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How pick-and-pops frame Connor Vanover’s potential role for Mizzou

The simple action represented a system that rejuvenated the stretch five’s career at Oral Roberts. Now it’s a matter of whether it carries over in Columbia.

Oral Roberts v New Mexico Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

Shortly after Connor Vanover committed to Oral Roberts, he told a reporter the appeal of starting anew in Tulsa. For one, coach Paul Mills had a void and ample minutes at the five-spot. And a familiar face was waiting for him: Isaac McBride, a former teammate at Little Rock’s Arkansas Baptist.

But there was a third leg to the pitch. And if you only knew Vanover from his two seasons at Arkansas, you might have suppressed a chuckle. “I’ll be able to do a lot of damage out pick-and-rolls, especially pick-and-pops,” he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in May 2022.

That promise wasn’t empty. It was prophetic. And 14 months later, it also offers us a starting point to understand what Vanover might bring to Missouri, where he’ll spend a grad-transfer year taking another tour of the SEC.

Last season, roughly a quarter of Vanover’s shots came from popping after setting a ball screen, waiting on a boomerang pass, and pulling from long range. In fact, Vanover’s tally ranked third among Division I players. It’s also a volume that serves as a testament to Mills’ faith in Vanover as a stretch five.

That conviction and role might have helped spur Vanover’s renaissance, where he averaged 12.7 points and 7.2 rebounds while becoming the Summit League’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Yet the actual results might leave you a tad queasy. Vanover canned 27.3 percent of 3-point attempts taken out of that action, including 8 of 41 on contested looks. Which sets up a potentially thorny tradeoff: How accommodating should MU be to a player’s preferences if it produces mixed results?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 19 Legends Classic - Cal v St John’s Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Shooting As the Separator

This is important to remember: Mills wasn’t asking Vanover to take on a new persona. If anything, it was a return to the big man’s roots.

Five years and three transfers ago, Vanover suited up as a freshman at Cal but spent the first half of the season struggling to see the floor. But down the stretch, the woebegone Bears stopped asking Vanover, whose frame has always been thin, to carve out space as a low-block operator. Instead, they spaced him out.

Connor Vanover | Most-Common Shots | Cal | 2018-19

Play Type Poss Pts PPP FG FGA
Play Type Poss Pts PPP FG FGA
Guarded 3-pointer from a pick-and-pop 25 27 1.08 9 25
Made shot at the rim on a basket cut 19 38 2 19 19
Missed shot at the rim on a flash cut 19 0 0 0 19
Made shot at the rim on a flash cut 13 26 2 13 13
Missed guarded 3-pointer on a spot up 12 0 0 0 12
Open 3-pointer from a pick-and-pop 11 18 1.636 6 11
Miscellaneous turnovers 9 0 0 0 0
Total 108 109 1.009 47 99
Source: Synergy Sports

Over the final 13 games, roughly 41 percent of his touches were spot-up looks or pick-and-pops – a stretch where he averaged more than 13 points per game. It wasn’t enough to save coach Wyking Jones’ job but made Vanover, who knocked down 41.7 percent of 3s taken from pick-and-pops, an intriguing upside play in the transfer portal.

It certainly was for Arkansas.

“Connor has tremendous upside,” said coach Eric Musselman, who made Vanover one of his earliest transfer pickups. “He can stretch the floor offensively by shooting the 3-pointer and be a rim-protecting shot blocker on the defensive end.”

Early on, Musselman proved accommodating. But that ebbed over the latter half of Vanover’s redshirt sophomore season. The tipping point might have arrived in a loss to Missouri, an outing where Vanover went 0 of 11 from the floor. Afterward, Vanover played sparingly in the Razorbacks’ next five games – a stretch where the Hogs needed size with Justin Smith out of the lineup. Musselman didn’t mince words when asked about Vanover’s conspicuous absence from the rotation.

“He needs to continue at his size to go down on the block and create an advantage at 7-3 with some back-to-the-basket stuff,” Musselman told reporters in late January 2021.

Framing Vanover’s waning floor time as a binary conflict between jumpers and post-ups is reductive. But it casts his experience in Fayetteville in sharp relief to his time in Berkeley, driving home how vital the squishy definition of fit can be.

Over two college seasons, Vanover averaged 0.46 points per possession when playing on the block. Even though he was shooting just 31.6 percent from beyond the arc midway through his sophomore season, those attempts were twice as valuable (0.947 PPS) as maneuvering around the paint. Meanwhile, Arkansas’ only notable attempts to expand Vanover’s low-post toolkit were reported efforts to teach him a sky hook.

Connor Vanover | Most-Common Shots | Arkansas | 2020-21

Play Type Poss Pts PPP FG FGA
Play Type Poss Pts PPP FG FGA
Missed guarded 3-pointer on a spot up 21 0 0 0 21
Made shot at the rim on a basket cut 15 30 2 15 15
Made shot at the rim on a putback 11 22 2 11 11
Miscellaneous turnovers 11 0 0 0 0
Missed open 3-pointer on a spot up 9 0 0 0 9
Made open 3-pointer on a spot up 8 24 3 8 8
Open 3-pointer as a trail shooter 7 15 2.143 5 7
Missed Shot at the rim on a basket cut 7 0 0 0 7
Missed shot at the rim on a putback 7 0 0 0 7
Total 96 91 0.948 39 85
Source: Synergy Sports

We don’t have the benefit of complete game films to shade the nuances of Vanover’s role correctly. Instead, we must (very) loosely infer based on his Synergy profile. My interpretation of Muss’ ire: he wanted Vanover to apply more consistent pressure on the rim.

Ruthlessness is Muss’ best asset. His offenses have relied on athletic wings hunting advantageous matchups. Once Arkansas identifies one, it beats it to death. The Hogs can be inconsistent shooters off the catch, but they’ve spent Muss’ tenure evolving into one of the SEC’s best teams at playing downhill.

It also means relying on big men who excel at finishing around the cup. Smith epitomized this preference. Nearly 80 percent of shots came from point-blank range, often as a cutter, rebounder, and rim runner on the break. By contrast, Vanover’s rim attempts (54) trailed his tally of jumpers (78) as a sophomore, despite Vanover posting equally gaudy numbers when he cut (1.294 PPP) or rolled (1.778 PPP) hard to the paint.

Smith’s feasting on rack attacks (1.310 PPs) trumped Vanover’s returns (0.950 PPS) as a floor spacer. And it’s even harder to argue when you consider that Vanover made just 18.6 percent of guarded catch-and-shoot jumpers, which were worth a piddling 0.560 PPS.

Stylistic preferences aside, Muss has typically kept his rotation tight. Over his four seasons, Arkansas has never finished higher than 200th nationally in bench minutes, per KenPom. Once Muss optimizes his seven-man rotation, he rides with it.

So, after Smith returned from an ankle injury, Vanover’s minutes shriveled. Early in his junior campaign, Muss gave him another audition, which ended when December arrived. Instead, Muss relied on Jaylin Williams, another reliable cutter and roller who blended strength and mobility on the defensive end. As a result, Vanover didn’t see the floor over Arkansas’ final 19 games.

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

How did Vanover fit Oral Roberts’ System?

Two traits underpinned Oral Roberts during Mills’ style: tempo and trust.

Over the last three seasons, the Golden Eagles finished among the top 50 nationally in adjusted tempo, and while his system featured structured sets, a lot of possessions might be deemed freelancing. Yet that’s not quite right. Mills’ offense relies on five-out alignments and uses a trigger action early in a possession. That’s where trust comes in: Mills expects his players to understand how to play in space.

Few teams epitomize grab-and-go more than ORU. Last season, nearly a quarter of its shots came within 10 seconds of snatching a rebound, ranking fourth nationally, according to Hoop Lens. Instead of facing a defense that’s loaded up to the ball — a common sight as no-middle principles have gained traction — ORU’s triggering actions come as opponents try to sort out cross-matches and where switching is a dicey proposition.

And almost all of them are off-the-shelf: drag screens, butt screens, spread pick-and-rolls, euro pick-and-rolls. The action can be rudimentary when you have the likes of Max Abamas and Isaac McBride. Just do enough to bump their defender off, create a double gap in the middle of the floor, and get out of the way.

Three years ago, combo forward Kevin Obanor often set those screens. Rather than plug up the opening by wheeling out and divebombing to the rim, Obanor would flare, set his feet, and be ready to let it fly once the ball touched his mitts. In 2020-21, more than 42 percent of catch-and-shoot attempts came via pick-and-pop, which he cashed in at 1.536 PPP, according to Synergy. The following season, though, Elijah Lufile and Francis Lacis combined for 57 pick-and-pop jumpers — one shy of Obanor’s tally.

Then Vanover arrived. And like Obanor, he understood the brief. He hoisted up 67 attempts as a pick-and-pop and averaged 0.851 PPP, per Synergy data. Let’s look at how ORU’s early-clock offense primed Vanover to squeeze the trigger.

Butting Out

Sometimes, the terminology is confusing. Not in this case. A butt screen is precisely what you think it is: a flat ball screen near the top of the key where a player has his back to the dribbler. Why does it this way? Presumably, it’s easier for the screener to get the same angle on the screen and see available space earlier.

Vanover’s job is easy and bland. What’s worth noting is how defenses handle the situation. Instead of switching, they might deploy push coverage, where the dribbler’s defender fights over the screen and pushes Abmas to a big sitting a step below the screen. Or they can ratchet up the intensity by blitzing the point guard.

Either way, Abmas occupies two defenders. As for Vanover, a butt screen makes it easy for him to get his base established and be shot-ready if Abmas kicks the ball out.

Next, glance at the side of the floor where a pair of Golden Eagles are holding the sideline, one in the slot and one in the corner. By popping, Vanover keeps the slot gap open for a teammate to potentially bolt backdoor. And sometimes, the player in the low corner might dart along the baseline.

Mills’ system makes it easy for ORU to flow into another quick hitter based on Davidson’s motion offense. Abmas will kick the ball out and watch it reverse to the opposite side of the floor. From there, the Golden Eagles have a guard sprint off staggered screens, make a catch at the top of the arc and turn the corner.

Playing the Middle Man

As you’ll notice, the differences between actions are fractional. What delineates middle ball screens is Vanover’s screening angle and the fact that Abmas is more inclined to use Vanover in rescreens.

In the games I watched, defenses tried to string Abamas out toward the sideline. When he pitched the ball back to Vanover, a weak-side defender tended to stunt toward him to buy time for a teammate to recover.

It’s also instructive to call up Oral Roberts’ loss to Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. While the Blue Devils didn’t lack plenty of long and agile perimeter defenders to throw at Abmas, Dereck Lively proved a linchpin. The freshman big man’s mobility allowed him to stall out Abmas’ drives, recover back to Vanover on the flight of the pass, and contest catch-and-shoots.

Mills’ offense bets on the idea that most opponents can’t handle the stress created by those early-clock assaults. Duke could, and Lively made it possible.

Such A Drag

Risk tolerance defines pick-and-roll coverage, where every second a big man spends containing a dribbler creates a more difficult recovery. Abmas excels at using extra dribbles to lengthen the distance, while his deceleration also stops the big in his tracks. And because opponents push Abmas over the screen, the guard is trailing the play.

Floor spacing matters, too. A trio of Golden Eagles might cluster on one side while Abmas strings the play out to the one with vacancy. The big man Abmas is stringing along can’t bail out because it would create an open path to the rim.

Sometimes, the initial screen doesn’t work, mainly if the opponent is blitzing Abmas. So, he might use Vanover for a second screen but opt for an assertive approach after turning the corner: get north-south and drive at the big. That defender has no choice but to engage Abmas, whose primary defender is again trailing. Once he draws two, he aborts the rim attack and kicks the ball out to Vanover.

Abmas deftly straddled the line between facilitator and scorer in these situations, with enough burst to blow past bigs in a simple switch. In the games I consumed, where ORU faced opponents in the top 150 of KenPom, almost every team defaulted to hemming him in. The pressure he applied — especially on the middle gap — was a boon for a Vanover.

International Flavor

One facet of Mills’ system overlaps with a tactic Mizzou trotted out when tapping into five-out sets last season: European ball screens.

Your definition can be as narrow or expansive as you wish. I use initial alignment as a distinguishing feature. At ORU, it blurs the line with a drag screen. The floor remains overloaded, but Vanover sets his screen in the slot on the empty side.

Abmas’ decision tree as a creator doesn’t change. He can string out a big to make recovery impossible, or he can get north-south, suck in two defenders and pitch the ball back out. If a defender manages to close down Vanover, he’s not stuck in space. Instead, he can reverse the ball, seamlessly allowing ORU can run a continuity set, tap into its Davidson-inspired motion, or riff in space until forcing a defender over a screen.

Manipulating spreadsheets and chopping up game tape makes it easy to see why Vanover appealed to Mizzou’s staff. He’s not bothered by a brisk clip, and he won’t require much time to pick up coach Dennis Gates’ system once he gets on campus. And while Kadin Shedrick possesses the agility to thrive defensively, the Virginia transfer’s ability to stretch the floor — a central reason he went in the portal — was theoretical. Unlike Vanover, Shedrick only has 18 catch-and-shoot attempts under his belt.

Connor Vanover | Most-Common Shots | Career

Play Type Poss Pts PPP FG FGA FG% eFG%
Play Type Poss Pts PPP FG FGA FG% eFG%
Shot at the rim after a basket cut 91 136 1.495 68 91 0.747 0.747
Guarded 3-pointer from a spot-up 71 54 0.761 18 71 0.254 0.38
Guarded 3-pointer after a pick-and-pop 70 54 0.771 18 70 0.257 0.386
Putback after an offensive rebound 56 74 1.321 37 56 0.661 0.661
Open 3-pointer from a spot-up 53 60 1.132 20 53 0.377 0.566
Shot after a flash cut 44 40 0.909 20 44 0.455 0.455
Open 3-pointer after a pick-and-pop 41 54 1.317 18 41 0.439 0.659
Total 426 472 1.108 199 426 0.467 0.554
Source: Synergy Sports

Now comes the proverbial catch: Vanover’s shooting grades out as, well, average. For his career, Vanover’s connected on 31.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, including 32.4 percent of those resulting from pick-and-pops — both of which would have lagged behind the Division-I median last season.

A potential culprit isn’t hard to find, either. Vanover shoots 25.4 percent from long range with a hand in his face and 40.4 percent when unguarded. That split held up even in a favorable climate at ORU, where he partnered with an on-ball maestro at a fast tempo. Pick-and-pops that produced open 3s netted him 1.2 PPP — and plummeted to 0.659 PPP when a defender closed out.

That’s not to say Vanover can’t shrink the gap, but anyone skeptical of the pickup wouldn’t be wrong to point it out. And while the habitat in Columbia is similar, it’s distinct in a pair of essential ways.

While Dennis Gates bestows autonomy for his teams to hunt early in possession, only 17.2 percent of the Tigers’ shots came within 10 seconds of grabbing a missed shot. That ranked 177th nationally, per Given how MU’s gone about retooling the roster to infuse depth and flexibility on the perimeter, it’s not unreasonable to think MU could shift some possessions around. But that also raises the second issue: who’s powering early-clock efforts?

No one in Columbia resembles Abmas, who racked up 173 possessions attacking as a scorer in middle PNRs — or 102 more than Nick Honor and Sean East II combined. And aside from a drastically smaller volume, the tandem averaged just 0.644 PPP in those situations. Make no mistake: Honor gets MU into good offensive sets, while East is at ease facilitating on the break. But it’s worth musing whether MU has a ball handler that can somewhat mimic Abmas’ qualities. It did at one point, and it’s one of the biggest holes left by Isiaih Mosley’s departure.

Those two caveats aren’t meant to induce panic, especially if Vanover winds up as a depth piece in the rotation. And suppose you take another look at the table above. In that case, there’s some solace in knowing he can reliably cash in dump-offs and offensive rebounds.

Yet shooting will be Vanover’s swing skill in his farewell tour of the SEC. It’s what Gates touted when the program announced his signing. If it translates, the big man might provide MU’s rotation the extra pop it needs.