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Opportunity Cost: In Isiaih Mosley’s absence, Mizzou’s issue on the wing come into view

DeAndre Gholston’s game has remained mostly the same, and Mosley’s transition hasn’t gone smoothly. As the schedule get tougher, the Tigers need to find a resolution — quickly.

NCAA Basketball: SE Missouri State at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

With a little less than six minutes left in the first half, DeAndre Gholston surveyed a gap and saw Gradey Dick blocking off a path to the rim. The Missouri guard took a dribble, sized up Kansas’ freshman, and weighed options. Only three seconds had ticked off the shot clock, and KU had already built a wall in transition.

Usually, the prudent move would be Gholston reversing the ball and letting Nick Honor initiate MU’s offense.

Instead, Gholston chose to attack – and with brute force. After dribbling between his legs, the Milwaukee transfer dipped his shoulder, sent Dick sprawling, and gave official Jeb Hartness an easy call. Then, saddled with his third foul, Gholston trudged toward the MU bench.

Inside Mizzou Arena, the scene might have been innocuous, one frustrating mistake among many in the 95-67 thrashing by the Jayhawks. But at that moment, it felt like fate — and ESPN —decided to spring a cruel joke. Its tool: a brief exchange between commentators Tom Hart and Jimmy Dykes.

“Missouri has a player on the bench that can add some juice — if Dennis Gates decides to go there,” Hart said as KU scored on an inbounds play.

Around the time Hart prepared to finish that thought, Gholston plowed through Dick’s chest. A split second later, the camera cut to Isiaih Mosley. The Missouri State transfer sat slightly hunched forward, fingers interlaced, and with his warm-up pants on – a passive observer taking his third DNP of the season.

“He is an elite score, but No. 11 in white hasn’t left the bench,” Hart noted.

A few seconds later, he rose and greeted Gholston before he took a seat in a folding chair. Mosley quickly shook his teammate’s hand, patted his side, and passed along a few words of encouragement. It was then that Dyke’s shared an observation that only heightened angst around Mosley, who has played just six minutes in the last three games while dealing with a personal matter.

“I don’t know Dennis real well yet,” Dykes said. “I know he’s a heck of a coach and believes 100 percent in how they play the game. But it is a little bit of a concern that Isiaih Mosley has gotten no time in practice the last two days or in this game because he is a bona fide scorer.”

Suppose a moment can encapsulate the confusion and angst around Mosley’s “transition” to the program. In that case, those 50 seconds of live TV are undoubtedly a contender.

Early on, Mosley’s availability sat on a simmer, partly because MU’s soft schedule kept the temperature low. Now, the knob has been turned — and quickly. It’s also unfortunate for Gholston, who has started each game. At almost every other position, there’s clarity on the pecking order. Nick Honor runs the point. Kobe Brown flexes as a hybrid option. Noah Carter is an undersized five. And most of the time, D’Moi Hodge’s hyper-efficient impact comes on the wing.

Instead, Gholston finds himself on the periphery of the Mosley situation. Not because he wants to be but because any clear-eyed evaluation of his skill set sees a healthy overlap between them. Before Mosley committed in May, you could easily argue that Gholston had the right of first refusal. In that alternative universe, no one is casting him a supporting role or discussing the tradeoffs that come with it.

But here we are, engaging in that very task.

Let’s start with this: Gholston remains the same player he was while suiting up in the Horizon League. Like many up-transfers, he sacrificed minutes to play at the high-major level. Naturally, that means a decline in the raw tallying of counting stats. Yet the picture changes when you look at Gholston’s output on a per-100 possession basis.

DeAndre Gholston | Per 100 Possessions

2021-22 25.8 7.9 3.8 1.4 0.3 9 24.8 36.1 14.7 3.3 5.9
2022-23 25.4 7 5.1 2.7 0.3 8.7 21.6 40 13.5 1.9 7.8
Change -0.4 -0.9 1.3 1.3 0 -0.3 -3.2 3.9 -1.2 -1.4 1.9
Source: Sports Reference

Gholston’s shooting it a little less, dishing it a tad more, and creating a few more turnovers. Still, his 26.2 percent usage rate is basically the same. All that’s changed is Gholston plays 19.5 minutes per game – down from almost 33 a night – as part of a deeper rotation in Columbia.

But functionally, he’s mimicking the task that confronted him when Milwaukee lost five-star freshman Pat Baldwin to injuries: backfilling production. When Mosley’s been available, he’s sporting a 27.8 percent usage rate and averaging 7.9 field-goal attempts, a 46 percent decrease. Meanwhile, Gholston’s hoisting up 8.0 shots per game and has seen a comparable dip in volume.

Inevitably, Mosley would have ceded some touches to join a roster featuring Gholston and Hodge, who paced Cleveland State in scoring as an All-Horizon League pick. But shedding almost half of his shots? No, I don’t think that was expected.

How well is it going? You be the judge.

DeAndre Gholston | Efficiency Comparison | 2022 vs. 2023

Season Poss/Gm Off. PPP Def. PPP Net FG% 2FG% 3FG% FT% eFG% TS%
Season Poss/Gm Off. PPP Def. PPP Net FG% 2FG% 3FG% FT% eFG% TS%
2021-22 17.3 0.821 0.734 0.087 36.1 38.9 32 78.4 42.6 46.7
2022-23 11.2 0.821 0.737 0.084 40.0 50.0 23.3 79.3 44.4 50.1
Change -3.0 0.0 -0.003 -0.003 3.9 11.1 -8.7 0.9 1.8 -3.3
Source: Synergy Sports

When a player’s net rating has only changed by 0.30 points per 100 possessions, it’s easy to divine the answer. Seeing such a tiny shift is heartening. Per Synergy, Gholston’s offensive efficiency ranks in the 34th percentile nationally — or on the lower end of average. And while we take defensive metrics with a grain of salt, the brawny wing grades out well (67th percentile) among Division-I peers.

Strip the digits to their essence, and Mizzou’s left with an average college basketball player. And among up-transfers, it’s normal to scale back possessions to keep their efficiency steady. No shame in that, either.

For his part, Mosley hasn’t quickly picked up torching defenses to the tune of 20 points per game. Anyone watching can see it’s a tad stilted. Finding its root cause isn’t an arduous search: the Rock Bridge product’s jumper has come online slowly.

Through seven games, he’s shooting just 27.8 percent behind the arc. That vaunted in-between game we adore? It’s absent so far. Mosley’s connected on 21.4 percent of jumpers taken off the bounce, including 2 of 10 on mid-range attempts, per Synergy. Plug and play? Not when your net rating slumps by 20 points per 100 possessions.

Isiaih Mosley | Efficiency Comparison | 2022 vs. 2023

Season Poss/Gm Off. PPP Def. PPP Net FG% 2FG% 3FG% FT% eFG% TS%
Season Poss/Gm Off. PPP Def. PPP Net FG% 2FG% 3FG% FT% eFG% TS%
2021-22 18.9 1.059 0.858 20.1 50.6 54.1 42.7 90.1 57.6 61
2022-23 10.4 0.863 0.867 -0.04 50.9 62.2 27.8 50.0 55.5 55.4
Change 8.5 -0.196 -0.09 -20.5 -20.2 8.1 -13.4 -40.1 -1.1 -5.6
Source: Synergy Sports

The irony: Mosley, at his abject worst, is still more efficient than Gholston by about 4.2 points per 100 possessions. Shot location? Irrelevant. Making it more bizarre, Mosley spent four games on course for a breakout. Against Coastal Carolina, he posted 23 points on 10 of 15 shooting. Three days later, he barely sniffed the floor against Houston Christian and sat out a road comeback against Wichita State.

As for Gholston, he’s hummed along, averaging 8.0 points on 40.9 percent shooting during the same stretch. Yet he’s only mustered 0.686 PPP and is just 1 of 10 on shots taken away from the rim. And while tallies aren’t alarming, he’s starting to mix in more mid-range shots and isolation possessions.

Until recently, Gholston had cut mid-range pull-ups from his diet of shots, attempts he only made 33.7 percent of the time. It wasn’t just Gholston. Milwaukee, the 11th-worst offense in Division I, ranked 33rd nationally in taking them. Compounding the problem, Gholston was often the Panthers’ late-clock maestro. Now, he’s freed of that duty.

Another irony: The mid-range pull-ups that anchor down Gholston lift Mosley. At MSU, He made 50.4 percent of his attempts from those spots on the floor, and a pull-up jumper was worth 0.967 PPP, according to Synergy. A glance at a heatmap shows us he’s found that rhythm in Columbia. It conflicts slightly with Synergy’s data, but I think it’s a matter of CBB Analytics treating three of Mosley’s baseline for floaters as pull-up attempts.

Source: CBB Analytics

But again, Mosley’s 3-point stroke, which is just 5 of 18 for the season, is also tamping down his efficiency. If he had canned three more, his overall efficiency would check in at 0.986 PPP. That’s still down from last season, but the dip is more modest. Meanwhile, the ample rim attacks created through Gates’ stylistic approach have plugged some gaps. As a result, Mosley ranks in the 94th percentile nationally for efficiency around the cup.

The portrait of Gholston is a bit more sobering. He’s just 15 of 56 on shots attempted more than five feet from the rim, per CBB Analytics. During the preseason, we hoped Gholston might evolve into a 3-and-D option. Yet he’s clanked 5 of 19 unguarded catch-and-shoots.

Source: CBB Analytics

There’s another wonky variable in play, too.

This season, Gholston’s been a fast starter. Using Synergy’s short chart tool, we can see that Gholston’s made 11 of 17 shots taken within the first five minutes of the opening tip. But he’s only 17 of 55, including 8 of 36 away from the rim, the rest of the way. Why should we care? Because it really skews lineup data we use to evaluate his impact on and off the floor.

For example, the starting five owns a plus 40.8 net rating on 108 possessions. Yet the nine most-used lineups also featuring Gholston are underwater by 7.14 points, according to Pivot Analysis data. Even before KU put a hurting on MU, those same lineups were just breaking even. Finally, MU’s net rating with him on the floor is 20.7 – or just 1.6 points better than when he’s sitting.

Essentially, MU has jumped on outmatched opponents so quickly that it’s papered Gholston’s marginal impact elsewhere in the rotation.

That buffer evaporated against the Jayhawks. KU outscored MU’s starters by 11 points, and the Tigers were minus-18 in the other 18 minutes Gholston spent on the floor. The on/off splits reflect that carnage.

On/Off Impact on Net Rating | Missouri vs. Kansas

Player Minutes On Net Rtg Off Net Rtg Impact Adj. GS ORTG
Player Minutes On Net Rtg Off Net Rtg Impact Adj. GS ORTG
Aidan Shaw 22 2.46 -90.29 92.75 3.52 78.34
Sean East II 26 -13.01 -82.8 69.79 -7.19 39.51
Noah Carter 23 -28.31 -52.78 24.47 17.62 108
Kobe Brown 20 -43.36 -63.52 20.16 -1.41 56.91
Nick Honor 32 -35.62 -50.92 15.3 27.49 134.43
Tre Gomillion 16 -92.7 -87.48 -5.22 -4.74 52.61
D'Moi Hodge 28 -53.98 0 -53.98 24.9 118.34
DeAndre Gholston 23 -69.79 6.72 -76.51 1.81 71.06
Source: Pivot Analysis

Insightful as those splits can be, they’re also drawn from one sample. To provide more context, I tacked on game scores and offensive ratings listed in Study Hall. Look no further than Sean East II. Pivot Analysis data accurately shows that MU was 93 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor. However, his game score was the lowest in the rotation. So, yes. East was present when his teammates made good things happen. By contrast, Hodge posted a 24.9 game score in lineups that slumped to a minus-54 split.

And Gholston?

His individual metrics put him somewhere in the middle, but no other Tiger came close to approaching his usage. Gholston powered the offense for long stretches, and the returns were mediocre at best. That sounds harsh or judgmental, but it’s just a reflection of what the data is telling us.

We also don’t know whether Mosley would have come in cold and strafed the Jayhawks. I’m skeptical. But lineup data remains handy. When we look at the 10 most-used lineups featuring him, the Tigers’ net rating checks in a 34.6 in 78 possessions, per Pivot Analysis data. By comparison, the same non-starting lineups with Gholston broke even before KU rolled in and skewed the data. The resulting gap encapsulates the heart of the matter.

Again, Gholston shouldn’t apologize for taking up minutes left on the table. But the looming question is how sustainable that will be as Mizzou gets into the teeth of its schedule. Is what we saw Saturday from Gholston a sneak preview? An outlier? Or is the entire exercise irrelevant if Mosley rejoins the rotation against UCF or Illinois?

There’s plenty of chatter about what’s behind Mosley’s absence, but it’s all on background. That leaves us parsing Gates’ opaque explanation and waiting to see Mosley trot to the scorer’s table. All Gholston can do is just keep on doing his level best.

Mosley’s homecoming has made for good narrative fodder. It also elevated humble expectations. Before he joined the fold, Gates’ rebooted roster improved at the margins: steadier ball handling, reliable rim finishing, and quicker hands creating turnovers. It also fits his schematic preferences. Yet the overall talent level isn’t much greater than Cuonzo Martin’s final season.

Mosley, however, is a genuinely elite component. Any reasonable projection had him serving as a centrifuge that would spin and blend this group. Earning an NIT bid emerged as an appropriate benchmark and, if it transpired, would represent rapid progress for a program that plummeted to 137th in KenPom last season. It also wasn’t outlandish to envision the best version of this team could insert itself in the bubble conversions come March.

But the longer his absence stretches, the more we might need to embrace the notion that Gholston’s a primary option – and end the comparisons.

Even if we’re treated to awkward scenes like the one we saw Saturday.