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After a slow start, Amari Davis is ratcheting up his mid-range game

Over the past couple of weeks, Missouri’s increasingly put the ball in the junior’s hands and leaned on his chief skillset to help a struggling offense find productivity.

Missouri Basketball

Twenty-five ticks into the second half against Liberty, Amari Davis swung around a drag screen, cruised toward the lane, and repeated a choice he’s made countless times. The Missouri junior pulled up, rose, and gently lofted a lefty jumper that rippled twine – and just a foot inside the 3-point arc.

In some senses, an arbitrary line on the floor makes the Green Bay transfer a throwback and heretic the game’s modern dogma. Wonks might call it inefficient. Not MU, though. For a rudderless offense, a shot’s location is secondary to it going in. Potency is all that matters.

While Florida State romped over MU, it marked the start of a run for Davis. He’s averaging 14.6 points on almost 53.7 percent shooting over the past five games, which is impressive considering he’s just 4 of 13 from deep. Those supposedly wasteful 2-pointers? They’ve been netting the combo guard almost 1.22 points per attempt – or roughly the same value as a sanctified 3-ball.

Make no mistake, Davis’ uptick hasn’t pulled MU from the swamp.

Coach Cuonzo Martin’s attack still finds itself ranked 313th in effective-field-goal percentage, per KenPom. It coughs the ball up on 22.4 percent of possessions. And the Tigers are fourth-worst nationally in 3-point shooting.

One uptick isn’t a cure-all. But if MU aspires to competency, it desperately needs one or more members of its transfer quartet to get rolling. Putting the ball in Davis’ hands is as good a place as any to begin.

Martin reached that conclusion two weeks ago, promoting Davis to point guard ahead of a walkover against Paul Quinn College. It’s a role Davis never carried out in high school or the Horizon League. Yet, the transition had been far from seamless for the likes of Jarron Coleman and Anton Brookshire. Understanding the move requires us to ditch convention. In practice, here’s what it means: get the ball to Davis early and in actions suited to his scoring package.

How is it different? Well, watch these four clips snipped from MU’s first four games.

Every time, Davis started a possession off the ball and removed from the initial action. Watching his film from Green Bay, you rarely saw him flaring to the corner for contested jumpers, which he did against Northern Illinois. On inbound plays, the ball came directly to him, not a handoff on the strong side of the floor after the defense loaded up. And not holding down the corner for a kickout after a middle ball screen.

Rewatch the second possession against SMU. It’s a doozy.

The Tigers opted for a typical set in their offense – a dribble handoff with guards interchanging on the weak side of the floor. Ideally, DaJuan Gordon could turn the corner, but opponents almost always switch, prompting the K-State transfer to reverse the ball and cut off a screen set by Jordan Wilmore at the nail. From there, it flows into a handoff for Ronnie DeGray III, who also finds a gap clogged.

The ball doesn’t reach Davis in attacking position until he cuts the baseline, takes a bounce pass, and runs in to help. Then, he must recycle the ball to Wilmore, run a curl off the big man, and quickly launch a double-clutch jumper to beat the shot clock.

It’s a far cry from how Davis got involved as a freshman at Green Bay. Often, coach Linc Darner ran Davis off screens – such as a pindown or staggers – on the right side of the floor. Aside from shedding defenders, Davis caught the ball in the slot and could turn the corner with his left hand.

Yet MU rarely put Davis in those situations. Instead, Gordon or Javon Pickett might be the recipient of early assistance. At best, Davis might have an advantageous situation on secondary action. Even then, it’s tough sledding.

A lot of the Tigers triggering mechanisms are ball screens in the middle of the floor, but there’s little weak-side movement. Usually, guards just swap spots. Frequently, a Tiger is standing in the corner under the theory it’s putting that help defender in conflict. But because MU shoots so poorly, there’s little punishment if they’re aggressive in help.

All of this creates congestion in gaps, and when the ball did come to Davis, he wasn’t facing a defense scrambling in rotation. The seams he exploits and the pockets of space where he stops didn’t exist.

Over MU’s opening five games, Davis initiated offense on just two of eight possessions that ended with a mid-range attempt. One was a middle ball- screen against SMU. The other was a hit-ahead pass for a baseline jumper against FSU. Of those eight shots, only one dropped – the deep-2 to close the half against the Seminoles.

Mizzou Hoops

Recasting Davis also requires defying radical thinking that’s now conventional wisdom.

Over the past decade, college programs joined the NBA in embracing the chief lesson analytics taught: prize layups and 3s. Meanwhile, trim out mid-range attempts. Put succinctly, shot quality heralded success.

Today, roughly 76.5 percent of shot attempts in Division I come at the rim or from long-range, according to Synergy Sports tracking data. Post-ups are on the verge of extinction. And pull-up jumpers? They’re still worth just 0.70 PPP – almost 30 percent less than a 3-ball.

But here’s the catch: as every program’s shot profile becomes a carbon copy, location means less. If you were one of the first programs to adopt it, you might have gained an advantage. Now, the quality of the players attempting those shots matters more.

As we know, the Tigers lack the optimal personnel to capitalize on the mathematical advantage of banging in deep jumpers. Unfortunately, they also struggle to finish at the cup, especially guards. It’s why MU ranks 317th for shotmaking and is fourth-worst nationally in floor spacing, per Shot Quality data.

That leaves Mizzou hunting for a relative advantage, one Davis potentially provides.

Top Mid-Range Shooters | Division I | 2021-22

Rank Player Team % Time Poss / Gm PPP FG% eFG%
Rank Player Team % Time Poss / Gm PPP FG% eFG%
5 David DeJulius Cincinnati 23.7% 1.6 1.286 64.3% 64.3%
9 Paolo Banchero Duke 40.0% 2 1.250 62.5% 62.5%
11 Amari Davis Missouri 31.9% 1.7 1.200 60.0% 60.0%
18 Luther Muhammad Arizona State 30.4% 1.9 1.118 52.9% 52.9%
19 Izaiah Brockington Iowa State 40.0% 2.3 1.111 55.6% 55.6%
24 Jonathan Davis Wisconsin 24.6% 1.8 1.071 50.0% 50.0%
26 Keion Brooks Jr. Kentucky 57.7% 2.1 1.067 53.3% 53.3%
27 Taz Sherman West Virginia 27.5% 2.4 1.045 50.0% 50.0%
28 Armaan Franklin Virginia 21.1% 1.6 1.000 50.0% 50.0%
30 Casey Morsell North Carolina State 22.7% 1.4 1.000 50.0% 50.0%
Synergy Sports

Laments over the dying art of the mid-range often lose sight of the fact that those shots remain worthwhile – for the right players. And as you can see from the table above, Davis, whose efficiency ranks 11th nationally and third among high-major players, certainly qualifies.

Beyond the fact Davis maxes out the shot’s value, there’s also flexibility in terms of volume. Modern defenses also evolved in the face of an analytic revolution. Today, coaches covet long guards and agile bigs comfortable switching and playing space. Some schemes also figure it’s worth conceding inefficient mid-range shots versus an avalanche of 3-balls.

That’s a niche for a player of Davis profile — assuming an offense optimizes his trait. Recently, MU’s tried to take steps in that direction. Let’s see how they’ve gone about doing so.

Punch in the Gut

During the preseason, Martin said a schematic overhaul wasn’t in the cards. Instead, the program was sticking with what it ran a year ago, and one of those staples is called gut action.

It’s easily identifiable, starting with a down screen for a guard on the block. Then, that guard cuts to the top of the arc, takes a pass, pivots, and waits for the same big to set a high ball screen. Last season, MU often used Jeremiah Tilmon and Dru Smith as the central characters. Back then, the set often teed up an early pick-and-roll. Now, it’s usually the action that follows it that’s worth noting.

On this possession, Wichita State hedges to keep Davis on the right side of the floor and forces him to swing the ball to Pickett. That’s not uncommon against MU. Opponents might be more assertive in ball-screen coverages but sag into gaps when the Tigers start trying to probe the middle of the floor.

Yet the conservative approach works against the Shockers when Pickett dribbles into a handoff with Davis. After he gets over the top, Ricky Council switches off the Pickett on the wing, while Tyson Etienne hangs back in drop coverage — conceding an elbow jumper that Davis is obliged to take.

Earlier this week, the Tigers used another variation of the same set, this time having Davis dribble into handoff with Pickett in front of Mizzou’s bench. What how Davis keeps moving and clearing out along the baseline. The Tigers run different actions off that cut. Sometimes, it’s a series of staggered screens. The guard might curl toward the lane other times instead of sprinting to the opposite wing. Or they might set up a big man with a rip screen, which lets him across the lane for a post-up.

Davis decided to curl while Trevon Brazile — the first screener — popped to the corner. Instead of a floater, Davis kicks the ball to the freshman, and the possession goes a little sideways. A pass is deflected. Brown tries to post up. Pickett hunts a middle drive off a ball reversal.

But the possession ends the way it starts — a screen for Davis. This time, it’s Brazile flipping the ball back as Davis angles into a pull-up to beat the shot clock. Again, there’s no denying it was stilted, but MU made a concerted effort — three attempts — to put Davis in actions and locations where he’s attacking left and pulling up.

Hand It Over

You already saw how a possession unfolds when a dribbler can’t turn the corner. Sometimes, the prudent move is to keep the ball moving, but there have also been instances where you wonder why a Tiger doesn’t split defenders or snake the screen.

Utilizing Davis in that first exchange, however, can make a difference. Ignore the missed jumper at the end of this clip. Instead, focus on how he gets to the spot.

First, Brown pulls the ball when Etienne effectively jams up the mesh point. Davis halts, takes the reversal, and then rejects Wilmore’s screen. Doing so allows him to keep Etienne in jail on his hip, while Morris Udeze relies on drop coverage. Even though Udeze slightly alters the shot, Davis turned a disjointed sequence into a shot that’s usually high value for him.

Frustratingly, Davis didn’t start getting these types of touches until the final five minutes of the second half and well after Wichita State pushed its lead into double digits. And it spent long stretches of the loss using Pickett in those same types of handoffs, which often came to a dead end.

Horning In

Martin’s been true to his word in saying that Kobe Brown would have opportunities to run the offense, but the junior does it distinctly. Instead of operating pick-and-rolls, MU deploys other time-tested setups to maximize the junior as a bully driver and creator.

One way is horns set, positioning two bigs at the elbows and a pair of guards low in the corners. Brown pops out, and Wilmore can either dive to the restricted area or step out to set a ball screen. Here, he opts for the latter. And it doesn’t work. Joe Pleasant quickly clears the screen. Brown struggles with the handle. And back cut by Gordon gets smothered.

With no alternative, Brown reverses it back to Davis — and that’s worthwhile. Again, Pickett or Gordon is often in this spot and trying to use Wilmore’s screen at the nail. Davis probes a gap and gets cut off, but he cooly flips the ball back to Wilmore, takes a handoff, and keeps Etienne on his hip. Yes, the jumper rattles out, but again the pace and poise that Davis plays with is a stark contrast to other guards, who often plow ahead to an ill-fated shot at the rim.

Drag It Out, Step Up, or Lie Flat

Despite his stated desire, Martin’s never truly juiced the tempo during his time at the helm. So we humbly suggested mimicking Marquette and its early-clock offense a couple of years ago, which didn’t put a premium on forcing turnovers to get in the open floor.

Since then, Martin’s embraced certain core facets. For example, watch MU after it pulls down a defensive board. Two wide runners race to the corners. Another guard gets parallel to the sideline to take the outlet pass fired ahead by the rebounder. There’s a concerted effort to push the ball up the floor. Last season, it helped the Tigers attempt 32.4 percent of their initial shots in transition, ranking 34th nationally, according to Hoop Lens.

But you rarely see actual early-clock offense – a simple action designed to generate an attempt in the first seven seconds of a possession. At the same time, opponents found a simple solution to slow MU down — bail out on the offensive glass, sprint back, set their defense, and make a clunky offense grind gears in the half-court. The result is a team ranked 267th in adjusted tempo, per KenPom.

Again, Davis doesn’t correct all those issues, but most of his development has been under coaches whose systems maximize him early in the shock clock. Now, we’re seeing faint hints MU might do the same.

The scheme isn’t mind-bending in its complexity, either. Just look.

After the ball winds up in Davis’ hands, Brown almost meanders into the path of a defender to set a drag screen. Davis’ pull-up game is practically a cheat code to principles of transition defense, chief among them to build a wall and keep the ball on one side of the floor. On this drive, stopping the ball matters little when Davis can bury a long 2-pointer.

Later on against Liberty, Brown again illustrates how much a simple screen in the slot can do with a guard who understands how to use it. The Flames’ Keegan McDowell softly shows as Kyle Rode goes over. Davis’ solution? Use Brown as a screener again, offer a ball fake toward a shooter in the corner, and use the sliver of space to elevate — all within the first 10 seconds of the trip.

Another simple action is a step-up screen like DeGray sets here against Eastern Illinois. It didn’t level Henry Abraham. However, it enabled Davis to put the defender on his hip, and he knows what to do if the big’s been told to play in drop coverage. Despite missing the shot, Davis nudges a potential rebound away, scoops it up, and earns a 3-point play.

Steadily expanding minutes for Brazile and fellow freshman Yaya Keita offers another opportunity. Because MU can legitimately space Brazile and DeGray to a corner, the Tigers can run the most rudimentary ball-screen action: the 1-5 pick-and-roll. In this instance, Keita and Davis run the two-man game, while Sean Durugordon dives to the short corner as Brazile and Brookshire lift on the wings just above the break.

Making his reads, Davis might attack the rim, slide a pocket pass to Keita, or pitch the ball out. Or he might recognize lazy ball-screen defenses and opt to pull up for a 10-footer in the lane.

Aside from simplicity, each of these rudimentary actions empowers Davis to make plays in spots on the floor he prefers, and the defense is willing to cede a bit of operating room. Moreover, opponents sprinting back in transition offer up the chance for Davis to grab and-go, while the likes of Pickett and Gordon run to the corners. Or if Brown’s pushing the ball, he can run a flip action, which has the same effect as a drag screen.

Missouri Basketball

Will Davis form hold up?

Now, all of this has certainly benefited Davis.

Since the Jacksonville Classic, his efficiency rating has steadily climbed to 0.907 PPP, a 26.5 percent improvement. Like many up-transfers, his usage has dipped at a high-major, but tweaks to the lineups and to his role have helped Davis maximize a profile that’s closer a role player and a primary cog powering an attack.

Consider: Out of 17 possessions that ended with a Davis mid-range attempt, he’s been the primary initiator 76.5 percent of the time — and connected at a 53.3 percent clip on those shots.

It’s done more than fortify Davis’ stat line and analytic profile. Missouri sports a 4.3 net rating with Davis on the floor, per Hoop Lens lineup data. When Davis checks out, it declines by 16.3 points per 100 possessions. Only Kobe Brown comes close to a similar impact.

In practical terms, it’s the difference between MU being mediocre (0.93 PPP) and downright ugly (0.78 PPP) against Division I opponents. And starting today, we’ll whether Davis’ form holds up to the stress test offered by elite high-majors and the gantlet of the SEC schedule.