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Mizzou Hoops Player Preview: Mohamed Diarra

The nation’s top JUCO talent can play in space but will need time to adjust to the SEC’s speed and physicality. Recent history hints patience will be required.

Mizzou Basketball

Over 13 installments, this series will dive deep into the 12 known scholarship players that make up the 2022-2023 Missouri basketball roster. Some installments might be more in-depth than others, if only because of the data and film available. In addition, evaluating players with multiple years of experience is more straightforward than younger peers.

The pieces read like a birds-eye scouting report. They skew more toward the offensive end of the court for two reasons. First, a player’s offensive metrics are more reliable than defensive data and less team-dependent. Second, it’s considerably easier to describe a player’s qualities with more well-known offensive statistics. As always, we encourage interaction from our readers. Please drop us a comment or find me on Twitter @DataMizzou.

The Player

The first player to commit to Dennis Gates is the last in our series. When Mohammed Diarra pledged to the Tigers, it quickly backed up Gates’ reputation for trawling the JUCO ranks for talent. In Diarra’s case, though, it was easy to see. Rated as the top JUCO prospect this cycle, he averaged a double-double for Garden City Community College and was the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Player of the Year.

Born in Paris, the 6-foot-10 post player immigrated to the U.S. and suited up for Redemption Christian Academy in upstate New York. He committed to Mizzou over Pittsburgh, Marquette, Maryland, and West Virginia. He has three years of eligibility remaining.

Garden City Community College

The Numbers

Mohamed Diarra | Sophomore | Post | 6-foot-10, 215 Pounds

2022 Garden City 30 29.7 24.3 17.9 12.6 1.7 45.2 30.0 71.4 2.3 1.9 49.0 55.1 0.4 1.088
2021 Garden City 20 20.8 23.6 8.4 10.2 1.1 38.2 30.9 64.6 1.8 0.6 45.0 51.0 0.4 1.098

I’ll start with this caveat: finding full games of Garden City is a challenge, and it obscures the context around Diarra’s statistical profile.

I’m an analytics devotee, but if you’ve followed our previews, you’ll know that chewing through film was essential. For example, Diarra’s 3-point shooting remained relatively consistent across two seasons. If it stayed that way in Columbia, he’d be a slightly below-average floor spacer. But how pressing is that concern when less than a quarter of his shots come from long distance? And what kind of 3-balls is Diarra hoisting up? Is he shooting them off one dribble? Are they pick-and-pops? Or is he spacing out to a corner?

Diarra doesn’t bill himself as a traditional post, yet his jump-shooting is pedestrian. His assist rate last season was 9 percent, with a 0.4 assist-to-turnover ratio. And when you pair that with a starter-level usage rate (24.3%), it strongly suggests Diarra’s a shot-hunter — and slightly turnover prone — with the rock in his hands. That would be fine, except his 2-point shooting (50.%) is also average.

But how is he generating those shot attempts? Is he dependent on ISO touches? Is he attacking off the catch? Or did Garden City put him in ball-screen actions and let him cook? How frequently was he posting up? Does he have a knack for cutting?

Brandon Goble, who runs JUCO Advocate and co-owns Verbal Commits, gave us a peek with highlight tapes from Diarra’s freshman and sophomore campaigns. In Diarra’s first season with the Broncos, most of his jumpers came after pick-and-pops or via drive-and-kicks to the slot. There was some on-ball creation by driving closeouts, and Diarra’s handle is solid enough that he wasn’t reliant on straight-line rim attacks. Shortly after Diarra committed, Cody Hopkins, who runs, backed up that observation:

He is not so much of a roller as much as he is a perimeter scorer and a transition bucket. Because he runs the floor so well, he can catch and go score in space. His skill set is the jab step, the ability to go middle or spin.

You talked about some high-post stuff, and that’s something he could be excellent at. But again, that gets back to adding some strength. A lot of times, defenders crowd driving angles and can be physical. He has to learn to make the right decision when they do that. That’s the one caveat. Is he going to know to drive? Or hit the pitchman? Find a guy lifting [to the wing] or drifting [to the corner]?

Last season, Diarra spent more time with the ball on his hands. Those cutups show a big who can snake dribble, make basic reads, and play off two feet. But importantly, you rarely see extended sections of him catching and going to work on the block. When I spoke to Hopkins, he didn’t mince words about Diarra’s desire to work down low.

He did not want to have any presence inside. He was strictly a perimeter big. That’s what will have to change, but I think a lot of it has to do with his strength. That’s why he doesn’t like going down there. He gets a lot of rebounds, but it’s not really against SEC-caliber bigs. He would need to improve that area.

There’s no reason to be concerned about their absence, either. While at Cleveland State, coach Dennis Gates’ offense followed the modern trend of ditching post-ups as a primary action. Last season, the Vikings tossed the ball to the block on just 3.8 percent of their possessions and ranked 320th in Division I, according to Synergy tracking data. And if you read our Tre Gomillion preview, you’d know that Gates often positioned his bigs at the elbow and used it as a hub for sets.

I covet full games of Diarra because I want to see how often he had to make stationary passing reads — like those from the pinch post — or run the same kind of DHO-based actions that Noah Carter piloted at Northern Iowa. And given his poor assist-to-turnover ratio, what kind of decisions was he making at full speed? Here’s Hopkins again:

He has a skillset to bring the ball up the floor and make plays for others. The difference between the guy you’re seeing today and after a year at Mizzou is he’ll be able to make timely plays for others. He maybe makes the wrong read. He doesn’t get it to the shooter or the dive man. His reading [of plays] and the speed of the game will be what needs to catch up.

Diarra’s shooting inside the arc and at the charity stripe improved by about 7 percentage points as a sophomore. Coupled with a significant boost in playing time, it makes sense that his scoring output almost doubled. But as we’ll see later, JUCO bigs of his caliber are rarely relied upon to catalyze an offense at a high-major program.

Meanwhile, Diarra’s metrics hint that he can be disruptive on defense. His block rate (6.6%) and steal rate (2.9%) are robust for a big. And on film, you can see that he’s mobile, comfortable flipping his hips and sticking with a driver, and can provide rim protection as a help defender. But above all, his defensive rebounding (31.1 DR%) is gaudy — and MU should hope that it translates in some form to help an undersized roster gang up on the glass.

Back in March, though, Hopkins kept beating on one issue: Will Diarra have the strength to hold up solo guarding a long list of talented SEC bigs such as Oscar Tshiebwe, Colin Castleton, and Tolu Smith?

Not to beat a dead horse, but if his strength and conditioning really improve over the next nine months now, all of a sudden, defensively, he could hold his own in that same position. Right now, the hardest thing for him to do is play defense against five.

Suppose two tent poles holding Gates’ program are defense and connecting actions within an offensive set. In that case, there’s a potential reason to wonder about how serviceable Diarra might be early on. And that’s before you consider how he’ll need to get his bearings in a league where athleticism is a staple of every roster.

We drew conclusions from eight minutes of tape for the past eight months. Next week, the sample size starts growing exponentially.

Mizzou Basketball

The Role

It’s not just the absence of film that makes evaluating and projecting Diarra a challenge. Ranking JUCO talent is a different exercise than high school prospects. We’re fortunate that we can call scouts like Hopkins and Goble to give us quality insights, but the actual pecking order is a list we need to take with a grain of salt.

For starters, I reviewed the annual JUCO rankings compiled by 247 Sports and between 2017 and 2021. Over these five recruiting cycles, 28 front-court players were ranked among the top 25 prospects by one of those services and went on to play at a high-major program. Then, using the adjusted efficiency margins in KenPom’s ratings, we can gauge the quality of their landing spots. It turns out that most highly touted prospects land at high-majors sitting between 26th and 120th in Pomeroy’s rating, with the median program floating between 60th and 70th.

Those big men rarely walk into gobs of playing time when they arrive on campus. The median dose is just 20.4 percent of minutes — a little more than eight minutes per game. Unsurprisingly, their median usage (17.9%) is equivalent to a role player. The upper end of the spectrum — 46.7 percent of minutes and 22.7 percent usage — is the analytic equivalent of serving as a rotation’s sixth man.

Over the past five years, just four players in our sample played more than 50 percent of minutes in the first high-major season: Memphis’ Kyvon Davenport, Ole Miss’ Bruce Stephens, Ole Miss’ Khadim Sy, and Nebraska’s Lat Mayen. And none of them suited up for rosters that finished better than 102nd in Pomeroy’s ratings. In other words, it would be abnormal for Diarra to log starter-level minutes in his first season in Columbia.

Now, I’m going to throw around the term correlation again. Statistically, it measures a relationship on a scale from -1.0 to 1.0. A correlation of 1.0 means a perfect relationship, and -1.0 implies a negative relationship. Or, you can think of it this way:

  • Correlation of 1.0: As the adjusted efficiency margin goes up, a player’s PT goes up
  • Correlation of -1.0: As the adjusted efficiency margin goes down, a player’s PT goes up
  • Correlation of 0.0: Team quality has no impact on playing time.

For our sample, it turns out that there’s a negative relationship (R=-0.40) between the quality of a team and JUCO Big’s playing time. Put simply, the worse a team is, the more time they spend on the floor. Those same negative relationships exist for scoring (R=-0.46) and raw touches (R=-0.44), all of which are moderately strong. The implication: if a player like Diarra has a prominent role, there’s a strong likelihood his team’s season skidded into a ditch.

Odd as it might sound, it’s a good sign if Gates isn’t leaning on Diarra this season. And if you’re looking for the best-case scenario, D.J. Funderbuk might be your guy. In 2018-19, Funderburk, the No. 4 JUCO recruit, posted 8.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 0.4 assists on 19.1 percent usage in 19.9 minutes a game for an N.C. State. That season, which saw the Wolfpack finish 41st in KenPom, the 6-foot-10, 240-pound post split time with Wyatt Walker and finished plus-17.3 efficiency margin.

By and large, JUCO imports to the front court tend to be as efficient (+4.4 net rating) as the typical Division-I player. As for their influence on a team’s net rating, the median impact is zilch, while the average (-2.96 points per 100 possessions) is only a slight drag. Again, if a big man’s individual efficiency is spiking, it’s probably a subtle sign (R=-0.23) that his team is struggling.

But Mizzou’s issue is pretty self-evident: the Tigers don’t have a proven prototypical big on their roster. That was supposed to be Western Kentucky’s Jamarion Sharp, who decided to stay put rather than decamp for Columbia. Had Gates scored that commitment, Sharp, arguably the nation’s best rim protector, would have easily slotted into a primary role. And under those circumstances, playing Diarra between 10 and 12 minutes a night on moderate usage would have been logical.

But those best-laid plans went bust. Now, Gates has to weigh how much to put on Diarra’s shoulders. Early on, when the non-con slate is squishy soft, the answer is not all that pressing. Based on my lineup tracking, Kobe Brown probably spent about 40 percent of his time playing at the five. (KenPom’s algo has him at 65 percent.) Noah Carter probably had a similar workload in Cedar Falls. Ronnie DeGray III is around, too. Theoretically, Gates could platoon his veterans while Diarra gets comfortable.

Memphis v Cincinnati

Don’t fret, though.

Recent history also offers a silver lining. His name is Isaiah Maurice. Four years ago, the 6-foot-10, 225-pound post arrived at Memphis as the nation’s No. 16 prospect in Hopkins’ rankings from South Plains (Texas) College. At the time, coach Penny Hardaway was heading into his debut season and found himself in a quandary similar to Gates. Hardaway’s best returning post player was Kyvon Davenport, who stood just 6-foot-8, followed by Mike Parks (6’8) and Raynere Thornton (6’6) rounding the rotation. Huh, those are the same size as Kobe Brown, Ronnie DeGray III and Noah Carter.

Yet Hardaway didn’t shovel the majority of minutes to Maurice. Instead, he divided it into relatively equal shares between Parks (35%) and Maurice (33%). (Thornton and Davenport handled spot duty in small-ball lineups) When the season wrapped up, Maurice had played 33.2 percent of minutes with a usage rate of around 20.1 percent, making him the seventh man in Hardaway’s rotation.

Maurice, who averaged 5.6 points and 3.1 rebounds, had a modest impact offensively. But his metrics at the other end hint at a critical role. Per Synergy, Maurice only allowed 0.792 points per possession, which ranked in the 86th percentile nationally. His 20.4 defensive-rebounding percentage is equally good, and he provided stellar rim protection (6.4 BLK%).

That year, Memphis was among the smallest teams in Division I and routinely crushed on the glass. But it still ranked 54th in adjusted defensive efficiency and was among the top 100 in turnover and block rates. It also finished 56th in KenPom and made the NIT.

No one will confuse Maurice and Diarra’s scoring packages. But Diarra’s demonstrated he can rebound, create deflections, and swat shots. There’s a structure that puts those tools to productive use without asking too much from the Frenchman. We’ll see how creative Gates can be.