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What was behind Xavier Pinson’s quiet night at Ole Miss?

Mizzou’s combo guard struggled to engage in an upset on Wednesday, an outing that highlights how a dynamic creator can also produce inconsistency.

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

Five minutes into Missouri’s tilt at Ole Miss, Xavier Pinson angled around Jeremiah Tilmon’s screen, slinked by Luis Rodriguez, and accelerated past Romello White for a layup. It’s often an ominous sign, the first salvo from the combo guard about his intentions to assault the rim regularly.

On Wednesday, though, the junior’s first successful foray was also his last on a frustrating night as Ole Miss handed the No. 10 Tigers an 80-59 loss.

Afterward, there was plenty of evidence for coach Cuonzo Martin’s simmering critique. Yet he didn’t offer a forensic analysis of schematic breakdowns on defense or missed free throws that might have halted the Rebels’ second-half surge. Instead, Martin zeroed in on a lack of edge.

Admittedly, defense fueled much of his ire, but Martin also singled out Pinson, who finished with six points on 3 of 11 shooting and tallied up four turnovers.

“He didn’t attack the rim at all,” Martin told reporters afterward. “He wasn’t aggressive at the rim making plays. In a lot of ways, when he’s not doing that, we become stagnant because you’re counting on that, especially certain actions that we have. When he’s not around the rim and he’s taking tough 3s and tough 2s, everybody kind of stands around.”

When you look at the compounds mixed in MU’s petri dish, Pinson’s a catalyzing agent capable of propelling reactions. We focus on those where he’s additive, such as outbursts against Oregon, Tennessee, TCU, often because they’re equally rare. And when they unfold – usually every fourth outing – they’re all-consuming.

In Oxford, we witnessed how Pinson’s talents can be as be as inconsistent as they are dynamic. With Arkansas looming today, a game that could figure prominently in MU’s seeding for the SEC tournament, the Tigers will hope Pinson bounces back.

Tempting as it might be to toss Wednesday’s debacle in a dustbin, there are some useful examples of how passivity doesn’t suit Pinson. Before we look at some video, though, let’s quickly review what comprises the Chicagoan’s skillset.

Using Synergy’s tracking data, we can compile a broad snapshot. As I noted earlier this week, Pinson’s preference ratings are obvious: play in the open floor, drive and kick to shooters, and then try to strike a balance between pulling-up off the bounce or applying pressure on a defenses’s interior. Over the past several weeks, too, Pinson’s boosted his spot-up shooting numbers.

Xavier Pinson | Offensive Profile | 2020-21

Play Type Side Role Result Poss Points PPP
Play Type Side Role Result Poss Points PPP
Transition BH Score - 44 29 0.659
PNR High Pass Spot-Up 42 30 0.714
PNR High Score Pull-Up 33 30 1.1
PNR High Score Rim 33 31 0.889
Spot-Up None Score Jumper 32 43 1.344
PNR High Pass Roller 26 36 1.385
Synergy Sports

However, to make his approach work, Pinson requires a steady supply of possessions, explaining why his usage (31.7 percent) is 26th nationally and second in the SEC. That volume stems from another cause: inefficiency. Among 113 high-major players in Synergy’s database, he’s tied for 11th in pick-and-roll possessions (1.9 per game) that end at the rim. Meanwhile, Pinson’s efficiency (1.0 PPP) ranks 11th out of 15 high-usage peers, while and 42.0 field-goal percentage is below average for the group as a whole.

The same holds when Pinson’s running the break. His 2.4 possessions per game pushing in transition places him 12th among 224 high-major players, per Synergy. But again, Pinson rates near the bottom – 31st out of 34 – in efficiency (0.659 PPP) in the narrower band of high-usage players and well the average (0.905 PPP) we’ve seen so far in power conferences.

Not all of those empty possessions are turnovers, either. While Pinson’s averaging more giveaways this season, his rates for pick-and-rolls and in transition are roughly in line with the Division I average and declined since his freshman campaign. Ultimately, Pinson’s proficiency from point-blank range, where’s at 50 percent for all possessions, is the likeliest culprit.

Now, Martin’s willing to live with Pinson forcing the issue, whether it’s a questionable pass or reckless shot. For one, he can insert a steadier hand in Drew Buggs. But Martin keenly understands that picking up the pace and making his Barcelona subpackage to the program’s base offense came with tradeoffs — and the rewards have been evident. One of the perks to the pick-and-roll premised system is the constant pressure going toward the rim will produce more free-throws.

And more often than not, Pinson’s a chief beneficiary of those whistles.

During the first 19 games of his sophomore campaign, Pinson averaged 3.0 field-goal attempts at the rim and 2.7 free-throw attempts per game. What’s happened since the philosophical shift? He’s getting 5.2 shots at the rim each night and posted a 46.9 free-throw rate. Now, few indicators correlate as strongly (R=0.65) with Pinson’s offensive rating than his free-throw tally.

Reductive as it might sound, Pinson’s creates value by paving a path to the charity stripe, and knocking down a couple of catch-and-shoot 3-pointers will add a little juice. Several weeks ago, we saw Pinson in peak form, but the formula isn’t one precisely optimized for consistency — and why it’s better for MU to have Jeremiah Tilmon and Dru Smith as its key cogs.

Earlier this week, Pinson’s 24 minutes and 48.0 offensive rating — his second-worst mark of the season — were a stark testament to what happens when his method doesn’t pan out.

Granted, Ole Miss deserves credit, too. The Rebels rank 22nd nationally in transition defense, according to Synergy data. And even if coach Kermit Davis’ group grades out poorly in pick-and-roll defense (No. 282), White, KJ Buffen, and Luis Rodriguez erase perimeter breakdowns at the rim.

I’d push back slightly on the notion Pinson was passive — at least in opening minutes. By my count, he played a prominent role in Mizzou’s first seven possessions. On its second trip, a smart ball reversal made its way to Kobe Brown for an open 3-pointer. He made another smart ball reversal to Mark Smith on the right wing, allowing the guard to get downhill a closeout and draw a foul. When Jeremiah Tilmon wheeled out of a double-team, Pinson, standing in the right corner, alerted him to an unguarded Dru Smith at the top of the arc for another 3.

Yet after three minutes, the box score showed him 0 for 1 from the floor with a lone assist and an unforced turnover.

Viewing the first possessions shows MU tried to get Pinson into a ball-screen, but using Tilmon in a stationary role and lifting White to the elbow doesn’t work. The possession bogs down, but ultimately Mark Smith’s drive on the left side of the lane puts the Rebels in rotation. When the ball changes sides of the floor, there are scrambled closeout responsibilities. It comes to Pinson for a corner 3, a shot the offense aspires to produce.

Should he have attacked alone the baseline? Had Pinson opted to do it as White sprinted to contest, and had Tilmon seal off a help defender, he might have had an easy layup or a coveted trip the foul line. Or maybe Jarkel Joiner helps down in time.

Perhaps Pinson was a bit docile, but coach Kermit Davis’ approach to ball-screen defense also proved savvy. At times, opponents use drop coverage to hem in Pinson and hope a weak-side defender can rotate in to tag Tilmon. If their big man has some agility, they might have him hard hedge and sprint back to Tilmon once the guard recovers.

On Wednesday, the Rebels iced Pinson, which entailed a big man stringing him out toward the sideline. The combo guard couldn’t snake his dribble back toward the middle, either. While this unfolded on the floor’s strong side, Rodriguez stood in the restricted circle — leaving Kobe Brown in the corner — as early help with Tilmon rolling.

There’s no gap open, and Tilmon’s accounted for as the roller. If Pinson skips a pass to Brown, Rodriguez can use its flight time to recover, and even then, he can check up short and dare the sophomore to knock down a jumper. Instead, Pinson hoists up a step-back 3-ball of his own.

The transition defense I mentioned earlier shows up here after Pinson scoops up a live-ball turnover. Buffen sprints back to the nail while Devontae Shuler gets wide and into the channel to pick up Dru Smith. For his part, Joiner’s not worried about a weird cross-match on Mitchell Smith, either.

In the end, Pinson checks up and launches a 3-ball that’s on line but short. The prudent course involved backing the ball out, resetting, and running a set. Throughout the game’s early stages, Dru Smith dialed in his shooting stroke. While he was facing a challenge at the rim, Tilmon had still received some quality post touches against White, and Javon Pickett chipped in off the bench.

Fast forward to garbage time, and Ole Miss remained devoted to basic principles of sound transition defense. Robert Allen goes to the top of the restricted circle. Joiner hustles back to stop the ball. Rodriguez slides in from Watson to build a wall and keep the ball on the floor’s right side. Pinson’s choice of finish — a half-hearted floater — doesn’t induce much stress when that happens.

Looking back over Pinson’s 19 possessions, he didn’t muster his first shot at the rim until the 14:44 mark of the first half, a layup after splitting two White and Rodriguez at the top of the arc. He didn’t get there again for another eight minutes, watching a layup roll off the iron after the Rebels again sprinted the floor after a takeaway.

With the game teetering during the early minutes of the second half, the Tigers’ shaky defense wasn’t helped by its offense stalling out. On the first possession after the break, Pinson encountered another wrinkle. At times, Ole Miss switched up its ball-screen defense, practically trapping him high pick-and-rolls.

Tilmon’s screen angle makes it easy for Rodriguez to get over the top, while White steps up. He can afford to be assertive with Allen backing him up at the rim. The spacing on the right side of the floor is also pretty poor. Retreating and resetting would be the right call. Pinson’s choice is, uh, not. He goes airborne and tries to thread a pass that’s deflected, leading to a runout for Ole Miss.

A minute later, Pinson trotted toward the bench, and ESPN’s cameras later fixed on him staring vacantly ahead while sitting on his designated folding chair. Once he returned, the passivity that Martin spoke of had settled in.

Trailing by 20 points, the likelihood of a play going toward the paint would kickstart a rally was remote. Still, there’s a hint of a seam when the ball swings to Pinson in the left slot as Joiner tries to recover. Putting the ball on the deck might yield a layup or foul. Or perhaps a defender steps up, creating a dump-off to Tilmon or a backcut by Watson. Pinson didn’t probe, though. He lofted up an errant jumper.

In hindsight, Pinson’s shot composition turned out to be close to average, but he didn’t visit the free-throw line, notch an assist in his final 20 minutes on the floor and was stymied when trying to ramp up the pace. Given that he racked up 23 points in Mizzou’s first meeting with Arkansas, seeing the Razorbacks might be the right balm. But a caveat’s required: Justin Smith is back in the fold.

The combo guard’s return isn’t a minor bit of roster news. When Smith sat with an injured ankle, Arkansas faced a challenging opening to SEC play — hosting Missouri and traveling to LSU and Tennessee — struggled to tread water and post a minus-1 net rating, per HoopLens. But with Smith available and on the floor, it improves by 25 points per 100 possessions. Most importantly, the Razorbacks only give up 0.86 points per possession at the defensive end.

Smith’s absence is particularly acute in ball-screen defense, where his 6-foot-7, 230-pound frame is agile enough to stay in front of ball-handlers. Perhaps more importantly, it spares Connor Vanover the job of trying to navigate his slender 7-foot-3 frame in space. And even if Vanover is called upon, Smith’s the kind of athlete you want rotating down on Tilmon.

Brutal as Wednesday might have been for Pinson and Missouri, which is 5-22 against Mississippi members of the SEC since joining in 2013, history tells us Pinson is likely cycling toward another breakout.

Saturday also happens to coincide with the NCAA’s early peek at the top-16 seeds. With any luck, Pinson will help keep MU pointed toward that destination.