessions per game.

A Reasonable Bar | Pick-and-Roll Passing | 2021-22

Player Poss/Game PPP
Player Poss/Game PPP
Jaron Coleman 3.7 1.039
Amari Davis 2 1.06
Anton Brookshire 2.2 0.914
Total 7.9 1
Synergy Sports

If MU were to hit those marks, it wouldn’t count as a dramatic improvement compared to last season. There’s also the matter of which players make up a shortfall of possessions? Does Coleman vacuum them up? Are Martin’s hints about the Browns more than theoretical? Is Brookshire better than expected? Or will the supporting cast improve enough at the margins — case in point: making more jumpers — to drive improvement?

Admittedly, even the most rational approach to expectation could quickly go up in smoke. But even if the results have been mixed at other programs, Mizzou’s betting on its track record at assessing the market and finding guys who thrive.