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Bargain Bigs: Should Missouri focus on a younger interior presence?

Proven post players have come off the board, but an influx of former highly rated recruits entered the portal looking for reboots — offering the Tigers an opportunity.

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Howard v Kansas Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Twenty-five seconds ticked off the clock before Kansas’ Ernest Udeh Jr. rolled down the lane, rose to snatch DaJuan Harris’ lob, and tried to punctuate the start of his college career. Until Dylan Brougham arrived late to contest the catch, clipping Udeh on the wrist. Instead, the five-star freshman officially entered the scorebook by splitting a pair of free throws.

The moment, 14 minutes of playing time, and stat line – five points and eight rebounds — were modest. Yet they were snippets hinting that Udeh resolved a lingering question: How would Bill Self replace David McCormack?

Back then, Udeh seemed a logical option ($) in a line of succession stretching back at least 15 years. Except for three games later, he vanished, took five DNPs, and only reappeared for spot duty during Big 12 Conference action. And this offseason, Udeh watched as KU landed Hunter Dickinson, the top transfer on the market, to supplant him.

Reading the graffiti on the wall, Udeh jumped into the transfer portal the day it closed. However, he’s not the only ballyhooed hooper roaming for greener pastures. This spring, three other post players who were once top 50 recruits decamped: Zuby Ejiofor, Isaiah Miranda, and Kel’el Ware. And if we look all the way back to the class of 2020, nine of 27 similarly rated big men left the school that inked them coming out of high school.

For a handful of big-needy teams, including Missouri, that shipment of talent offers belated hope as portal season winds down. Play your cards right, and you could secure a top-end talent at a slightly depressed value – if that intrigues coach Dennis Gates.

Pursuing Udeh, for example, would mark a shift in MU’s strategy. For seven weeks, the staff fixated on plug-and-play options in Fardaws Aimaq, Kadin Shedrick, and, most recently, Jimmy Bell, Jr. All three are headed elsewhere, with Shedrick opting for Texas’ pitch stinging the most. And any loose effort to track the market reveals more than 50 viable players — and many backup plans — have come off the board.

Landing a quality interior player might be the difference between Mizzou scoring another No. 7 seed and a deeper run next March. Gates and Co. justifiably took big swings at plug-and-play options to acquire it. However, its best bet might be rehabilitating a distressed asset like Udeh.

That doesn’t mean MU must scale back its ambitions. It just requires trading off some experience for a smidge more upside. With the proper development, the Tigers could also coax that potential into a long-term solution along its front line.

Let’s examine why MU should sift the bin of gently used bigs.

Ohio State v Houston Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Familiar Way: Recruit, Develop, Retain

If I asked you to name an archetypal big man, I doubt you’d conjure up Kaleb Wesson’s name.

Rated as the No. 78 recruit in 2017, he headlined an average Ohio State class. But at 6-foot-9 and 270 pounds, Wesson’s physique was doughy. And his career stat line of 13 points, seven rebounds, and 49.5 percent shooting won’t make your eyes bulge.

Yet Wesson is the median data point to define what constitutes a quality big man at a high-major program.

To start, I want as wide a lens as possible. How much time do they spend on the floor? How well do they rate when playing? How much experience do they have? And how were they assessed coming out of high school? Here’s what I used.

  • Floor Time: A player had to be in the game for at least 1,000 offensive possessions – or around 30 per game
  • Impact: A player needed a Bayesian Performance Rating (BPR) – courtesy of Evan Miya – that ranked among the top 30 nationally.
  • Experience: A player’s class year
  • Quality: A player’s composite rating, if available, from 247Sports

Using those criteria, I sifted Evan Miyakawa’s handy database for the period between 2019 and 2023, which captures the rise of the transfer portal and NIL. That produced a sample of 107 seasons among high-major players, data that are summarized in the table below:

What is a quality big man? | Summary | 2019-2023

Category Average (SD) Median Normal Range
Category Average (SD) Median Normal Range
BPR 4.32 (.94) 4.28 3.39-5.25
Possessions 1336.4 (227.3) 1325 1109.1-1563.7
Seasons 2.9 (1.0) 3 1.9-3.9
Composite Rating 0.9267 (0.0817) 0.9562 .8450-1.0000
N = 107 Sources:, 247Sports

None of what you see should come as much of a shock.

An outstanding post player is usually older, and while they were borderline top 150 recruits, they evolved into one of the 60 best players nationally over several seasons. Upperclassmen turned in nearly 68 percent of our seasons, and no freshmen with a composite ranking lower than 45th made the cut.

Which brings us back to Mr. Wesson. He arrived in Columbus toting a decent composite rating (0.9562), was on the floor for 1,304 possessions as a junior and posted a 4.26 BPR that season. That performance ranked 13th among power-conference peers for a middling Buckeyes squad that earned a No. 11 seed in the NCAA tournament.

How old is a quality big man? | 2019-2023

Class Count Avg. BPR Avg. Poss Avg. Rating
Class Count Avg. BPR Avg. Poss Avg. Rating
Freshman 11 4.55 1308.8 0.9909
Sophomore 23 4.22 1333.5 0.9504
Junior 40 4.41 1358.9 0.9259
Senior 28 4.23 1335.3 0.8574
Fifth Year 5 3.9 1153.7 0.7655
All 107 4.32 1336.4 0.9267
Source:, 247Sports

Unless you’re a blue blood drawing top-10 prospects, assuming your big man requires at least two seasons to acclimate and develop to the college game is best. That also comes with an obvious implication: they need to stay put. Even with the advent of the transfer portal, which relocates at least 1,500 players annually, that process has continued over the past five seasons.

No one would dispute that the portal radically reshaped attitudes around roster construction. New staff now rapidly disassemble and reconfigure rotations lickety-split. Often, a coach can find gobs of floor spacers or secondary creators looking for a new home.

But look closely. You won’t see one rare commodity: reliable guys like Wesson. Last season, for example, the cutoff for a top-notch big man was a 3.68 BPR. This spring, only five post players with forecasted performance ratings equal to or ahead of that mark jumped into the portal: Dickinson, Ware, Shedrick, Cisse, and Jesse Edwards. On Sunday, Cisse, who likely needs a waiver to play next season, became the last of the group to find a new home.

Where are quality big men? | 2019-2023

Category Count Avg. BPR Avg. Poss Avg. Rating Avg. Year
Category Count Avg. BPR Avg. Poss Avg. Rating Avg. Year
Same School 84 4.36 1314 0.94 2.7
Transfers 21 4.27 1420 0.8858 3.5
Graduate 2 3.51 1143 0.7983 5
All 107 4.32 1336.4 0.9267 2.9
Sources:, 247Sports

In nearly 78 percent of cases, a big man who put up a high-quality season did it with the same program that signed him out of high school. Transfers do generally provide an immediate infusion. The sample includes 19 post players in our sample who transferred. More than half of them had a stellar season when they arrived at a new program, including three in 2022-23: Auburn’s Johni Broome, Miami’s Norchad Omier, and Baylor’s Jalen Bridges. Yet only four other players moving between high-major programs made that immediate impact, including Florida’s Colin Castleton and Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe.

Had MU scored a commitment from Shedrick, it would have achieved a rare feat — and fended off the likes of Texas and Duke to make it happen.

The supply also figures to get tighter moving forward. By next spring, there won’t be scores of players toting around free COVID years to cash in, and waivers the NCAA once tossed out like candy at a parade might be harder to come by. Should the governing body stick to the guidance it issued over the winter, players looking to transfer for a second time should expect to sit for a year. Players will have to be prudent with their one-time exemptions. Programs can’t churn their rosters so quickly. And that might create a scarcity of plug-and-play bigs.

Unless you’re the likes of Kansas or Texas, which have reputations and NIL to spare, the best path toward a productive big remains the same: identify talent early, woo them to campus, and spend a couple of seasons sculpting them.

Most of the time.

NCAA Basketball: Yale at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

The Other Way: Recruit to Reset

Like many bigs before him, Walker Kessler felt a magnetic pull to North Carolina and a fabled offense that looks to punch the ball inside after a secondary break. Once in Chapel Hill, however, the No. 22 recruit in the 2020 class did more watching than rim running, stuck behind Day’Ron Sharpe and Armando Bacot. And when Kessler did see the floor, usually nine minutes per game, he coveted chances to step out, face up and stretch the floor.

Fulfilling those needs meant leaving, but his new destination seemed just as quizzical: Auburn.

Coach Bruce Pearl also added Jabari Smith, whose silky jumper let him serve as a 6-10 guard. Yet Kessler didn’t bemoan the arrangement. He adapted. As a sophomore, he posted 11.4 points, grabbed 8.1 boards, and swatted 4.6 shots per game. Along the way, Kessler, whose 19.1 block percentage was the best since 2008, morphed into arguably the best defender in college hoops.

And just last week, Kessler, picked 22nd in the NBA draft, landed a spot on the All-Rookie team. The reset worked out, eh?

He might have also portended a new trend. Where young bigs once bided their time, the last three years have seen self-determinism surge among those with blue-chip bona fides. Granted, it started modestly. In 2021, Cisse jumped to Oklahoma State from Memphis. Last spring, Efton Reid moved to Gonzaga after LSU’s somewhat overdue firing of Will Wade.

That’s a trickle. But the last two months saw the flow rate increase.

Cisse entered the portal again and is on his way to Ole Miss. Enoch Boakye, the No. 31 prospect in 2021, transferred to Fresno State after two years of spinning his wheels at Arizona State. UCLA’s Mac Etienne, who hasn’t broken through in Westwood, jumped into the portal on the eve of its closing. Meanwhile, two Kentucky combo forwards, Daimion Collins (No. 14 in 2021) and Lance Ware (No. 39 in 2020), grew tired of scant minutes in Lexington.

But again, what’s jarring is how quickly some freshmen are pulling the rip cord. Four top-10 center prospects from the 2022 class went out the door, along with Kansas’ Zuby Ejiofor, whose No. 57 ranking left him just beyond the cutoff. Maybe it’s a blip but seeing that churn rate is also unusual.

How good are elite freshman bigs? | Summary | 2019-2023

Category Average (SD) Median Normal Range
Category Average (SD) Median Normal Range
BPR 2.64 (1.49) 2.45 1.15-4.14
Possessions 816.2 (497.9) 841 318.3-1314.1
Composite Rating 0.9909 (.0058) 0.9903 0.9851-0.9967
N = 47 Sources:, 247Sports

For as much attention we devote to these players as recruits, only one in five delivers immediate returns. More typically, a freshman center boasting a lofty composite is more of a rotational piece (816 possessions) with an impact (2.6 BPR) approaching that of a starter. Or that’s what they’ve done over the last five years, summarized in the chart above.

Using those benchmarks, the last crop of freshmen conformed to the expectations. Six of them finished with performance ratings within the normal range listed above. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of how much they played. Udeh, Traore, USC’s Vince Iwuchukwu, and Kentucky’s Ugonna Oneynso all logged possessions counts well below the average. And N.C. State’s Isaiah Miranda, who joined the Wolf Pack at semester break, didn’t play.

How did the class of 2022 perform?

Rank Rating Name School BPR Poss
Rank Rating Name School BPR Poss
4 0.9984 Kyle Filipowski Duke 5.14 1608
3 0.9996 Dereck Lively Duke 5.07 1035
18 0.9932 Adem Bona UCLA 4.73 1129
31 0.9891 Ernest Udeh Jr. Kansas 2.86 401
7 0.9976 Kel'el Ware Oregon 2.77 789
36 0.9875 Ugonna Onyenso Kentucky 2.23 140
25 0.9909 Vince Iwuchukwu USC 1.77 297
47 0.9830 Baba Miller Florida State 1.36 388
35 0.9876 Tarris Reed Michigan 1.22 629
24 0.9916 Yohan Traore Auburn 0.97 397
45 0.9830 Isaiah Miranda N.C. State DNP DNP
Sources:, 247Sports

There’s no unifying explanation for their limited exposure, but it’s telling that half the class barely got run. What’s changed is that none face impediments to finding better situations.

In Udeh’s case, his exposure (401 possessions) and BPR (2.9) are marks eerily like Kessler’s at UNC. Similarly, Udeh has the athleticism and mobility you’d expect to find in a wing. He can legitimately guard all five spots. He detonates ball screens, creates deflections, and appears out of nowhere from the help side to turn away shots. His shooting mechanics need a teardown, but on film, it’s obvious you can use him as a roller and lob threat – much like Kessler.

Now, Udeh can search for a program playing at a blistering clip and is willing to put him in ball-screen heavy actions. Like the one in Columbia.

Syndication: The Register Guard Ben Lonergan/The Register-Guard / USA TODAY NETWORK

The New Inefficiency: Certified Pre-Owned Bigs

At Indiana, the response to that last question was swift. Coach Mike Woodson zeroed in on Oregon’s Kel’el Ware class and landed the No. 7 player in the 2022 class two weeks after Ware went into the portal. With the pickup, the Hoosiers scored an heir to Trayce Jackson-Davis.

But the nation’s savviest operator might be coach Joe Pasternack.

On April 21, Traore committed to UC Santa Barbara. Twelve days later, the Gauchos scooped up Zach Clemence, the No. 50 talent from the 2020 class, after KU swept the stretch four out during its housecleaning. Proper development would make that duo potent in almost any high-major conference, much less the Big West, rated 15th by KenPom last season. The Gauchos can’t offer oodles of NIL pay, but they aren’t lacking floor time.

Pasternack’s portal work illustrates the market inefficiency that emerges when blue bloods quickly recycle talent. Better yet, think of these players like a used car certified by a dealership: they have a few miles on them, and the interior package or tech isn’t the newest. But someone else ate the depreciation cost. How many people honestly pay attention to trim, wheels and running boards? All that matters is performance and durability.

How much do elite freshmen improve? | 2018-2022

Category Average (SD) Median Normal Range
Category Average (SD) Median Normal Range
BPR 2.89 (1.51) 3.02 1.38 to 4.40
Possessions 858.9 (503.4 858.9 355.5 to 1362.3
BPR Change 0.76 (1.24) 0.79 -0.48-2.00
Poss. Change 119.9 (599.9) 49 -440.0-679.9
N=25 Sources:

Data from the past five years shows that most top-rated centers improve as sophomores. The median BPR for those players (3.02) is below what we saw earlier in our sample of high-quality bigs (4.28). Still, 18 of 25 sophomores saw their performance improve, and 10 cleared the bar to rank among the best at their position, including Alabama’s Charles Bediako and Tennessee’s Jonas Aidoo last season.

This spring, the transfer portal only offered up seven centers who were on the court for at least 1,000 possessions and forecasted ratings better than the median listed for top-drawer sophomores. Of that group, Cisse is the sole one left, and he’ll need a waiver for immediate eligibility. As for Shedrick, a benching at Virginia wound up leaving him short of possessions to make the list.

Long-Term Bets | Top-150 Freshmen in the Portal

Name Rating Old New Poss. 2023 BPR 2024 BPR Chg.
Name Rating Old New Poss. 2023 BPR 2024 BPR Chg.
Kel'El Ware 0.9976 Oregon Indiana 789 2.77 4.1 1.33
Ernest Udeh Jr. 0.9891 Kansas None 401 2.86 3.46 0.6
Ven-Allen Lubin 0.9718 Notre Dame None 739 0.78 2.22 1.44
Kebba Njie 0.9448 Penn State Texas Tech 784 1.66 1.89 0.23
Zuby Ejiofor 0.9796 Kansas None 154 2.62 1.82 -0.8
Adrame Diongue 0.9647 Washington St. None 182 1.17 1.29 0.12
Shawn Phillips 0.943 LSU Arizona St. 206 -0.35 1.19 1.54
Malique Ewin 0.9613 Ole Miss None 110 1.99 0.83 -1.16
Yohan Traore 0.9916 Auburn UCSB 359 0.97 0.66 -0.31
Average 0.9715 NA NA 413.8 1.61 1.94 0.33
Performance ratings for 2024 are projected. Sources:, 247 Sports

Getting old and staying old makes sense, assuming your program has the pull to land high-caliber vets. But we know those kinds of post players rarely jump into the portal, and if they do, scarcity drives up the cost. For a middle-class program like MU, recruiting Udeh, Ejiofor, or Ven-Allen Lubin allows it to acquire comparable skills at a fraction of the cost. And assuming second transfers are limited moving forward, there’s also the high likelihood that a transfer’s new school essentially gains control of their rights for several seasons.

Crass as that sounds – and it is – betting on younger prospects is a sustainable path to continuity.

Let’s turn back to Udeh for a moment. Suppose he lives up to Miya’s forecasted rating and plays more than 1,000 possessions. In that case, he’d have a sophomore campaign that resembles the handiwork of Mississippi State’s Reggie Perry (3.71) and UConn’s Adama Sanogo (3.46), both of whom were all-conference selections in those seasons. And he came onto the market at a juncture where other potential suitors had already made their choices.

Importing Udeh could give MU its best interior presence since Jontay Porter (4.37) was a freshman. But even if the Tigers “settled” for Ejiofor, his expected rating (1.82) would trump Jeremiah Tilmon, Jr.. And at worst, Adrame Diongue’s projection (1.29) equals Bell’s and would surpass seasons by Ronnie DeGray III, Russell Woods, Reed Nikko, Ryan Rosburg, and Jakeenan Gant.

Two months ago, erring toward younger options might not have been in the plans. But this roster isn’t green. Instead, Nick Honor, Sean East II, and Noah Carter are steady veterans that could buffer a pair of headliners in Isiaih Mosley and Kobe Brown. And the staff made enough hay early on by landing John Tonje, Tamar Bates, and Caleb Grill — guards that bolster perimeter depth and restock jump shooting.

A youth movement would represent a pivot that could keep Gates’ retrofitting on track.