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Forward Motion: How Mohamed Diarra tries to fill a need in the post

After a long wait, the nation’s top JUCO prospect is earning steady minutes and offering hints at his potential as the regular season reaches the home stretch.

Few sounds are more distinct than the collective groan of thousands – a soundtrack for a missed opportunity that dissipates almost as quickly as it reaches a crescendo.

On Saturday, Mohamed Diarra conducted the chorus when Missouri broke Iowa State’s press. The junior big man hauled in a hit-ahead from DeAndre Gholston, lifted off from just outside the restricted area, and cocked his arms behind his head. You could hear breaths in the ZouCrew swell.

But on the downswing, the ball clipped the front of the iron, ricocheted off the back, and popped in the air. All Diarra could do was listen to the dejection, look over his left shoulder as he dangled from the rim, and watch ISU push the other way.

For a split second, it seemed as if Diarra’s emergence might reach its emphatic apex. A tad hyperbolic? Probably. Six games ago, Diarra found himself fourth in MU’s rotation at the five spot. Before the Tigers’ trip to College Station, Ronnie DeGray III had dibs on an appropriation of 10 minutes per game.

When Diarra, the nation’s top JUCO prospect last spring, checked in, it was out of necessity. Kobe Brown was saddled with two fouls, and MU’s rotation was trying to navigate his absence. And truthfully, Diarra looked like a player who hadn’t seen action for almost three weeks.

Since then, he’s tried to string together snippets into something cohesive: swatting a Will Richards reverse at Florida, drilling a corner 3 against Arkansas, and tallying eight points in garbage time versus Alabama. As MU coasted against Ole Miss, Diarra stuffed a dunk attempt, attacked the rim out of a spot up, and canned a jumper off a pin down.

Inevitably, the neat idea of a stepwise progression took hold. Which is what made Saturday’s lesson: growth and development are rarely linear. But you shouldn’t diminish Diarra’s progress and what it would mean for coach Dennis Gates to have a long, agile big man emerging as the Tigers hit the homestretch before March.

Beyond that, any long-term forecast is speculative. Plug Diarra’s percentage of minutes, usage, and efficiency in Bart Torvik’s database, and it spits out a collective collection of comps: Trevion Williams’ freshman season at Purdue, Thomas Robinson’s sophomore season at Kansas… and Jayce Johnson’s senior campaign at Marquette.

For now, let’s take stock of where Diarra is – and show patience about where he might end up.

Arkansas v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

How can we describe Diarra’s impact? Modestly.

Now is where I burst your bubble: Diarra’s presence hasn’t resulted in a dramatic change in MU’s fortunes. The lineup tells us any signal he’s sending gets drowned out by white noise.

Let’s start with net rating.

Using Pivot Analysis’ handy lineup tool, we can filter out garbage time to zero in on how each member of MU’s roster has had over the past six games. Some of the findings are obvious. For example, Kobe Brown’s presence on the floor juices the Tigers’ rating by 45.3 points per 100 possessions.

Getting Isiaih Mosley back? Indeed, that’s been a boon. Over the last six outings, MU’s posted a 7.1 net rating with him on the floor, including a gaudy 122.5 offensive rating. But with Mosley spectating, MU’s rating slips to minus-17.2 as its offense (94.6 rating) coughs and wheezes.

And when you look over the chart below, it’s little surprise to see the impact D’Moi Hodge (7.52) has on the rotation. Or how Noah Carter, undersized as he might be, helps Mizzou tread water (0.10) when he’s handling the post.

What about Diarra?

Net Impact | Missouri | Jan. 11 to Jan. 28

Player Possessions On Net Rating Off Net Rating Margin
Player Possessions On Net Rating Off Net Rating Margin
Nick Honor 263 -8.76 2.02 -10.78
Kobe Brown 247 8.49 -36.81 45.30
D'Moi Hodge 241 -3.32 -10.84 7.52
Sean East II 215 -11.15 2.05 -13.20
Deandre Gholston 200 -14.04 4.32 -18.36
Isiaih Mosley 169 7.10 -17.16 24.26
Noah Carter 148 -5.40 -6.10 0.70
Mohammed Diarra 96 -33.78 4.12 -37.90
Tre Gomillion 87 -32.27 2.54 -34.81
Aidan Shaw 80 21.24 -13.51 34.75
Ronnie DeGray III 46 -25.98 -2.86 -23.12
Kaleb Brown 16 51.44 -8.39 59.83
Lineup data covers six games and omits garbage time. Source: Pivot Analysis

That’s not a misprint.

The big man sits eighth in possessions played, and his impact on net rating (-37.90) is the worst on the roster. As for his defensive impact, MU allows 127.7 points per 100 possessions, according to Pivot’s data. However, once Diarra checks out, the Tigers’ defensive efficiency improves by 19.3 points per 100 possessions.

Now, Diarra’s not culpable for all that decline. Just as Brown and Mosley aren’t entirely responsible for boosting their lineups. Net rating is a team statistic and the other four guys on the floor matter.

That said, it’s not self-evident that Diarra changes the Tigers’ fortunes. If he did, I doubt Gates would use him more than 27 percent of the time. But the glaring need for solutions along the front line, especially for a porous defense like MU, heightens urgency. And that sensation might lead us to overvalue what Diarra’s done so far.

Instead, Diarra plays a more layered role for MU. As we outlined after Diarra committed and during the preseason, the French native wouldn’t arrive in Columbia as a plug-and-play option in the post. Even though he’s 6-foot-10, Diarra cultivated a skillset with tools you expect from a hybrid four. Cody Hopkins, a scout and the operator of, didn’t mince words almost nine months ago.

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.

Under optimal conditions, Diarra would need a semester to acclimate to his new surroundings. Even though he’s added weight to his frame, Diarra’s still getting a handle on what it means to guard more traditional fives – even if it’s for short periods on switches or rotating over as a help defender around the restricted area. Had MU wanted a ready-made five from the JUCO ranks, it could have pushed to land Nae’Qwan Tomlin, who signed with Kansas State out of Chipola College.

Sure enough, though, around the time the second semester began, Diarra filtered his way into MU’s rotation, and until Saturday, Gates steadily increased his minutes. However, there’s still a gap between Diarra’s perceived duties and his actual job.

Sifting through that same lineup data shows MU’s given up just 0.97 points per shot at the rim when Diarra’s on the floor. Meanwhile, Diarra’s offensive rebounding rate (17.0%) and defensive rebound rate (26.9%) are healthy. So, it’s easy to assume Diarra’s impact comes in the paint.

Not precisely.

Watch closely enough, and you’ll notice Diarra spends considerable time away from the lane as part of MU’s switch-heavy scheme. He’s only guarded one post-up (against Florida’s Colin Castleton) in six games, but handled six pick-and-rolls and three isolation possessions. Per Synergy Sports, the players he’s guarded launched nine 3-pointers – and just two attempts from point-blank range. When he is in the paint, it’s anchoring the back line of MU’s tweaked version of a 1-3-1 zone.

Diarra’s mobility and comfort sliding up and down the positional ladder serves as important context. Opponents are averaging almost 1.37 PPS on 3-point attempts, including 1.667 PPS on those where Diarra is guarding the shooter. Nine shots make up a sliver of the total volume, but it gives us a glimpse at the kind of defensive work he’s undertaking.

More importantly, roving the perimeter takes Diarra away from the rim. While Diarra’s rebound rates are solid, lineups featuring him allow rebounds more than 43 percent of the time, according to Pivot Analysis. The flashes from Diarra do matter, but those individual strides haven’t manifested enough to make an overall dent.

The search for optimism is far less labor-intensive at the offensive end. It just requires the proper sense of proportionality. At Garden City Community College, Diarra’s usage rate hovered around 23 percent. That’s not far from the 22.4 percent rate he’s received lately – comparable to Noah Carter.

Mohamed Diarra | Offense | Play Type | Jan. 11 to Jan. 28

Play Type Points Possessions PPP
Play Type Points Possessions PPP
Transition 6 6 1.000
Cut 5 6 1.000
Spot-Up 5 5 1.000
Put back 3 5 0.600
Roller 4 3 1.333
Post Up 2 1 2.000
Handoff 3 1 3.000
Total 28 27 1.037
Source: Synergy Sports

What changed is how Diarra gets his mitts on the ball. A roster populated with Mosley, Nick Honor, and Sean East II means he doesn’t have to create shots. Now, he’s operating as a finisher, with 78.5 percent of his attempts coming at the rim. Those are worth 1.294 PPP, per Synergy Sports.

To get there, he’s trimmed out inefficient jumpers and is likely to catch, rip through and attack out of a spot-up. At the very least, he’ll sprint the floor, make the right and cut, and pose a threat rolling. Now, there’s room for growth playing off the bounce and fleshing out a modest post-up game to attack big-little switches, but you can see the direction of travel.

The passengers in that figurative carpool also matter. Since Jan. 11, Diarra has been part of 36 lineups that amassed 58 minutes of consequential floor time. But he spent most of it with 10 of them. Filtering lineups and possession data – as I’ve done below – is enlightening.

I want you to notice the net rating of those lineups: minus 9.83. That’s still mediocre. But once we calculate the on-off split for Diarra, the gap shrinks to minus-13.95, on par with East and ahead of Gholston.

Sifting those lineups also reveals higher net ratings when Honor operates the point (-6.98), Mosley acts as a funky secondary creator (-3.45), and Hodge spaces out the floor (8.0). Pair that backcourt up with Diarra, and you have the outlines of a respectable defensive lineup (0.963 PPP) with some offensive pop.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Mississippi Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Mobile Air Defense

About a year ago, I trotted out this line when writing about Trevon Brazile: you are who you guard.

After scrutinizing nearly 65 minutes of tape, do you know how often I saw Diarra jostling with an opposing big on the block? Twice. I already mentioned his meeting with Colin Castleton, but the second took place six minutes in on Saturday against Iowa State’s Robert Jones. It ended with Jones dribbling off his shin during a drop step.

Using our antiquated numbering system, Diarra is a five. In practice, though, his job is wholly modern. Under Dennis Gates’, the Tigers switch almost every screen. And because modern offenses are built around pick-and-rolls that pull bigs off the baseline and maroon them in space, Diarra spends more time sitting down in a stance than fronting the post.

Mohammed Diarra | Defense | Play Type | Jan. 11 to Jan. 28

Play Type Poss Points PPP
Play Type Poss Points PPP
Spot Up 8 11 1.375
Pick-and-Roll 6 7 1.167
Isolation 3 3 1
Post-Up 1 0 0
Total 18 21 1.167
Source: Synergy Sports

Lately, the bulk of Diarra’s defensive workload involved closing down spot-ups or switching on to a dribbler out of a ball screen. Per Synergy, he’s only guarded two layup attempts. That’s wholly different than what we saw from Brazile, who spent most of his time off the ball minding combo forwards.

Even if we didn’t digest full-game film from Diarra’s JUCO stint, his lower-body flexibility stood out in clip compilations. Sure, he hunches slightly forward, but Diarra can get in a stance and check a diverse array of players. Alabama’s visit offered plenty of proof.

The Crimson Tide exposes you at an early clock’s inflection point: sorting out cross-matches. Coach Nate Oats gives his players ample latitude to attack, and most salivate at the idea of singling out Diarra on an island.

But Brandon Miller, a likely top-five pick in the NBA draft, learned that Diarra’s more than capable. (We’ll ignore the debate among draftniks about Miller’s burst or vertical pop.) The big man’s hips flip fluidly, and his first slide is quick enough to beat Miller to a spot or get in his hip pocket. Good enough, that five-star frosh Jaden Bradley couldn’t dust Diarra.

Even if Diarra can’t take away an attack an angle, he’s agile enough to stay semi-attached and use another asset: length. A driver gets in the vicinity of the paint, but Diarra ushers them to a spot where any finishing is tough to find – even for a creative guard. It also acts as a buffer. Diarra can concede a little room on the perimeter, knowing he can still contest if that guard wants to get into a dribble jumper.

But it’s not without risk.

A savvy PNR operator like Jahvon Quinerly can manipulate even the most agile five. Is your switch a bit sloppy? He’s going to use the airspace to get a shot aloft. Playing a tad too close in drop coverage? He’s going to thread a pass to the short roller. Or he’ll just put you on skates before drilling a step-back 3 in your eye.

Diarra also confronts an issue that afflicts the rest of MU’s roster: losing track of shooters on the backside. Often, it crops up when the Tigers, who apply on-ball pressure and heavily deny off-ball players, get overloaded to one side of the floor. Usually, Diarra is stationed low as a last line of defense and more than one pass away when the ball is skipped. But that’s a structural risk. Granted, there are also times when a passive off-ball switch sows chaos later.

Switching liberally also comes with trickle-down effects on the glass. No doubt, it’s a boon that Diarra’s capable of switching on to guards, using his considerable length to pressure a dribbler and take their line of sight. Doing so means there are possessions where he’s out near the 3-point line when a shot goes up. And those switches mean one or two of your guards must box out an opposing big.

We know how well that’s gone. MU ranks 361st nationally in keeping opponents off the glass, allowing them to replace possessions that the Tigers pilfer. But that’s a bargain MU’s willing to strike – at least until a couple of recruiting cycles stock the roster of long-limbed wraiths.

But I’m not ignorant. I know what you want to see. So, press play on the clips below.

When Diarra’s patrolling the lane, he’s typically keeping tabs on a big camping in the short corner. That presence matters, especially against an opponent like Alabama, which wants to attack a double gap, force your defense to help the helper and still have a safety valve. To some extent, Arkansas deploys the same approach – only the Hogs don’t have enough shooting to pull defenses out of gaps.

Regardless, you want Diarra as your wall at the restricted, playing with verticality to force contested rim attempts. Sometimes, he’s a tad late rotating. Or he’ll get a bit too physical with his contests.

Keep this in mind: the median floor time for similarly rated JUCO bigs is 20.7 percent during their first high-major season. Diarra’s already ahead of that pace. The same goes for usage.

It’s almost unfair to splice in clips from his outing at Texas A&M. You can tell Diarra’s processing speed and reaction times lag a bit, particularly when rotating off the ball. However, three games later, when Arkansas pulled into Columbia, he looked like a seasoned rotation member.

Moving into February, the question is how much more ground he can cover as he scales the developmental curve.

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Getting Out of the Corner

Once Missouri sets up in the half-court, keep a dutiful eye on Diarra’s location.

Usually, he winds up in the corner when MU goes to five-out alignments. When he’s on the two-side, he’s holding territory and pulling a defender away from the paint. Flip him to the other corner, on the same side as a spread pick-and-roll, and he’s reacting to how his defender provides help.

It’s also the spot you jettison players that might struggle to give you utility elsewhere. Fellow bigs like Carter or Brown spend more time playing in dribble-handoffs and pick-and-rolls. Why? Both can bully to the rim, crab dribble into post-ups, or pop after screening. And you don’t park your best initiator in those cramped quarters.

That’s a drastic change for Diarra, who had the ball in his hands quite a bit at Garden City. Using Diarra as a spacer isn’t a painful compromise, especially when you glimpse shooting his mechanics. Sure, he dips the ball a bit on his load, but his base is consistent, his motion is smooth and compact, and his release point is high.

But those catch-and-shoots are infrequent. As mentioned earlier, most of Diarra’s attempts come at the rim. And the point of departure for that journey matters. Playing out the corner might maximize the value of a 3-ball, but it’s a tough place to get rolling downhill.

Playing out the corner might maximize the value of a 3-ball, but it’s a tough place to get rolling downhill. Off the catch, there’s usually just one path as a driver – toward the middle. A player can attack a defender’s top foot, forcing them to retreat and open up their stance, allowing for separation. But what if a defender closes out short? They have enough of a buffer to recover. The dribbler also needs space to turn in the opposite direction. But the baseline acts as a help defender.

On other occasions, Diarra receives the ball at the nail, but it’s never against big that’s out of position and rotating. Instead, Diarra’s taking them head-on in tight quarters. But the result is the same: a defender bumping him off his line. Because he doesn’t have the burst to create separation or room to change direction, Diarra winds up in situations where he’s absorbing contact.

There’s also an entire category of plays where you wonder if the basketball fates are simply playing a joke. Since the trip to College Station, Diarra has averaged a pedestrian 1.00 PPP on transition touches. Take a look at the three misses.

But the staff has taken Diarra out of the corner over the past three games. Even as a cutter, it’s better to start on the wing. Sure, you could creep along the baseline for a feed and finish. But even if Diarra doesn’t earn a scoring chance at the rim, it can strain a stretch a defense to create open looks for teammates.

That transition started modestly enough against Arkansas. Diarra noticed the Razorbacks collapsing as Isiaih Mosley attacked the baseline, and he bolted on a basic angle cut. Three days later, Diarra got some late opportunities to get in the mixer as the screener in spread pick-and-rolls, slipping to the rim and earning touches that tallied eight points in garbage time.

By the time MU ventured to Oxford, Diarra was diversifying his sources: an angle cut, slip from a slot pick-and-roll, and a delayed dive after Mosley and Carter ran a chase action on the strong side of the floor. Those touches require less exertion, and they’ve had a knack for drawing fouls and running up the opponent’s tab.

It’ll be fascinating to see where Diarra goes from here. At times, Carter and Brown will slip into space when MU runs down or flare screens off the ball. But they also slip or roll to the post when running handoffs in the slot. That would require MU using Diarra more in its pinch and point series — and trusting him as a connector.

Speculating about that developmental plan is probably a fool’s errand at this point. The shape and character of MU’s roster, which could still see significant churn this offseason, will probably have a major say in the matter.

For now, we’ll just have to hold our breath — and see whether Diarra gives reasons to scream in jubilation.

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