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Mizzou Hoops Player Preview: The Freshmen

The 27th ranked recruiting class of 2023 stands to make a long-term impact. What can we expect out of the group in their first season in Columbia?

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Auburn Julie Bennett-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.

It all began on June 30, 2022.

On that date, Dennis Gates and his new Mizzou staff landed their first — first-time — commitment from the prep ranks. The player was Anthony Robinson II. The reaction was somewhat tempered with a hint of intrigue.

Fast forward nearly 500 days later. The tenor has changed greatly. In that time the Tigers have added eight high school recruits and currently hold the number two recruiting class in 2024 per 247sports. Seven high schoolers have been rated as 4-star caliber prospects by the same source. Traditional recruiting has been on the up and up. Fans rightly have reason to be excited.

Looking to the relevant issue at hand — How do the three players in the 2023 recruiting class project to help in their freshmen campaigns? Well, let’s dig in.

Anthony Robinson II | 6’2”, 175 | Point Guard

The first player to jump on board gets the first treatment. Robinson joins the team out of Florida State University High School in Tallahassee. How’s that for an initial impression for a staff with deep ties to the big Florida State?

As a senior playing under former Heisman Trophy Winner and dual sport phenom, Charlie Ward, Robinson averaged 18.8 points, 4.1 assists, 6.6 rebounds and 3.4 steals a game. He earned offers from Mizzou, Texas Tech, Florida State, Auburn and Virginia Tech, among others. But the decision was made early. Robinson was going to be a Tiger with the right stripes.

Robinson’s long-term potential is easy to see. Mizzou has two point guards — Nick Honor and Sean East II — set to exhaust their eligibility this season. Fellow back court members John Tonje and Caleb Grill will only see one year in a Mizzou uniform. The opportunities will eventually be plentiful and Robinson has the goods.

Syndication: Florida Times-Union Clayton Freeman/Florida Times-Union / USA TODAY NETWORK

“He’s one of the biggest sleepers in this class,” said James Kang, an assistant coach with the Georgia Stars. “He’s shown consistent production. Mizzou got a steal when he committed, and that’s a credit to Coach Gates and Coach CY. People are going to look back in a couple of years and say, “Dang, I can’t believe we missed out on this kid.”

RockM’s Matt Harris has already previewed all of what Robinson can bring.

Year 1, however, will be a challenge to see much meaningful time for many of those same reasons. Robinson had this understanding when he committed: “Just coming in and learning behind Nick,” Robinson said, “That was the path for Year 1, and just taking what I learn and applying that for the next year.”

While it’s certainly possible that Robinson’s game translates well, the journey to minutes early on will be fully of minutes roadblocks. Earning meaningful minutes over any of the seven perimeter players with two or more years of Division I experience exemplifies that. As such, I would set expectations fairly conservatively and project Robinson will not often see more than sparing time on the court his freshman year. To beat those expectations Robinson’s performance will have to represent something of an outlier for all freshmen: an immediate impact performer at a highly valuable position.

Trent Pierce | 6’10”, 210 | Hybrid Forward

Mizzou’s second commitment in the 2023 class was Trent Pierce. Pierce, a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, saw his game blossom as a junior. He averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds as a junior for Union High School.

Pierce then spent his final prep season at AZ Compass Prep in Arizona. Pierce was the only of the three freshmen commits to play at a highly regarded prep school. The 2022-2023 Compass squad boasted numerous high major signees: Marcus Allen (Mizzou); Marquis Cook (Oregon); Rayvon Griffith (Cincinnati); Zayden High (North Carolina); Jordan Ross (St. Mary’s) and Tru Washington (New Mexico). Understandably, minutes and opportunities were much harder to come by on such a team. Nonetheless, Pierce acquitted himself well and is better prepared for high major basketball because of it.

His performance at Compass coupled with his impressive showing on the EYBL circuit boosted his standing to a 4-star borderline top 100 prospect, per 247. Expectations are certainly high in the future.

High School Basketball: HoopHall West Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Yet in talking with those around the program, a near-term impact may be in order. For starters, Pierce’s path to playing time is comparatively unobstructed. Yes, Mizzou does have its fair share of players who project as front-court types. Noah Carter, Jesus Carralero Martin, Connor Vanover, Aidan Shaw and even fellow freshman, Jordan Butler, will all make pushes for minutes.

With Pierce, unlike the other freshmen players, you see several positional skills that may set him apart. Both Carter and Carralero project more as “play-making forwards,” those who are dictating offense from the elbows via shooting, passing and dribbling. While Pierce may morph into that with time, it’s not where his immediate skills lie. The same could be said for Jordan Butler and Vanover. While both will take attempts from long range, they fit more into the “modern” stretch-big category. Put differently, both can shoot it well for a big man, yet that’s a hefty qualifier.

Pierce provides a little of everything. He has the size and length to defend bigger players. He has the quickness and perimeter abilities to hang with smaller opponents. Offensively, of the front court players, Pierce may be the best marksman of the group. He could see minutes in both of these front court roles as well as seeing time as more of a perimeter-oriented wing. Opportunity is often the function of availability, and Pierce’s skillset offers several options.

At Compass, the coaching staff’s focus skewed more toward the defensive end of the floor, where Pierce needed to get stronger and develop some more toughness.

“You’ve got to be the aggressor on defense, be a willing a blocker, be willing to use your length to get past a guy in the lane and catch shots,” former Compass coach Ed Gipson told us last fall shortly after Pierce arrived. “We’re working on him when he’s closing out on guys and not have his shoulders over his toes and almost tipping over. Those sound like basic things, but when he gets to Missouri, Coach Gates won’t have to take time reteaching. They’re already there. Now, Coach Gates can start working with him, he can say, “If Trent can’t do anything else, he can defend.”

Offensively, they wanted to see Pierce catch, rip, and play off the dribble.

“We tell him, ‘Trent, when you attack a close out, it can’t be soft, Gipson said. “You’ve got to really attack the close out, take away space, and finish at the rim through contact.’ It’s also about learning how to play off two feet.”

He added, “When we’re scrimmaging, he settled for a three on a close out. We stopped practice and got on the line. Regardless of whether you can shoot it or not, that wasn’t the right play. He’s running at you full speed. Why rush your shot instead of attack him and finish at the rim strong? The next time down, he put it on the floor, finished at rim, and dunked on one of the best kids in the country.”

The real battle in our view will be between Pierce and returning sophomore, Aidan Shaw. Neither fit nicely into the roles described above. Both offer length for days and the prospect of above grade defenders. Shaw’s freshman year was above average, but if Pierce is able to push past his older contemporary on the offensive end, the odds are strong that Pierce will receive regular minutes in Mizzou’s rotation. Especially if Pierce’s ability to create offense from the elbow develops. In such an event, it’s possible to see Pierce getting 15 minutes or more a game.

Should Shaw take the sophomore leap, Pierce may be resigned to fighting for minutes between the remaining frontcourt players. Mizzou’s team a year ago didn’t really feature this “spot” often — and we don’t even have a good name for what it is — as Shaw was a bit of an exception to the remaining roster’s rule. If both players were to command playing time, the entire mechanics of the roster minutes distribution would change.

Jordan Butler | 7’0”, 230 | Center

Jordan Butler joins the program from Greenville, South Carolina. Much like Robinson, Butler’s ties to the coaching staff are strong. His older brother, John, was recruited by Mizzou assistant Charlton Young. The elder Butler played one season with Young at Florida State prior to beginning his NBA career.

Syndication: The Greenville News MCKENZIE LANGE/ Staff / USA TODAY NETWORK

Jordan played his high school basketball for Christ Church Episcopal School in Greenville. 247sports rated him as a 4-star prospect and a top twenty big man. During his senior season Jordan averaged 21.4 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game.

Butler’s game is intriguing. Beyond the obvious size and high major athleticism, he possesses a solid understanding of the game. He also exemplifies the aforementioned “modern” stretch five in that he’s able to step away from the basket, handle, distribute and shoot from distance. Yet all of these skills take time to refine, especially among bigger players.

Matt Harris focused on just that point in an earlier story. Butler, like his classmates, projects well as a long-term contributor. His short-term production may be limited. First, we know it’s relatively rare for players of his profile to have big impacts early on. Second, we simply don’t — yet — know how the stretch five is going to fit in with this offense.

Connor Vanover was assuredly brought in with the hopes that he’s man for this role. How big of a part it plays into what Mizzou does remains to be seen — largely because Mizzou didn’t have such a player last season. If it commands a regular spot on the floor, Butler’s prospects brighten. Vanover will get first dibs and Butler will be in prime position for the remainder. However, if Mizzou reverts to lineups lacking said position with Vanover on the bench, the chances of early clock diminish significantly. Butler does not appear to have the positional flexibility at this time of a Trent Pierce.

With this in mind, I would expect his contributions this season to be similar to that of fellow freshman, Anthony Robinson. Each will see the floor, but both will be biding their time until their development progresses and the path to minutes clears.