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What should we make of Isiaih Mosley’s passing fancy?

The Missouri guard’s early approach runs counter to his reputation. Is it a sign of him acclimating to Dennis Gates’ approach? Like so much this season, time will tell.

Southern Indiana v Missouri Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images

To anyone deeply versed in Isiaih Mosley’s game, the moment appeared routine: a big trotting over to set a ball screen and give the combo guard entrance to a middle gap. This was a moment for the combo guard to pull out a familiar tool in his kit. To showcase why he’d been so coveted after exiting Missouri State. And affirm himself as the spine keeping Missouri’s offense upright.

Noah Carter angled his torso toward Lindenwood’s Remy Lemovou, whirled to his left, and slipped toward the rim – taking Lemovou with him. At the same time, Brandon Trimble sagged back. No defender was within arm’s reach of the Columbia native.

Mosley took a side dribble left, elevated, and gently lofted up a pass. One that drifted harmlessly out of bounds. It was odd to me. It’s also the most description of Mosley’s homecoming – at least so far.

First, there’s Mosley’s ongoing absence from the starting five. Next came a healthy scratch against Penn and an opaque explanation from coach Dennis Gates. Then, upon his return, Mosley spent 14 minutes of floor time trying not to score. It wasn’t until MU ushered in garbage time during a romp over SIU-Edwardsville that the Rock Bridge product looked like his usual self.

So, is there cause for concern? And how much stock should we put in a sample that will only add today’s tilt against Mississippi Valley State, ranked next to last in KenPom, as a data point? Truthfully, I don’t know. What’s evident is Mosley’s addition hasn’t been plug-and-play for the Tigers. Instead, there appears to be a settling-in period.

Watching Mosley spend most of his time as a facilitator might be evidence of that theory. And in truth, Gates has shown he’s willing to audition different Tigers as a secondary ball handler alongside Nick Honor. Through four games, allotments have been spread equally among Mosley, Sean East, D’Moi Hodge, and Tre Gomillion.

Tinkering with roles this early isn’t radical, especially when your roster is low on continuity. On the contrary, it’s one of the benefits of MU forging a low-tensile strength of schedule in non-conference play. Still, it’s hard to square what we’ve witnessed with the principal allure of importing Mosley: instant offense.

Yet it’s not as if Mosley’s incompetent as a passer. He’s just an infrequent one, dishing the ball on 35.3 percent of pick-and-rolls during his career. (That’s roughly 1.7 times per game.) But the results – almost 1.2 PPP – would have ranked among the top 100 nationally last season.

Pick-and-Roll Passing | Isiaih Mosley | Career

Season Poss Points PPP FG FGA FG% eFG%
Season Poss Points PPP FG FGA FG% eFG%
2020 34 36 1.059 13 27 48.1 59.3
2021 47 54 1.149 21 40 52.5 62.5
2022 82 105 1.28 39 73 53.4 61.6
Total 163 195 1.196 73 140 52.1 61.4
Synergy Sports

Crucially, though, Mosley’s passing volume hasn’t increased. Last season, it was 2.4 pick-and-roll passes per game. Though our sample is minuscule, it’s remained static (2.3) over three outings for Mizzou.

What’s changed is the distribution of those possessions. On 14 pick-and-rolls, Mosley passed about half the time, per Synergy Sports data. Meanwhile, he’s generating fewer shot attempts (1.6 per game) out of those ball screens. The same goes for field-goal attempts ginned up in isolation.

How durable are those changes? Today might offer us more evidence.

Once Mosley signed on as a subcontractor for this rebuild, it was always likely that his usage would dip. So far, that’s held. When he’s on the floor, 25.5 percent of MU’s touches flow toward him, a decline of 5.3 percentage points. Coming off the bench has also sliced his floor time by 14 minutes each time out.

All of it adds up to a player who has seen his role chopped in half. That’s a tad jarring, and it doesn’t even account for acclimating to new teammates and a new scheme. Pretend, though, you’ve never watched Mosley play at all. On film, he seems fine conducting the orchestra.

Mosley’s reputation as a bucket-getter creates gravity, pulling defenders toward him. If he had remained in Springfield, we’d see opponents raise the pick-up point on the floor. Instead, Mosley’s herky-jerky style, which uses a little slower dribble and manipulates pace, often draws defenders out and holds help defenders longer.

You see that dynamic at work in middle pick-and-rolls. So far, Mizzou’s opponents have used drop coverage against Mosley. That creates a 4-on-3 advantage, and that coverage often draws a big to the free-three line.

The result is a craved commodity: space for rollers. Tre Gomillion can slip, receive a pass, and attack the cup. Or Noah Carter can be a wrinkle by flaring, setting his feet, and getting clean sight of the rim.

The same general principle applies to side pick-and-rolls. Watch the first clip. Lindenwood isn’t hounding Mosley, but two dudes are trying to string out his dribble. Again, two defenders on the ball mean the Lions are a man short. Note Mosley’s gaze. He’s scanning the weak-side corner and Brandon Trimble, who is ball-watching. So is Gomillion, who knows to cut. Mosley whips a pass, and, honestly, Gomillion should have finished the reverse. And in the second clip, we see again what happens when a Tiger flares after setting a ball screen for Mosley.

The magnetic force of Mosley’s scoring ability is so strong that it even manipulates defenses when Mosley plays in isolation. He’ll inevitably draw two defenders when he puts the ball on the deck. What he needs are teammates to convert the open-shot attempts he’s manufacturing.

It’s easy to appreciate Mosley’s altruism and donating potential buckets to his teammates. However, there have been some possessions where you want him to follow his impulses. The play with Carter is a prime example. There is no open hardwood around the combo forward after he slips. Two defenders are tagging him, and there’s another defender behind Carter. Maybe Mosley could skip the ball to Nick Honor in the opposite corner.

Or he could finish what he started. Mosley used his preferred side-step dribble to get into his shot motion, and he’s at a spot on the floor where he’s a frequent customer. Just let it rip.

And in the next cut-up, a defender slips, opening up a gap. The old Mosley might release a floater in the middle of the lane. But instead, he fires a pass to DeAndre Gholston in the corner. Is that a better shot? Not really. A corner 3 and a floater are equally efficient shot attempts in terms of points per possession. Mosley was not passing up a good shot for a better shot. If anything, it’s a push.

Then are some trips where you feel like Mosley’s pressing a little bit. For example, Aidan Shaw’s defender leaves him to over-help in the lane. Still, there’s reasonable on-ball pressure and a help defender dropping. In the second snippet, a second defender comes in from Mosley’s blind side to deflect a weakly attempted kickout. And the third pass? Well, it looks like Mosley is playing quarterback and trying to slot a pass in the back of the end zone.

A week ago, Mosley only attempted a pair of shots — a pair of tip-ins. He didn’t attempt a shot from the floor until the 7:58 mark of the first half against SIUE, a deep 3-ball from the top of the arc after a middle ball screen. That jumper kicked off the back of the iron, but it seemed to remove a mental block.

Mosley’s next seven consequential touches were shots. The first one was a vintage Mosley bucket. After attacking a gap, he stopped, showed a ball fake to Lamar Wright, reverse pivoted, and arched a fallaway jumper that splashed down. The remaining six attempts were familiar to those steeped in his oeuvre.

Just one of them dropped, a swipe-and-score generated out of the press, but it’s not surprising Mosley is searching for his familiar rhythm. That’s the upside of garbage time, starting with almost 13 minutes left to go: the only thing at stake is improving your efficiency margins. Practically, it allowed Gates to experiment with lineups. And for Mosley, it was a window to re-establish his confidence — assuming it was even diminished.

One other point bears mentioning: Gates hasn’t had a player of Mosley’s profile in a while — if ever.

For example, Mosley played in 124 isolation possessions last season, per Synergy. That tally would have outstripped entire teams that Gates helped coach at Florida State in 2015 and 2018. During Gates’ time on Leonard Hamilton’s staff, the Seminoles never ranked higher than 221st nationally for the amount of time its offense spent using ISO touches. And at Cleveland State, the highest tally in Gates’ three seasons at the helm was 82 possessions.

Put simply, Gates’ background as an assistant and in the big chair is rooted in a collectivist approach to manufacturing offense. It’s easy to see why Gates, a Chicago native, says his schematic roots go back to the triangle offense. The Tigers’ ample use of split action is testament enough.

So, it’s understandable if there’s been some chafing or tension. Gates needs to install a sturdy base for his program, while Mosley wants to demonstrate his skillset scales up to a high-major conference. We hoped the integration would be seamless, but maybe we’re watching some form of mediation play out on the hardwood.

The optimist might see Mosley’s deference against Lindenwood as tangible proof that he’s bought into Gates’ system. And the pessimist might see it as a passive-aggressive troll job. Only Gates and Mosley know the truth.

But the possibility of the partnership remains tantalizing. We’ve seen that Mosley can create for his teammates. Balancing it with his scoring impulse comes next, and maybe a bit of grace from Gates as Mosley tries to figure it out.