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Mizzou Hoops Player Preview: Connor Vanover

During a spring in which Mizzou struggled to find an interior presence, they may have landed one of the best fits available.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Oral Roberts vs Duke Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

In the weeks leading up to the season, this series will dive deep into the players we see making a push for time in the rotation for the 2022-2023 Missouri basketball squad. 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

Connor Vanover arrives at Mizzou from Oral Roberts with one year of eligibility remaining. The native of Little Rock, Arkansas, has earned his frequent flyer miles. He spent his first three seasons in high school at Arkansas Baptist Prep before transferring to Findley Prep. His first year of college basketball was spent at the University of California-Berkeley, which makes him a natural fit for Cal alum, Dennis Gates. He then redshirted and spent two seasons with his home state program before transferring again to Oral Roberts.

Aside from the glaring need that Mizzou had for an interior presence, Vanover presents many other things to this Tiger roster and to our discussions in general. Vanover has spent time at a high-major program that didn’t really fit his skill set, and he’s spent time at a mid-major that did. Vanover is indeed 7’5”, but his skill set isn’t what you might think when presented with just that information. He also presents an opportunity to cast aside preconceived notions about from small sample “eye tests,” and to look at his actual production as a whole.

NCAA Basketball: Summit Conference Tournament Championship-North Dakota State v Oral Roberts Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The Numbers

Connor Vanover | 7’5” | Center

Connor Vanover Team Min % Ortg Usage eFG% or% dr% ast% stl% to% ftr% ft% 2pt% 3pt%
Connor Vanover Team Min % Ortg Usage eFG% or% dr% ast% stl% to% ftr% ft% 2pt% 3pt%
2023 ORU 64.9 118.5 21.7 57.8 7 23.5 5.8 1.5 11 21.8 81.3 65.4 32.6
2022 Ark 7.6 110.3 25.4 44.1 11.7 18.7 7.7 1 5.8 33.3 82.4 55.3 7.7
2021 Ark 36.5 111.5 17.1 52.9 6.1 23.6 5.2 1.5 13.9 13.5 95.2 56.8 32.4
2019 Cal 39.4 105.8 20.5 54.5 5 16.6 2.4 0.8 10.5 13.6 66.7 55.4 35.5
Career All - 112.9 20.5 54.8 6.5 21.4 4.9 1.3 10.8 18.3 81 59.9 32.2

If your first thoughts upon hearing that Mizzou was courting Connor Vanover drifted back to an early January day in 2021, I don’t blame you. It was memorable for Tiger fans. On that particular occasion, Mizzou’s former big man, Jeremiah Tilmon, posted 25 points and 11 boards in a romp of Vanover’s Razorbacks in Bud Walton Arena. Perhaps not the best first impression for a new set of supporters.

But I’m here to tell you: chuck those thoughts. Connor Vanover produces.

This past year at Oral Roberts, Vanover was one of the best big men in the country. Yes, it was in the Summit League. No, that’s not the SEC. But what he found after leaving Arkansas was a coach, and system, that allowed him to play to his strengths. In 2023, Vanover played nearly 65% of minutes and sported a healthy usage rate of 21.7%. In the process, he posted an incredible 118.5 oRTG. For educational purposes only, Kobe Brown had a usage rate of 23.5%, played 71% of minutes and had a 125.5 oRTG. I’m here to tell you that Connor Vanover is not Kobe Brown. I am telling you that he’s a very productive basketball player.

Vanover’s positional skill set is a relatively unique one. On his career, he’s posted a 59.9% two-point shooting percentage and a 32.2% mark behind the arc, which combines for a very solid 54.8% eFG. He’s also a career 81% free throw shooter! Unlike many big men, his turnover rate is elite. He passes the ball at an acceptable level, though he won’t replace Kobe Brown’s playmaking ability in that regard.

Connor’s career PPP is 1.047 after a remarkable 2023 season in which he posted a 1.117 PPP. How he got there is what really flipped the script. Known as a quality shooting big man, he often saw 20% of his offense coming from spot-ups in Fayetteville. Paul Mills — who we will see this year as the new coach at Wichita State — saw that ability but adjusted the usage profile.

Instead of simply camping out behind the arc, Mills got him more involved. Vanover’s spot-up rate dropped to just 13% in 2023, but his efficiency in those attempts increased. While Vanover has been used as a high-usage, incredibly efficient cutter at all of his stops, Mills asked him to combine those two skills. In 2023 Vanover saw nearly 32% of his offense come as a screener in pick and rolls. That figure more than doubled from his time under Eric Musselman. And the big man thrived. In his career, he’s posted an even 1.000 PPP on ball screens and has been efficient both rolling to the basket as well as popping behind the arc. Mills simply gave him the option for the best look from the same action.

Vanover also saw his post-up offense increase a touch. He responded by posting an incredibly efficient 0.968 PPP. Along with screener offense and post-ups, the bulk of Vanover’s offense was comprised of offensive rebounding and cuts. Who knew that having a mobile big man who can shoot and finish at the rim shouldn’t just plant himself in a corner? Paul Mills and Dennis Gates, apparently.

Defensively, he brings a much-needed presence around the rim. He’s probably not going to be the ideal switch on the perimeter from Mizzou’s perspective, but playing drop coverage on ball screens and forcing opponents into mid-range attempts could be the remedy. On the interior, Vanover has fashioned a career 10.8% block rate. Should that number manifest in 2024, it would be the highest rate posted by a Mizzou Tiger in over 20 years. He’s also posted very solid numbers on the glass with a 21.4% career defensive rebounding rate. All things that Mizzou sorely needed irrespective of offensive contributions.

NCAA Basketball: Summit Conference Tournament Championship-North Dakota State v Oral Roberts Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The Role

While I do expect Connor Vanover’s raw stats to take a hit, what with the move back to the SEC and a burgeoning 10 or 11 man rotation, I still see him in the category of potential starters. He will be a lock for the rotation. Vanover simply possesses things that no one else on this year’s roster does. And that will get him minutes.

I expect something in the neighborhood of 20-22 minutes a game with a slight reduction in usage to 20%. Should his efficiency hold, and it always has no matter the venue, expecting an 8-10 points per outing scorer is not beyond the imagination.

The biggest question I have is not so much a “question,” but something I don’t yet have the answer to. And that’s simply, how will he be used in Dennis Gates’s system? I have my guesses, but Mizzou had nothing resembling him last season. Unlike Kobe Brown, he’s not going to be the guy you look to in creating offense. With Brown often drawing the opponent’s center, the offense hummed because the defensive anchor was away from the rim — or getting scored upon if he wasn’t! Furthermore, Vanover was elite in ball screen actions. A big part of that was due to screening for offensive dynamo Max Abmas. Mizzou has capable creators, but there’s a reason why Abmas was one of the biggest ticket items this spring in the portal. He’s a rare talent.

While I see the general production holding, how we get there is going to be fascinating to watch.

The Film

Connor Vanover’s usage in pick-and-pops is ground we’ve mapped extensively. So, here’s the condensed version: The big man has played in all manner of actions, but his success hinged on whether he could get on balance and whether a defender recovered in time to contest. At the high-major level, post players have better physical tools to close down those looks. Last season, MU deployed some spread PNRs and pistol action, but I’m not sure this roster is equipped with a potent operator that can occupy two defenders.

When Vanover first arrived at Arkansas, the Razorbacks’ coaching staff spent time trying to expand Vanover’s tool kit on the low post. The chief instrument: a hook shot. Four years later, it’s the move that gets the most use. Vanover’s a technician more than a mauler. He wants to catch on the left block, maneuver back toward the middle of the lane, and play with his right hand over his left shoulder. Occasionally, he’ll draw a switch onto a guard, duck into the paint, and stick his hand up for a high-low play.

Vanover’s more inclined to space out to the perimeter, and the structure of ORU’s offense often saw him receiving ball reversals in the slot or the top of the key. Again, there’s a bright line in the results. Vanover has made 38.9 percent of open spot-up 3s in his career. That number sinks to 24.0 percent on contested looks. On paper, Vanover’s shot selection and past usage mesh well with what Gates’ system strives to do, but the swings between efficiency on open and guarded looks are so vast that it’s natural to be nervous.

When Vanover’s on the interior, he’s more productive when camping in the dunker spot. The Golden Eagles knew what to do if a low help defender rotated over: toss up a lob. Connor can go and get it.

Again, Mills was keenly aware of situations where Vanover could get cooked defensively. Playing at the level of the screen and hard hedging were near the top of the list. Instead, Vanover spent ample time anchoring ORU’s back line around the top of the restricted area while perimeter defenders funneled middle drivers to him.

Vanover does possess some mobility and agility, but usually in short areas. He can recover in time to contest dump-offs, slide his feet well enough to stick with bigs attacking out of face-ups, and use his length to compensate when screeners pop or roll.

That said, opposing bigs can have a go at Vanover.

His approach to interior defense will always be about something other than brawn. Instead, Vanover’s success depends on positioning and creating angles where his length can alter or turn away rim attempts. But competent coaching staffs found hacks. They would target Vanover in switches to match him up with a wing who could face Vanover up, use their initial burst to get separation, and still hand enough strength to finish against contact. Meanwhile, sturdier bigs could set up shop on the side of the floor with an empty corner — and no baseline help — and move Vanover under the rim, negating his length.

No matter how much Mills tried to keep Vanover from being stranded in space, quality opponents — like Duke, Houston, or Utah State — could exploit him in ball screens. Sometimes, pure speed would defeat drop coverage. Savvy guards would either hunt pull-ups or know to snake dribble.

Even mid-major opponents, like St. Thomas, probed for mismatches early in possessions that would manifest with problems later. For example, their four-men were essentially bigger wings that wanted to shoot off the catch. If Vanover helped off, they had the size and quick enough release to get clean shots off against delayed closeouts. Or they could test whether Vanover’s hips flipped quickly enough by putting the ball on the deck.

PPP: Points Per Possession
Min %: This is simply the percentage of minutes played by a given player.
Usage %: A measure of personal possessions used while player is on the court. This includes making a shot, missing a shot coupled with a defensive rebound and a turnover.
eFG%: Same as traditional FG% with the added bonus of 3-point shots given 50% more weight to account for additional point.
OR%: The percentage of possible offensive rebounds a player gets.
DR%: The percentage of possible defensive rebounds a player gets.
AST%: Assists divided by field goals made by player’s teammates while on the court.
TO%: The percentage of personal possessions a player uses on turnovers.
FTR%: A rate which measures a player’s ability to get to the free throw line.
FT%: Free Throw shooting percentage.
2PT%: 2-point field goal percentage.
3PT% 3-point field goal percentage.