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Spaced Out: Mizzou needs to replace shooting and give itself operating room

The Tigers improved last season by redistributing attempts across the roster. It also opened up critical space for its pick-and-roll based offense. Will the newcomers do the same?

Missouri v Temple Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

In some ways, Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin performs an annual ritual touting the Tigers’ plethora of shooters. Last week, it played out again when a member of the media entourage asked him which members of the new-look roster had a green light.

“I would say all of them,” Martin replied.

Except for Jordan Wilmore.

Still, Martin’s reply might raise eyebrows. Even if Mizzou’s tried to fashion a roster filled with players that blur positional lines, it’s hard to imagine some players don’t see a light that turns yellow or others where it’s flashing red. However, we’re not in Albrecht Family Practice Facility each day watching shots arching toward the rim.

But we’ll find out soon enough which of MU’s nine newcomers are the best kick out option for any given trip down the floor. It’s no small matter, either. The Tigers’ offense requires more than capable hands and cool heads operating its pick-and-roll-based scheme. They need room to work – the kind that only comes with a respectable crew of jump shooters.

The past two seasons have shown us what happens when that commodity is in short supply and when there’s just enough to keep the floor balanced and spaced. On paper, the Tigers are equipped with several potential options, and today we’ll look at what they need to replace and what expectations might be reasonable.

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

Subtraction was addition for Mizzou

Ahead of last season, identifying the culprit driving MU’s woeful perimeter shooting didn’t take much work — too many attempts hoisted up by stretch fours. Rectifying the situation didn’t require a complex solution, either. Are you ready? Have poor shooters, uh, shoot less.

The Tigers’ catch-and-shoot volume dipped by roughly 26.1 percent. Yet the trio of Mark Smith, Dru Smith, and Xavier Pinson saw their tally rise by 11 attempts. Conversely, Kobe Brown, Mitchell Smith, Torrence Watson, and Javon Pickett saw their opportunities cut in half.

Catch-and-Shoot Cutback | 2020-21

Player Poss Points PPP FG FGA FG% eFG% %Chg FGA
Player Poss Points PPP FG FGA FG% eFG% %Chg FGA
Kobe Brown 54 47 0.87 16 54 29.6 43.5 -22.9
Javon Pickett 22 28 1.273 10 22 45.5 63.6 -55.1
Mitchell Smith 43 30 0.698 10 43 23.3 34.9 -42.7
Torrence Watson 27 21 0.778 7 27 25.9 38.9 -74
Total 146 126 0.863 43 146 29.5 43.2 -51
Synergy Sports

Trimming the fat worked, too.

Mizzou’s efficiency jumped by 15 percent to 1.022 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports tracking data. Simple redistribution also helped the very players who had touches curbed. Case in point: Javon Pickett only launched 22 catch-and-shoot jumpers but averaged 1.273 points on those possessions.

The lingering question is what counts as a good shot. Who’s the shooter? Who’s guarding them? How tightly are they being guarded? What’s the score? How much time is left? Usually, we focus on the outcome, but even with the explosion of sources for advanced metrics, it’s still tough to determine a quality shot and its impact on an offense.

One tool is Quantified Shot Quality, which weighs shot location, distance, preshot movement of the shooter, closing speed and angle of a defender, and whether a foul was called. Then, using a proprietary formula, Shot Quality calculates what an average player would shoot and assigns a points value.

Yet, Shot Quality sifts its data to quantify spacing, shot-making, and a team’s rate of open 3-pointers. It’s the interplay between those factors that are especially relevant here. For example, the better an SEC team is at canning jumpers, the better its spacing tends to be. That said, there’s a negative relationship (R=-0.47) between floor spacing and the number of unguard 3-balls a team hoists up. Put another way, the more open jumpers you take, the worse your spacing tends to be.

What’s the impact of good shooting? | Correlations | 2020-21

Category Spacing Shot-Making Open-3 Rate Catch-Shoot Eff
Category Spacing Shot-Making Open-3 Rate Catch-Shoot Eff
Spacing 1
Shot-Making 0.61 1
Open-3 Rate -0.47 -0.1 1
Catch-Shoot Eff 0.89 0.56 -0.37 1
Shot Quality, Synergy Sports

That might seem a tad off, but it makes more sense once we factor how SEC teams perform on catch-and-shoot jumpers. Now, the relationship is moderate (R=-0.37), but it boils down to this: Programs with efficiency on those jumpers often wind up taking more open 3s and rate poorly for spacing.

Few teams encapsulated the problem better than MU did two seasons ago. In 2019-20, the Tigers finished near the bottom of Division I in spacing (No. 332), shot-making (No. 333), and catch-and-shoot efficiency (No. 326). However, they were 57th nationally when it came to open 3s, per Shot Quality.

Back then, defenses made a reasonable calculation: clog up the floor. It meant sending late-arriving hard double-teams on Tilmon. Or dropping deep onto gaps to make rim attacks tough for Pinson. As a tradeoff, Brown, Pickett, Watson, and Mitchell Smith had plenty of catch-and-shoot chances. They might have been open, too, but when you shot a collective 28.9 percent, it’s hard to call them quality attempts.

Last season, though, MU finished 168th nationally for efficiency on those attempts, a 158-spot improvement. Is that elite? (Mizzou still finished 293rd in shot-making.) No, but it’s close to the national average. It also gave the Tigers, who finished 233rd in spacing, more operating room.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

How will transfers translate?

Whatever improvement MU saw last season is also irrelevant.

Eighty percent of the Tigers’ production either graduated or transferred out. Meanwhile, Pickett and Brown made a combined 34.2 percent of their catch-and-shoot looks. That’s close to the Division I average, but as you know, it only came after a massive dip in usage. I’m not sure ramping it up would be all that wise, either, moving into this season.

No, Mizzou’s going to likely lean on newcomers. But you knew that. The pressing matter is how their respective game’s translate. On paper, the four transfers seem ideally suited to plug a hole in the stat sheet. Last season, the quartet averaged a combined 11.8 catch-and-shoot attempts per game, according to Synergy. That’s only 1.6 fewer than MU lost.

As for their performance, a glance would seem to be heartening. Their combined efficiency last season checks in at 1.052 PPP, per Synergy. Individually, though, they were all over the lot.

At Ball State, Jarron Coleman, a middling shooter in high school and a redshirt freshman, broke out, averaging 1.533 PPP. Up the road at Green Bay, Davis plied his trade in the mid-range but was surprisingly competent shooting off the catch (42.0 FG%) for the Phoenix.

By contrast, DaJuan Gordon, a streaky shooter dating back to his career at Chicago’s Curie High, slumped and made just 24.7 percent of his attempts. Meanwhile, Ronnie DeGray III showed flashes of stretching defenses (1.231 PPP), but averaged less than two attempts per game.

Catch-and-Shoot Accuracy | Transfers | 2020-21

Player Poss/Game Possessions Points PPP FG FGA FG% eFG%
Player Poss/Game Possessions Points PPP FG FGA FG% eFG%
Amari Davis 3.2 81 88 1.086 34 81 41.98 54.3
DaJuan Gordon 3.2 81 56 0.691 20 81 24.69 34.6
Jarron Coleman 3.5 45 69 1.533 23 45 51.11 76.7
Ronne DeGray III 1.7 26 32 1.231 12 26 46.15 61.5
Transfers 11.6 233 245 1.052 89 233 38.2 52.6
Synergy Sports

The questions confronting them are diverse, too. How much regression will Coleman experience? How often will Davis space off the ball? What does a bounce-back season look like for Gordon? And will DeGray’s role ramp up his usage?

As we’ve noted before, up-transfers like Coleman, Davis, and DeGray tend to see a dip in playing time and usage — shifting from a major contributor to a role player — when they arrive in the SEC. That holds up when we’re talking about jump-shooting.

Over the past five years, transfers collectively saw their shot volume decline by 20 percent during their first season at the high-major level. (The median tally is 53 catch-and-shoot possessions.) Yet, they also saw their combined efficiency (1.087 PPP) rise by a little more than 3 percent. All of this makes sense, too. In joining an SEC program, up-transfers don’t bear as much of the offensive burden and can offload some of it on teammates.

But that’s about as far as we can go in talking about how shooting translates. There’s no relationship between the strength of the program, catch-and-shoot volume, or efficiency. This makes sense: no two situations or transitions are precisely alike.

How MU uses transfers is also distinct. Yes, Martin’s used the likes of Drew Buggs to shore up depth. But Kassius Robertson and Dru Smith arrived and took on leading roles in the Tigers’ rotation. And by continuing to mine the likes of the Horizon League, MAC, and Atlantic-10, it reinforces the notion that the staff views those players as undervalued assets.

I’d expect Coleman’s efficiency to regress this season, but that’s the only prediction I have any confidence in making. But even he slips to 36 percent of 37 percent, that’s still a rough approximation of what Dru Smith or Pinson brought to the table. When it comes to Davis, it’s a matter of extending his range. While he shot 42 percent on catch-and-shoots, only 58.8 percent of his makes were from behind the 3-point arc.

The murkiest matter, though, is Gordon. Is he as poor of a shooter as he looked last season? We’ll find out. Typically, a player’s sophomore season is when they see significant gains in production and efficiency. Yet, Gordon retooled his shot and played with a younger roster in a system he didn’t think quite fit. While Gordon doesn’t need to be a sniper, bouncing back to a 32 percent clip on catch-and-shoots would do wonders for him.

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

Can the freshmen supply shooting?

If there’s one need five freshmen could help fill, it’s providing some element of floor spacing.

From the moment Anton Brookshire committed, his shooting stroke was easily the best tool in his belt. The Kickapoo product shot 44.4 percent from deep as a junior and wrapped up his prep career as Springfield’s top 3-point shooter. Meanwhile, Sean Durugordon, who enrolled mid-season and took a redshirt, posted a similar clip (44 3FG%) at Canterbury School.

And unlike transfers, the body of evidence is large enough to set a reasonable baseline for what each of them could offer.

Since 2017, the median catch-and-shoot volume for freshman guards in the SEC checks in around 45 attempts — or about 1.5 per game — and dips to 40 once we account for extreme ends of the distribution. As a group, they posted a combined 0.971 points per possession, which is 4.9 percent lower than the Division I average, and shot roughly 33.1 percent from the floor, per Synergy data.

The upside for a player like Brookshire is freshmen rated similarly to him have maximized opportunities when the ball comes their way. Over the past five seasons, eight of those 11 freshmen posted efficiency ratings better than 1.0 PPP, including Vanderbilt’s Scotty Pippen Jr. (1.192 PPP) and Santiago Vescovi (1.227 PPP.) So it’s not uncommon for borderline top-150 prospects to carve out a niche as a knockdown shooter.

Freshman Comps | Anton Brookshire | Catch-and-Shoot

Count Avg. Rating %Min Avg. Poss Avg. Points PPP FG%
Count Avg. Rating %Min Avg. Poss Avg. Points PPP FG%
11 0.8953 35 40.1 40 0.997 33.3
247 Sports, KenPom, Synergy Sports

As for Durugordon, the data’s more mixed. Sixteen freshmen have been in the same neighborhood of the composite index, but only four finished with efficiency ratings above the national average. And none of them had more than 40 attempts in a season.

Freshmen Comps | Sean Durugordon | Catch-and-Shoots

Count Avg. Rating Avg. %Min Avg. Poss Avg. Ponts PPP FG%
Count Avg. Rating Avg. %Min Avg. Poss Avg. Ponts PPP FG%
16 0.8779 37.2 36.1 32.5 0.899 29.6
247Sports, KenPom, Synergy Sports

What about stretch bigs like Yaya Keita and Trevon Brazile? For the overwhelming number of players at their position, the catch-and-shoot count checks in under 25 attempts. (Only 13 bigs in the pool have hoisted up more than 30 in their freshmen season.) Unfortunately, they’ve also been far from adequate, shooting a combined 28.4 percent. That’s not to say Keita and Brazile couldn’t evolve into reliable trail shooters or exploit pick-and-pops, but neither is in the same league as Jontay Porter, whose freshman season remains the bar SEC bigs will have to clear.

Again, keep in mind there’s not a strong relationship between a freshman’s composite rating, playing time, catch-and-shoot volume, or efficiency. Unsurprisingly, though, they’re rarely a major option, and the adjustment to the college game makes them slightly inefficient, but the drag isn’t so great that most can’t fill a reserve role.

The only hint we’ve had to go on for this roster as a whole is a surreptitious screenshot of a box score from Missouri’s closed scrimmage against Creighton.

That day, MU relied on playing at the rim. The Tigers piled up 44 points and outscored the Blue Jays by 16 points in the lane. And while they put up 19 attempts from 3-point range, they only amounted to 32.4 percent of their shot volume. If that played out over an entire season, MU would have ranked 291st nationally last season, per KenPom.

More interesting, though, was who took those shots. Kobe Brown went 1 of 5 from 3-point range. Gordon finished 1 of 4 from deep. Coleman was 1 of 3, and Keita missed all three of his tries. Is it ideal to have two shooters who shot worse than 30 percent from long distance leading the way? And without seeing the game, how can we judge the quality of the shots?

Soon enough, we’ll see them live and see which Tigers should probably ease off the throttle.