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Isiaih Mosley’s transfer to Mizzou is the best kind of outlier

The Columbia native could have collected a paycheck or taken on a smaller role at a blue blood. Instead, he made the rare decision to help launch a reboot, handing Dennis Gates early momentum.

Syndication: The News-Leader Andrew Jansen/News-Leader / USA TODAY NETWORK

Want a quick summation of the thoughts that pinged around my cranium when Missouri landed Isiaih Mosley?

First, this is awesome. Next, that was fast. And third, this outcome is, well, kind of weird.

Since coach Dennis Gates arrived, his quick flip of the Tigers roster focused heavily on acquiring components that could execute his desired operating system. However, it still lacked a critical asset in a rim protector. And while I appreciate the notion that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, landing an alpha on the perimeter can fast-track hopes for a postseason trip.

You know what I mean, too: the guy you give the ball to and say, Make something happen.

MU’s search for a headliner was no more than a cursory one throughout the spring. They placed obligatory calls to Illinois State’s Antonio Reeves, Ohio’s Mark Sears, and UTEP’s Souley Boum. Unfortunately, none of those courtships advanced. Now, the Tigers did pick up Cleveland State’s D’Moi Hodge, a livewire athlete ideally suited to spring the floor in transition and as a cutter. The Tigers also imported DeAndre Gholston, a Milwaukee transfer with a sneaky good shooting stroke off the catch.

But even if this roster excels at attacking the rim and is moderately better at ball-handling, the absence of reliable shooting and dynamic isolation threat was glaring.

A week ago, those deficiencies seemed baked in. Now, the Tigers don’t just have a starter-level wing. Instead, they snatched arguably the best pure scorer in the transfer portal. And not only that, but the choice of Mosley, a Rock Bridge product, to come home defies the conventional logic for an up-transfer of his caliber: he’s going to a program in worse shape than the one he left behind.

Syndication: The News-Leader Andrew Jansen/News-Leader / USA TODAY NETWORK

That’s not a shot at MU, either. It’s an objective fact — one that tips the notion of an up-transfer on its head.

The up-transfer exists for a reason. Over the past three offseason, from 2019 to 2021, nearly 230 mid-major players decamped for a high-major program. In 95.6 percent of cases, their destination had finished the season with a higher adjusted efficiency margin. And the median efficiency gap — or the difference in efficiency margins — was almost 12.97 points per 100 possessions.

Mosley’s decision falls into that small pool of outliers. Last season, Missouri State finished with an adjusted efficiency margin of 11.40, while MU checked in at 3.01 — or a gap of minus-8.39. Fun fact: only two mid-major transfers — Nebraska’s Terrell Allen and Virginia Tech’s Keve Alum — faced worse situations than the one Mosley finds in Columbia.

Now, almost every up-transfer harbors aspirations for a more prominent role in a bigger spotlight. It rarely happens. More than 83 percent of these players saw their minutes and usage shrink. And each of the last three years, the erosions only worsened. Once they arrive at a power-conference program, the median up-transfer logs 51 percent of minutes and gets a 9.2-percent share of a team’s offensive possessions. As for their efficiency, the median figure (0.877 PPP) is close to the Division-I average.

Up-Transfers | Summary of Minutes, Usage, and Efficiency

Season Count AdjEm %Min %Off %Def Off. Eff Def. Eff Margin
Season Count AdjEm %Min %Off %Def Off. Eff Def. Eff Margin
2020 57 10.75 49.6 9.1 6.3 0.865 0.856 0.017
2021 85 12.35 50.3 9.4 5.9 0.874 0.846 0.028
2022 86 14.04 52.6 8.8 6.5 0.887 0.8 0.059
Total 228 12.97 51 9.2 6.2 0.877 0.832 0.035
Data: KenPom and Synergy Sports

Up-transfers also accept a tradeoff: a smaller role. The median up-transfer has their minutes trimmed by 17.9 percentage points. Their usage rate gets sliced in half. As fixated as we get on the transfer portal, the overwhelming majority of these players will take up a supporting role at programs that finish 100 places higher in KenPom’s ratings.

Up-Transfers | Change in Minutes, Usages, and Efficiency

Season Count AdjEm Chg %Min Chg %Off Chg %Def Chg Off. Eff Chg Def. Eff. Chg Margin Chg
Season Count AdjEm Chg %Min Chg %Off Chg %Def Chg Off. Eff Chg Def. Eff. Chg Margin Chg
2020 57 16.34 -16.3 -6.6 -1.9 -9.5 -2.7 -5.4
2021 85 12.72 -17.2 -7 -2 -5.3 3.1 -1.4
2022 86 15.3 -21 -7.4 -2.2 -5.5 -3.3 -2.5
Total 228 14.94 -17.9 -7.1 -2 -2.9 -0.5 -2.9
Data: KenPom and Synergy Sports

That even goes for 40 usage monsters, transfers who consumed more than 21 percent of possessions at a mid-major. Between 2019 and 2021, every member of that group saw their playing time and touches decrease. And just 11 had a usage rate above 14.7 percent, the rough cutoff for guys who serve as a top-three option in a high-major’s rotation.

So, demotions are a way of life for all but a few.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri Valley Conference Tournament- Missouri State Bears vs Valparaiso Crusaders Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

In one sense, Mosley fits the definition of upwardly mobile transfer. He’s leaving a program that spends less than MU and plays in a one-bid conference to play in the SEC. But strip away the branding, and the arrangement looks entirely different.

As we’ll see in just a moment, Mosley would fall into that pool of high-usage transfers, whose members played at 36 mid-major programs. From an efficiency perspective, few of these schools compared to MSU, which would have been third-best, only trailing Davidson (2021) and Toledo (2021). Moreover, coach Dana Ford’s team, which was 70th in KenPom and made the NIT, would not have been out of place in power-conference pecking orders.

Here’s where their adjusted efficiency margin would have slotted them in each league:

  • ACC: 8th
  • Big 12: 10th
  • Big East: 9th
  • Big Ten: 9th
  • Pac 12: 5th
  • SEC: 11th

Practically speaking, MU and MSU swapped places, meaning Mosley’s making a grand ascent. But instead, it’s more akin to him moving between high-major schools, arriving at one in desperate need of a reboot.

Why does that distinction matter?

Unlike up-transfers, players moving from one high-major program are making an entirely different tradeoff: sacrificing quality in search of more floor time and possessions. For example, as the efficiency gap grows — meaning a larger step down — the change in a player’s percentage of minutes increases. And because offensive and defensive usage move in lockstep with minutes, it often means more touches.

Except Mosley doesn’t have that problem. In Springfield, he played almost 79.4 percent of minutes while one in four possessions ended with him. So there’s not much headroom left.

Isiaih Mosley | 2021-22 | Usage and Efficiency Summary

Season Player Team %Off Poss %Def Poss Poss / Game PPP Def PPP Margin
Season Player Team %Off Poss %Def Poss Poss / Game PPP Def PPP Margin
2022 Isiaih Mosley Missouri State 25.1 9.2 18.9 1.056 0.853 0.203
Data: Synergy Sports

Over the last four years, almost 460 mid-major players ranked in the 95th percentile or greater for offensive usage. But only 110 had a possession tally and efficiency ratings above the medians for that pool of players. Mosley was one of them, but his possession tally (19.9 per game) wasn’t excessive. What did separate him, though, was efficiency: Mosley’s 1.056 PPP placed him just one spot away from existing as an outlier.

As one of the best pure scorers in the country, Mosley doesn’t need to scour for opportunities. Players of his ilk aren’t unheard of in the portal, but just four up-transfers had comparable playing time and usage rates. But even the closes comp — Arizona State’s Marreon Jackson — is imperfect. At Toledo, Jackson’s offensive efficiency (0.938 PPP) and efficiency margin (-0.043 PPP) lagged considerably behind Mosley. Meanwhile, the efficiency gap between the schools (-1.38) was much narrower.

If you’re willing to really expand your boundaries, the likes of Washington State’s Michael Flowers and Arkansas’ Stanley Umude might get caught in the filter. But that only reinforces just unique this move is.

That’s cool.

However, it makes setting reasonable expectations tricky.

Now, we could crudely apply median values for up-transfers to Mosley’s case. Doing so shows us his playing time would slip to 61.5 percent of minutes. Meanwhile, he’d own an 18.2 percent share of MU’s offensive possessions. Reasonable?

Well, it flies in the face of forecaster models. For example, Bart Torvik predicts Mosley will see almost 81 percent of minutes and maintain the same gaudy usage rate. Meanwhile, Evan Miya projects the wing as the sixth-best offensive threat in the portal.

Putting wonkery aside, it’s hard to envision Gates paring back the workload of a transfer who might be a better scorer than those en route to Alabama or Kentucky.

Mosley’s so good, and MU is in such a state of flux, that he can stroll into a headlining role. At the same time, Gates’ roster reshuffling netted enough of a supporting cast to offload inefficient touches. Nick Honor, a Clemson transfer, can initiate the offense. Northern Iowa combo forward Noah Carter can run the same handoffs and side pick-and-rolls he once did with AJ Green. And the structure of Gates’ offense, which relies on off-ball screening and cutting, lessens the creative demands placed at Mosley’s feet.

Crucially, MU finally reeled in a reliable shooter on the catch (63.0 eFG%) and potent in creating jumpers off the bounce (56.5 eFG%) to keep the floor spaced. If a possession breaks down, Mosley also ranked in the 96th percentile nationally for isolation scoring, per Synergy. Or they can turn to a player far more competent late in the shot clock (0.805 PPP) than anyone (0.648 PPP) on Martin’s final roster.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round Milwaukee - Iowa St. vs LSU Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Once Mosley hit the portal, we rationally assumed he was bound for a program with Final Four aspirations. Specifically, one in Lawrence. Dajuan Harris, Mosley’s teammate at Rock Bridge and MoKan Elite, is still piloting the Jayhawks. And Bill Self was set to lose Christian Braun and Ochai Agbaji. Then, just for good measure, Duke reached out, too.

Yet the move never transpired.

Instead, KU held on to Jalen Wilson, and Self added Kevin McCullar, an elite on-ball defender from Texas Tech. Toss in the impending arrival of Gradey Dick, a McDonald’s All-American, and vacancies on the wing dried up.

Instead, Mississippi State, another modestly resourced SEC program, became the favorite under new coach Chris Jans. Texas Tech also got in the mix but eventually pivoted toward Kerwin Walton. That left the Bulldogs, Tigers, and Kansas State, schools undergoing transitions to new regimes.

A generous read is that pragmatism won out.

In picking MU, Mosley makes the jump that NBA front offices want to see – one that gets him close to home and unlocks NIL potential. Even better, he won’t see his touches cut to the bone. He’ll just shed onerous ones. Even if he’s using 20 percent of possessions, that’s still robust enough to keep his analytic metrics gleaming.

For Gates’ part, any system compromise is probably easy. Transitioning to the SEC demanded an evolution anyway. It’s also not foreign to him. In the middle of his stint on Florida State’s staff, the Seminoles relied on Xavier Rathan Mayes and Dwayne Bacon, each posting usage rates north of 20 percent, per Synergy data.

Instead, the question might be how Gates alters an offense at Cleveland State that steadily decreased its reliance on pick-and-rolls and isolations. But you do it to add a piece like Mosley. It’s a hallmark of this conference, whether it’s JD Notae at Arkansas, Wendell Green Jr. at Auburn, or Kellen Grady at Kentucky.

And obviously, it lends Gates’ reclamation project a sense of momentum.

It was tempting to look northward to Iowa State throughout the spring for hope. Last season, T.J. Otzelberger raided the portal and built a roster that took the Cyclones from 2-22 to a Sweet 16 run. Aside from an elite no-middle defense, ISU had another vital commodity: Iziaiah Brockington.

Brockington, who arrived from Penn State via St. Bonaventure, was a panic button. When the Cyclones’ offense got boggy, which tended to happen during a 4-9 stretch in Big 12 play, the guard’s creativity in isolation (0.97 PPP) acted as a lifeline — at least until Tyrese Hunter found consistency in the stretch run that helped ISU eke its way into the field of 68.

I don’t know if Mizzou’s defense, which was a sieve last season, can replicate what Otzelberger’s group pulled off. But Gates has added a wing who is 18 percent more efficient with ISO touches than Brockington, making Mosley the kind of player who can cover up blemishes and imperfections offensively. A week ago, that notion seemed fanciful. Today, those aspirations for March might still be grand, but less than they were before.

That rapid change — with Mosley’s rare choice at the root of it — and the optimism it inspires remains slightly weird.

But in the best way.