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Reasonable Expectations: What baseline should Mizzou set for Jordan Butler?

The four-star freshman oozes skill and potential, but reviewing a decade’s worth of prospects shows that his minutes and impact will probably be modest for the Tigers.

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

After Jordan Butler’s family pulled into Columbia for move-in weekend, the potential outlook for his freshman season flipped in the time it took to unload a U-Haul.

On June 2, Missouri’s roster still lacked a veteran post player. If that void remained open, the South Carolina native was the most logical candidate to plug it. That possibility lasted just sixty hours. Late on June 4, Oral Roberts transfer Connor Vanover announced he was in the fold for Mizzou.

And with it came a slight sense of relief.

Throughout MU’s search for interior reinforcements – and as options dwindled – the idea of Butler laying claim to a larger portion of minutes sounded less outlandish. But heavily relying on any freshman would have run counter to the trend of high-major rosters steadily graying in an era of the transfer portal, one-time exceptions, and extra COVID years.

It would have also potentially made Butler an outlier on MU’s roster. Freshman point guard Anthony Robinson II can bide his time as an understudy to Nick Honor and Sean East II. As for Trent Pierce, there’s no need for him to soak up heavy minutes with John Tonje, Aidan Shaw, Noah Carter, and Jesus Carralero bringing different skill sets to combo forward.

Circumstances, however, could have pressed Butler into action more frequently — even with Vanover around. It also opens a seemingly annual discussion: What’s an appropriate expectation for freshmen not minted as blue-chippers?

The answers don’t help in the near term. Players have only been on campus a month, and predicting who coach Dennis Gates will favor is foolish. We have a decent sense of Gates’ schematic approach to the technical skill he values. Still, preferences are just shaking hands with the reality that plays out in a practice gym. It’ll take time for them to get acquainted.

But when the season does arrive, having a baseline handy can tell us just how typical Butler’s situation might be.

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

Setting the (Modest) Baseline for Bigs

Let’s make the subtext explicit: a developmental big like Butler rarely winds up as a plug-and-play option during their freshman season.

Affixing that label to a player who has never played a minute of college hoops can seem unfair — perhaps even demeaning. From our seat, though, it’s simply acknowledging the reality that recruits of Butler’s ilk merely need time. Maybe they need to add strength. Or trim some weight. Perhaps they need to diversify their post moves. Conversely, their jumper might need a mechanical overhaul.

Consider the fact that Butler finished high school with a 0.9381 composite rating. Looking back over the last decade, three other post players were in the same ballpark: Xavier’s Cesar Edwards (0.9393), N.C. State’s Ian Steere (0.9383) and Memphis’ Sam Ayomide Onu (0.9380). Of that trio, Edwards, himself a Palmetto State product, led the way in floor time as a freshman — a whopping 5.7 minutes per game.

Steere played five minutes total as a freshman, all coming in garbage time of the season opener. Ayomide Onu donned a redshirt and transferred to Florida Gulf Coast for his sophomore campaign, the first of the trio to seek an opportunity elsewhere.

Once we expand our field of vision, those outcomes aren’t outliers.

I started with centers rated between Nos. 100 and 150 in 247Sports’ composite index since the class of 2014, giving us a pool of 45 players. Eleven prospects were handed a redshirt as freshmen. At the same time, another nine didn’t play enough to generate a Bayesian Performance Rating (BPR) on Evan Miyakawa’s website. Those exclusions alone tell us almost half the recruits rated similarly to Butler sat out or averaged less than two minutes per game.

Next, let’s review descriptive stats for the 25 players in our sample using the following categories:

  • Composite rating
  • Percentage of minutes
  • Percentage of possessions
  • Points, rebounds, and assists
  • Net rating
  • Bayesian Performance Rating

Taken together, we have a sense of player quality, how much their teams utilize them, the output they produce, and how efficiently they go about it. The table below shows freshmen centers like Butler average around eight minutes per game and serve as a third or fourth option. Unsurprisingly, they’re not stuffing the stat sheet, while their overall efficiency hews close to the net rating for a typical Division-I player. So it’s not surprising their performance (0.69) is also slightly above the baseline (0.0) for the sport.

Freshmen Centers | No. 100-150 Composite | 2014-2023

Category Average (SD) Median Normal Range
Category Average (SD) Median Normal Range
Rating 0.9328 (.0152) 0.9338 0.9176-0.9480
%Min 20.3 (14.8) 17.8 5.5-35.1
%Poss 18.7 (3.9) 18.7 14.8-22.6
Points 3.4 (2.7) 2.8 0.7-6.1
Rebounds 2.5 (1.5) 2.3 1.0-4.0
Assists 0.3 (0.3) 0.2 0-0.6
Net Rating -3.3 (28.6) 1.8 -31.9-25.3
BPR 0.69 (.82) 0.7 -0.13-1.51
N=25 Sources: 247Sports (Rating), KenPom (%Min and %Poss), Sports Reference (Counting Stats), Synergy Sports (Net Rating), (BPR)

Those benchmarks would have been roughly aligned with the eighth or ninth spot in Mizzou’s rotation. So we can be bullish on Butler’s fit and acknowledge that 84 percent of recruits like him don’t eclipse 30 percent of minutes.

That’s underscored by looking at players whose freshman season tracks closely with medians in various categories. If floor time isn’t a factor, Edwards and Vanderbilt’s Lee Dort are acceptable proxies. But if we care about PT, Memphis’ Malcolm Dandridge, and Oklahoma State’s Kalib Boone fit the bill.

Freshmen Centers | No. 100-150 Composite | Median | 2014-2023

Player School Class Rating %Min %Poss PPG RPG APG Net Rating BPR
Player School Class Rating %Min %Poss PPG RPG APG Net Rating BPR
Kalib Boone Oklahoma State 2019 0.9331 28.4 21.1 4.7 3 0.4 9.3 0.77
Malcolm Dandridge Memphis 2019 0.9521 25.2 15.9 3.4 3 0.7 -9.5 1.07
Lee Dort Vanderbilt 2022 0.9518 7.3 18.6 1.7 2.1 0.2 22.9 0.87
Cesare Edwards Xavier 2021 0.9393 6 18 2.1 1.4 0 1.8 0.7
Sources: 247Sports (Rating), KenPom (%Min and %Poss), Sports Reference (Counting Stats), Synergy Sports (Net Rating), (BPR)

Three of those big men — Edwards, Boone, and Dandridge — wound up in the transfer portal this spring, with Edwards landing at Missouri State and Boone heading west to UNLV. As for Dandridge, he never averaged more than 14.5 minutes per game during four seasons in the Bluff City. Now, he’s potentially a helpful piece for a program needing to shore up its front court.

None of this is meant as a dark omen for Butler. On the contrary, once you’re in this range of the composite index, it’s best to assume that time, developmental plans, and program-specific circumstances create diverse outcomes.

That’s especially true in Butler’s case.

Up until the summer before his senior season at Christ Church Episcopal, he was solidly among the top 50 players in 247Sports’ composite index. Then he spent the grassroots season with a relatively new program playing independently of a shoe circuit. By last October, when he pledged to MU, he had slipped to No. 119 in the composite.

We’re still extremely bullish on his skill set, but the question is how quickly it manifests in Columbia. It’s not inconceivable that recruiting services downgraded Butler too quickly, dampening expectations in the process.

For now, though, we’ll accept scouting evaluations at face value. Doing so means it’s probably outlandish to expect Butler to see more than 15 minutes of action each night. But if he does, he will be among the players listed below.

Freshmen Centers | No. 100-150 Composite | Best Cases | 2014-2023

Player School Class Rating %Min %Poss PPG RPG APG Net Rating BPR
Player School Class Rating %Min %Poss PPG RPG APG Net Rating BPR
Luka Garza Iowa 2017 0.9288 53.8 23.9 12.1 6.4 1.1 18.2 1.33
Zach Freemantle Xavier 2019 0.9349 50.5 18.5 7.5 4.3 0.6 4.1 0.35
Ryan Kalkbrenner Creighton 2020 0.9425 34.2 19.4 5.9 3.5 0.3 44.6 3.1
Nate Watson Providence 2017 0.9338 33.9 21.6 6.8 1.9 0.1 23.1 1.05

Only two players in the last decade played more than 20 minutes per game – Xavier’s Zach Freemantle and Iowa’s Luka Garza — and reached it playing for teams short of 20 wins. In Garza’s case, the Hawkeyes finished 14-19 overall and 11th in the Big Ten standings. And anecdotally, programs that are piling up victories aren’t reliant on prospects like Butler gobbling up minutes.

Does this all sound familiar? It should. The same held true for Aidan Shaw as a freshman wing and Mohamed Diarra in his transition to high-major basketball from JUCO.

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

What impact does this have on the front court?

There’s a reason we paid close attention to MU’s efforts to woo a veteran from the transfer portal.

Focusing on Virginia transfer Kadin Shedrick made sense as a versatile defender comfortable playing various ball-screen coverages and adept as a rim finisher. It was also evident Gates and his staff weren’t keen on the program helping a highly touted recruit reboot their career. And outside West Virginia’s Jimmy Bell, a curious fit, they let several weeks elapse without exploring big men with track records as solid rotational players — even as time ran short.

That became imperative as the Tigers watched their depth slowly seep out this spring.

Holding on to Noah Carter, who soaked up about half the minutes in the post, averted catastrophe. But Diarra, Ronnie DeGray III, and Kobe Brown accounted for another 47.7 percent of minutes at the five-spot. Assuming Butler goes through an average freshman campaign outlined earlier, the Tigers still have 12 minutes of floor time to dispense.

Playing Time | Center | 2022-23

Player Games Minutes %Total Min. Min/Game Margin
Player Games Minutes %Total Min. Min/Game Margin
Noah Carter 34 679:12:00 48.17 19:59 196
Mohammed Diarra 25 292:28:00 20.74 11:42 -96
Kobe Brown 34 288:40:00 20.47 8:29 37
Ronnie DeGray III 17 91:17:00 6.47 8:22 13
Aidan Shaw 32 30:03:00 2.13 0:56 17
Mabor Majak 8 18:25 1.31 2:18 -10
Tre Gomillion 24 7:29 0.53 0:18 -8
Deandre Gholston 35 2:26 0.18 0:04 9
Per minute averages do not sum to 40 minutes total.

It also assumes Carter enters the season as the incumbent.

That premise, however, requires isolating the minutes where Carter handled the post without Kobe Brown on the floor. Focusing on a subset of floor time amassed against quality opponents, like those in the top 100 of KenPom’s ratings, is also helpful. Using Pivot Analysis’ cutting tool leaves us with a sample of 81 minutes, one where MU posted a minus-15.6 net rating. Yet more than half of that sample came in three games — at home against Alabama, Arkansas, and Columbia against Vandy — and a net rating (0.01) that’s essentially break even.

That brings us back to Vanover.

Over three seasons at the high-major level, Vanover averaged 15.9 minutes in 49 games against KenPom top-100 teams. Per Synergy Sports data, Vanover also posted a plus-3.1 net rating, roughly in line with the median for Division I. Mizzou will undoubtedly hope Vanover improves his efficiency in Columbia, especially as a floor spacer. In that same sample of games, Vanover shot just 27 percent from behind the arc.

And what of Campbell transfer Jesus Carralero?

Seat time as an undersized five isn’t a problem for the 6-foot-8 Spaniard. He got plenty of it suiting for the Camels, and on tape, you can see why he appealed to Gates’ preferences. And as a junior, Carralero did pull down 21.3 percent of defensive rebounds. But there’s a catch: Carralero isn’t a paragon of efficiency as a playmaking big man.

As a junior, Carralero only averaged 0.788 points per possession and finished with a minus-5 net rating, per Synergy Sports. Meanwhile, according to Pivot Analysis data, the Camels’ efficiency margin dipped by nearly 4.8 points per possession with Carralero in the lineup.

When MU announced Carralero’s signing, the program touted his performance against power-conference programs. That sample size is tiny — just 15 games against teams that finished in the top 150 of KenPom’s ratings. The efficiency metrics are sobering. Carralero’s offensive efficiency slid to 0.736 PPP, and his net rating tumbled to minus-20.5.

If you’re keeping track, Vanover’s net rating (3.1) against decent teams outpaces Carter’s (-15.6), and both are well in front of Carralero’s (-20.5). If Butler’s anything close to typical, the net rating with him on the floor (-3.1) could put him in the mix for the first post player off the bench.

Again, there’s plenty of time for Gates and the staff to work out a hierarchy, but bringing in Vanover spared MU from relying too heavily on Butler or Carralero. It also restores some flexibility. Now, Gates can use Carter or Carralero as hybrid forwards, operating at the elbows in some triangle-based sets, running some handoffs on the second side of the floor, or spacing out to the corner. Carter is also comfortable playing as five and fulcrum in delay sets at the top of the key. Gates can also use each member of the quartet in pick-and-pops.

Portal season starts with lofty ambitions everywhere, but at this juncture, pragmatism wins out. Fortunately, MU scored a solution when Vanover hopped aboard. Will it be adequate? The forecast is cloudy.

But what does seem reasonable to conclude is the program now has a suitable buffer in place to let Butler begin scaling a developmental curve at his own pace.