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The Conductor: Drew Buggs helps keep Mizzou on time

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While the graduate transfer has accepted a reserve role, his steady hand and sound judgment accentuates the opportunities that come with Mizzou’s revamped offense.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

What purpose does Drew Buggs serve?

When Missouri began scouring the transfer market this past spring, its shopping list seemingly consisted of two items: scoring punch and spot-up shooting. Yet the graduate transfer, who committed last April last year, glaringly lacked both.

Over his three seasons at Hawaii, Buggs posted 8.8 points per game and only connected on 28 percent of his 3-pointers, including 26 of 93 unguarded attempts. On-boarding another ball-handler also induced some quizzical looks, given that Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson returned to man a revamped offense built around high pick-and-rolls.

While his decision-making is prudent, it was worth wondering whether Buggs’ style might translate to the high-major level. Instead of turning tight to a screener’s hip and using burst to drive into a gap, Buggs toys with pace and angles, stylistic adaptations after he tore his ACL and meniscus as a high school senior.

Expressing doubt about whether a transfer’s skillset ultimately translates isn’t misplaced. At least in the SEC, transfers’ playing time and usage dip, and many making the jump from a low-major program find their skillsets garbled in translation — even those who were proven scorers at their former home.

As it turns out, the pass-first point guard’s found a niche: making simple plays. Sound bland? Perhaps. Yet there are nights where straightforward competency comes in handy, outings where Xavier Pinson’s electricity overloads the system and Dru Smith needs a stable presence nudging him off the ball.

And as we saw in brief stretches Saturday against Alabama, Buggs can keep time when the pace perks up.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

How does Mizzou deploy Buggs?

From the time Buggs arrived in Columbia, the hierarchy at his position didn’t change. So far, he’s been allocated almost a third of Mizzou’s minutes at lead guard, and when he’s on the floor, it’s usually to spell Pinson. In fact, nearly 77 percent of Buggs’ possessions have come with the junior on the sideline.

Almost half the time, Buggs and Dru Smith serve as the Tigers’ lead-guard tandem, and more often than not, Mark Smith runs at the wing to provide the Tigers a reliable spot-up threat. And while Kobe Brown and Mitchell Smith alternate at combo forward, Jeremiah Tilmon is a stalwart inside.

In other words, Buggs isn’t staffing a second unit laden with reserves. Now, his duties might change based on whether Mark Smith or Dru Smith handles the combo guard spot. Instead, Buggs backstops Pinson. (Almost 87 percent of Buggs’ minutes come with Pinson sitting.) Even in four-guard lineups, Martin’s been more inclined to hold Pinson back and insert Pickett.

Serving as Pinson’s understudy, however, doesn’t result in a painful downgrade in efficiency. Far from it, actually. Look at the three most-common backcourts showcasing Buggs’ skills.

Drew Buggs’ Most-Common Backcourt Partners

Guard Guard Guard Poss. Off. PPP Def. PPP Net
Guard Guard Guard Poss. Off. PPP Def. PPP Net
Buggs D. Smith M. Smith 86 1.09 0.92 17
Buggs M. Smith Pickett 41 0.93 0.7 23
Buggs D. Smith Pickett 47 0.91 1 -9
Hoop Lens

Slotted into the starting backcourt, Buggs lifts the trio’s efficiency by roughly five points per 100 possessions. Yet the slight disparity shouldn’t take us by too much surprise. Pinson’s logged four times as many possessions playing alongside Dru and Mark. Interestingly, though, Pinson’s registered a minus-6 scoring margin with other three-guard groupings and reflected in Hoop Lens’ lineup data.

Drew Buggs’ Most-Common Backcourt Partners

Guard Guard Guard Poss. Off. PPP Def. PPP Net
Guard Guard Guard Poss. Off. PPP Def. PPP Net
Pinson D. Smith M. Smith 343 0.95 0.87 12
Pinson D. Smith Pickett 113 0.96 0.99 -3
Pinson M. Smith Pickett 51 0.96 1.08 -12
Hoop Lens

Possessions alone aren’t an explanation. They’re just evidence reflecting an obvious stylistic contrast in how Buggs and Pinson pilot the Tigers’ offense.

Not only does Pinson play more, but the junior dominates the ball. Roughly 31.4 percent of MU’s possessions end with Pinson, which ranks 28th nationally and second in the SEC, according to KenPom data. He also hoists up 29.7 percent of the Tigers’ shots. And lastly, only Jeremiah Tilmon earns more trips to the line than Pinson, whose free-throw rate ranks 11th in the SEC.

So, Pinson occasionally throws a highlight-reel pass, particularly in transition, but his game is shaded slightly more toward scoring than distributing.

Using Synergy tracking data, we can loosely break down how the lean combo guard tries to catalyze Martin’s offense. To do that, I sorted Pinson’s activity by play type, location, result, and role in the action, selecting those play types where he’s tallied more than 20 possessions this season.

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

Skimming the rows and columns confirms what we see when Pinson’s on the floor. He goes full bore on the break and tries to impose defenses off the dribble. In tandem with Tilmon, collapsing help produces ample kick-out opportunities — ones MU doesn’t always maximize — or passes to the rolling big man.

Splitting out those numbers, however, reveals Pinson’s method isn’t always clean. In transition, Pinson turns the ball over 27.1 percent of the time, an exceptionally high rate that’s dragged down his grade (0.707 PPP) when those situations present themselves.

And while Pinson’s pressure on the rim is vital, his finishing at the second level of the defense remains inconsistent. This season, he’s averaging 0.833 PPP when using a high pick-and-roll to set up a drive toward the hoop, which ranks 54th out 65 high-usage guards that play in a power conference. (His 30-percent shooting on those possessions ranks 60th.) Ironically, Pinson’s spot-up shooting (1.433 PPP) helps paper over those metrics.

By now, we’re accustomed to Pinson occasionally leaving our jaws hanging slack, such as a 27-point outburst at Tennessee or a 36-point explosion against TCU, where his shooting demonstration helped rescue the Tigers late in regulation. On the whole, though, Pinson remains consistently inconsistent, his offensive rating still hovering around 99.3 — roughly the same mark as his freshman campaign.

Subbing out Pinson, for all intents and purposes, democratizes the offense for his peers. Buggs reinforces that idea walking away from the scoring table. In 16 games, his usage rate (11.7 percent) has left a light footprint, and while he’s less efficient (85.5 offensive rating) than Pinson, he doesn’t shoot the ball with enough frequency for it to be problematic.

Carrying out a similar play type breakdown for Buggs underscores his job: ball mover. At first, the term could be taken as a pejorative, but it’s really about splitting the difference. However, Synergy data shows Buggs doesn’t command the ball as much, and the offense only utilizes several times a night in pick-and-roll situations.

Drew Buggs | Offensive Profile | 2020-21

Play Type Side Role Result Poss Points PPP
Play Type Side Role Result Poss Points PPP
PNR High Pass Spot-Up 23 20 0.87
Spot-Up None Score Jumper 9 0 0
PNR High Pass Roller 5 6 1.2
PNR Left Pass Spot-Up 5 10 2
Transition BH Score - 5 5 1
Synergy Sports

If Pinson’s occasionally loose with the ball, Buggs tightens the grip. MU’s turnover rate declines slightly to 15.1 percent from 18 percent when he takes Pinson’s place. A point guard alone doesn’t explain the entire phenomenon, but Mizzou shoots at a better clip behind the arc (38.5 3FG%) with Buggs than with Pinson (25.0 3FG%) at the controls. Defensively, there is some slippage — almost four points per 100 possessions — with Buggs, but giving up 0.91 PPP remains stingy and more than offset by MU’s improved jump-shooting.

Correlating various offensive indicators also shows a modest tie (R=0.39) between Pinson’s turnovers and Buggs’ seat time alongside Dru Smith and Mark Smith. Pinson’s turnover woes in a game are also slightly correlated (R=0.43) with an uptick in Buggs’ assist tally.

We’ve seen this dynamic play out live, too.

Against Liberty, which deploys a pack-line defense, Pinson committed six turnovers and sat out the majority of the second half, ushering the way for Buggs to finish with five dimes. Two weeks ago in College Station, Pinson tallied just seven points and gave the ball away four times. And most recently, Buggs doled out four assists against South Carolina, while Pinson saw his seat time with key cogs pared back on a night where he had twice as many turnovers (5) as he did points (2) in the scoring column.

There have also been nights where Buggs’ presence is felt. At Knoxville, for example, Buggs racked up three assists in roughly a minute, helping the MU on an 8-3 spurt after Tennessee trimmed its deficit to eight points. And earlier this month, the senior called four assists at Arkansas, while Pinson finished with 23 points.

All the while, Buggs’ baseline output nets a couple of assists, but, above all, his presence lends Martin the flexibility to structure a backcourt that evenly distributes its workload.

Because MU relies heavily on Pinson’s creative gusto, it’s incumbent on Martin to find periods to let him rest and recharge. All the while, Buggs allows him to offload that duty from Dru Smith, who’s adept at working off the ball and needs to conserve energy for the defensive end. Having Buggs around also spares Mark Smith from taking on the job of a secondary creator.

Missouri v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

A Case Study

Be forewarned: You’re about to click and watch a slew of clips that all look vaguely similar, and it had nothing to do with my selection criteria.

But before we start digesting snippets of footage, I want to remind you this is a snapshot of Buggs’ floor game. However, it fits several parameters I had in mind. First off, Buggs plays alongside MU’s three key cogs. Second, play-by-play from Statbrodcast and Synergy shot charts show Buggs amassed his largest share (8) of 28 assists with that group. Finally, all of these possessions play out in the half-court against a set defense.

Serendipitously, they also rely on the same base alignment and (mostly) follow the same series of actions. Basically, we have a stable set of conditions to view a snapshot of Buggs’ floor game and decision-making.

The first clip is helpful for another reason: the action unfolds slowly as MU holds for the final shot of the first half against Liberty.

After burning off 13 seconds, the Tigers stroll into an elbow alignment. Buggs stands at the top of the circle. Tilmon occupies the weak side slot, lifting his defender off the baseline. Mitchell Smith hangs around the free-throw-line extended. Dru Smith wanders down to the weak-side block. Off in the left corner, Mark Smith takes up his spot as a floor spacer.

The triggering mechanism is a down screen for Dru Smith by Mitchell Smith, springing him loose to pop out into the left slot. In these clips, you’ll see MU follow that with one of two steps. Mitchell Smith can pivot and go screen for Dru Smith, initiating a side pick-and-roll, or Mizzou runs a dribble-handoff, one where a big — usually Tilmon — sets a step-out screen for a high pick-and-roll.

Possession 1: Liberty’s pack-line snuffs out that side pick-and-roll, and Dru Smith reverses the ball to Buggs. On the flight of the pass, Tilmon steps in for another ball screen. Liberty forward Kyle Rode shows hard, while Drake Dobbs recovers.

But look at the weak side of the floor.

A help defender has to tag the rolling Tilmon, a job that falls to Chris Parker. Stunting in, though, leaves Mark Smith unguarded. Once Parker commits to helping, Mark relocates to the wing. Buggs’ read is easy. The hedge cut off a gap, Tilmon is tagged, but there’s a skip pass open against a defense that’s over-helping. The result is a wide-open catch-and-shoot — notice how Parker slips trying to close out — going into the break.

Possession 2: Instead of pivoting and venturing out for a side ball-screen, Tilmon tries to bury Rode on the block. At the top of the arc, Mitchell Smith slides out to set the first of those two screens, a prelude to the DHO between Dru Smith and Buggs.

Mitch and Tilmon, who set the screens, don’t flatten guards, and Liberty can switch cleanly. The ball swings to Mitch in the corner, but Tilmon can’t outmuscle Rode. On the backside, Buggs and Dru Smith interchange positions.

During this trip, the third action defines the set. Notice how Mitchell Smith has cleared from the right corner while Tilmon inches up the lane. When Buggs probes a gap, he effectively back-screens Darius McGhee as the guard slides over to cut off the driver. The baseline is empty, and Mark Smith is free to cut. Rode’s caught in a bind. If he jumps to Smith, Tilmon dive-bomb toward the rim or a path opens for Buggs.

For his part, Buggs whips a pass to his cutting teammate, whose defender is trailing too far behind.

Possession 3: A minute later, MU makes the same play call, and again Liberty is in a bind. After Mitchell Smith sets the second step-out screen, he rolls to the rim, creating the same problem we saw in the first clip. Because the Flames are showing a little harder, a help defender is again tagging the roll man. And also, it’s Parker, who this time has to leave Dru Smith unguarded. For Buggs, it’s an easy decision — toss the ball back to Dru for a jumper.

Throughout the rest of the clips, you see similar shades of this sequence. MU’s screening action, movement, and spacing create opportunities. It’s incumbent on Buggs to decipher which option is best and deliver the ball on time. That’s a marked difference from Pinson, who has the first step and burst to turn the corner and attack the paint. While Buggs will feed a rolling big man on occasion, the overwhelming majority of his pick-and-roll passes produce spot-ups.

Liberty’s approach chafed Pinson throughout the first off, and the junior tried to ratchet up the tempo by driving headlong into the paint early in the shot clock. Several times, Martin lifted him in attempted reset, but he rode Buggs and Dru Smith throughout the second half. These clips offer a hint as to why.

Possession 4: By contrast, Arkansas yearns to force a turnover and ramp up the tempo, which was more to Pinson’s temperament. Yet again, MU turned to Buggs to help keep one of its premier lineups on course.

These two possessions demonstrate how the Buggs-guided offense withstood the Razorbacks’ heavier on-ball pressure. Granted, the Hogs’ didn’t help themselves by botching their pick-and-roll coverage. Jalen Tate recovers well to cut off Buggs, but two of his teammates tag the rolling Tilmon. If Arkansas is in drop coverage, it makes sense that J.D. Notae rotates down. But Jaylin Williams is also there.

Standing on the weak side, Dru Smith and Mark Smith have a two-on-one and do what they’re supposed to do: rotate and fill the perimeter space vacated by the driver. Buggs’ calculus and read remains easy enough. He flits a jump pass to Dru Smith, who has an unobstructed view of the rim.

Possession 5: Arkansas’ exuberance enables Buggs to burn them again. Notae goes to help trap Dru Smith on the left side of the floor, leaving Buggs alone. Dru just simply reverses the ball back the way it came, and Buggs ventures into the gap. Most of the Hogs get caught ball-watching, including Desi Sills, who misses Mark Smith sliding up from the corner to the wing. It sets up an easy drive-and-kick for a 3-ball as Sills springs for a fly-by closeout.

Possession 6: Dissecting a play doesn’t get much easier. South Carolina’s Jermaine Cousinard lazily trots out after Dru Smith clears Tilmon’s pin down. Buggs tosses him an easy assist on a 3-pointer from the right slot.

Possession 7: The sequence should be familiar by this point, but the wrinkle here is the four-guard lineup on the floor. As a result, Pickett sets the first screen in the DHO sequence and clears to the right corner. Cousinard drifts that way with him but stays close to the lane to help on the rolling Tilmon. Buggs tosses a one-hand pass to the wing for a spot-up.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Modest — and helpful — Value

Right before the season tipped off, I pointed out that Buggs’ impact would ideally come at the margins. Past the midway point of this COVID-impacted season, the observation still seems on-point, but now we have a body of evidence we can evaluate. And a skeptic like me has to admit Buggs has put together a persuasive case that he’s lived up to expectations.

No doubt, his raw usage has fallen. His volume of pick-and-roll passing possessions is currently on track to decline by 73.9 percent during his lone season in Columbia. Make no mistake, though, he’s maximizing every single one of them, averaging 1.088 points on those trips — ahead of his best season for the Warriors — and doing so in a way that doesn’t derail the broader offense.

The same could also be said about the Tigers’ other two key reserves in Pickett and Mitchell Smith. Each member of the trio possesses a clearly defined portfolio and embraces its contents. In Smith’s case, playing time hinges on the defensive versatility and lineup flexibility he affords Martin in the frontcourt. As for Pickett, he’s moved to the bench and focused almost exclusively on attacking closeouts, rebounding, and steady help defense.

And Buggs? He’s helped steady the hands on the till for Martin’s program, which has spent stretches of the past three seasons trying to pare back turnovers. How Buggs goes about the job is understated. Yet at the rate he’s going, he’ll help the Tigers travel like one of his passes — on time and to the right place.