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How Tamar Bates has turned himself into a key cog for Mizzou

Over the past month, the Indiana transfer has gradually evolved from a potent cutter and spacer to a dynamic on-ball threat, making a tempting comparison reasonable.

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

Watching Tamar Bates long enough, and one thought – at least for those older than 30 – is irrepressible: that guy reminds me of Kareem Rush.

Start with Bates’ cursory biography: a lefty wing rated around 30th nationally, hailing from stomping grounds around Kansas City. Describing the 6-foot-5 junior’s movement demands an artistic adjective that seems inadequate or verging on hyperbole. Elegant seems inarticulate, while balletic is over the top.

For a moment, you might think using that comparison is unfair. We should take theIndiana transfer on his own terms. Maybe we should ditch a lazy shorthand altogether.

A week ago, though, when Missouri faced Florida, any semblance of restraint evaporated.

Let me show you. Eight minutes in, MU ran a staple action in their playbook. Anthony Robinson II fed Noah Carter at the top of the key and trotted into a down screen for Bates on the left wing. Bates practically ambled into a dribble handoff, probed the middle gap, retreated when cut off, glided to the right slot, and waited for Connor Vanover to set the slightest ball screen.

Just watch.

Every facet of Bates’s form is spookily reminiscent of Rush: the slight tilt of a lean frame, a subtle kick with the left leg, and the feathering of fingers at the end of his release. Notice how clean that make is? From the peak of its trajectory, it’s almost parachuting to the hoop. Even when Bates’ jumper isn’t online, it’s not ricocheting off the rim and acting as an outlet pass for the opponent.

This, friends, is touch.

It’s not just a Rush vibe. You’d swear it’s his doppelganger. That night, Bates’ output would have made his forerunner proud: 36 points on 13 of 21 shooting to go with a 9 of 9 at the charity stripe. But it wasn’t just a one-night outburst. It felt more like a crescendo.

Over the past six weeks, Bates has quietly emerged as one of the SEC’s more potent perimeter threats. Through Tuesday, he’s putting up 19.3 points per game in conference play, ranking seventh in the league, and shooting 57.1 percent from the floor. After accounting for assists and turnovers, a Bates touch is worth 1.356 points — an efficiency rating on par with Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht, Kentucky’s Antonio Reeves, and Ole Miss’ Matthew Murrell.

Our expectations were fairly tempered after Bates opted for a homecoming to reset a career that had stalled in Bloomington. Now, suggesting that he’s assembling a credible All-SEC case is not at all bold. That emergence hasn’t arrested a winless start to SEC play, but its implication isn’t subtle as the Tigers start glancing toward the future. Coach Dennis Gates’ blueprint calls for an influx of youth next season, and Bates — for the moment — projects as the alpha to anchor a precocious rotation.

And when we turn to the film, we can see how gracefully Bates has grown to fill that niche.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Kentucky
Tamar Bates attacks the basket against Kentucky guard Justin Edwards during the first half at Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center.
Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

Early Clock, Cutting and Spacing

The arc Bates has traced since arriving in Columbia — unlike his two seasons with the Hoosiers — has been organic. When he committed to IU almost three years ago, he was virtually more symbol than prospect: an early totem to allay concerns that the newly hired Mike Woodson could woo highly touted talent.

Then the games started.

In Bloomington, the Hoosiers made Trayce Jackson-Davis a heliocentric force, his post touches dwarfing the teammates sharing an orbit. For Xavier Johnson and Jalen Hood-Schifino, it meant a steady supply of pick-and-roll with a second-round pick in the NBA draft. Those conditions contradicted Woodson’s lofty rhetoric about Bates evolving into a three-level scorer.

Perusing game logs shows Bates making Woodson look like a soothsayer — in meetings with overmatched low- and mid-majors. Facing foes in the top 100 of KenPom, he only mustered 4.2 points and shot 31.1 percent from the floor in 16 minutes per game. Those struggles ratcheted up scrutiny. Case in point: a 4,700-word deep dive in The Indianapolis Star that — while mostly nuanced — opens with a granular description of Bates’ deconstructing his shooting form.

Exiting Monroe County meant finding more operating room – on the court and off. Despite an 18-point outburst against UAPB, Bates settled into a reserve role, never logging more than 20 minutes, and earning roughly six touches per game. That changed once Caleb Grill slammed into the Mizzou Arena floor. Without Grill or John Tonje, the Tigers’ resulting inconsistency on offense wiped the chalkboard and changed the calculus.

So, how has Bates gone about filling the void?

Tamar’s Touches | Possessions and Assists | Since Dec. 9, 2023

Play Type Poss+AST Points PP(P+A) FG FGA FG% AST TOV FTr
Play Type Poss+AST Points PP(P+A) FG FGA FG% AST TOV FTr
Transition 34 57 1.676 19 28 0.679 2 1 0.214
Spot Up 27 32 1.185 6 16 0.375 5 6 0.063
Cut 18 32 1.778 11 14 0.786 1 0 0.714
PNR 17 23 1.353 7 11 0.636 0 2 0.818
ISO 17 16 0.941 6 13 0.462 1 3 0.000
Putback 5 6 1.200 3 5 0.600 0 0 0.000
Post Up 5 4 0.800 1 4 0.250 0 0 0.500
Off Screen 5 4 0.800 1 3 0.333 0 1 0.667
Handoff 3 4 1.333 1 2 0.500 0 0 0.333
All 131 178 1.359 55 96 0.579 9 14 0.326
Note: These possessions are taken from MU’s games against high-majors and exclude a win over Central Arkansas. Data Source: Synergy Sports

Mizzou’s not tossing the ball to Bates and asking him to split defenses open. His emergence is rooted in ruthlessly capitalizing on opportunities created by fellow Tigers. No one would confuse Bates with D’Moi Hodge, but he’s found transition to be a reliable source of productive touches.

That starts by getting wide, sprinting the channel, racing to the deep corner, and planting his feet. Bates has canned 5 of 6 attempts from the most valuable patch of hardwood, a threat that complicates typical transition defense. Does an opponent stop the ball and build a wall? Or does a defender make a mad-cap scramble to contest Bates?

The threat of Bates pulling from long range tees up a logical progression: attack a potentially sloppy closeout. Once you fold in those opportunities, Bates is averaging almost 2.1 PPP when serving as a wide runner for Nick Honor and Sean East II to pick out as the push ahead on secondary breaks and in early-clock situations.

Weird as it sounds, Bates also has headroom as a force in the open floor. During this eight-game stretch against quality competition, he’s only converted 4 of 7 seven rim attempts when attacking the rim after a hit-ahead pass or pushing the ball himself. Without a few trips to the free throw line, he’d be underwater (0.857 PPP) in terms of efficiency.

Quibbling aside, Bates is already reaping the benefits of a stylistic shift. He was equally effective at IU running the floor, but the Hoosiers have never finished higher than 164th nationally for transition opportunities. Even as MU has throttled down the tempo in Gates’ second season, the Tigers, ranked 100th in possession volume, sit 169 spots ahead of Woodson’s program.

Consider it this way: Bates sources almost a third of his points from situations where he’s not facing a set defense. Work smart, not harder, right?

There’s also a slight irony in how Bates’ game evokes comparisons to Rush: his surge started by punishing teams playing off the ball. When Rush returned from a suspension during his freshman campaign — where was NIL for Myron Piggie? — Quin Snyder had no issue letting the No. 34 recruit prowl for victims in ball screens and isolations. Yet Snyder chided his phenom — “lethargic” was used once — for his work rate when the ball wasn’t in his hands.

Again, Bates has been happy to let others use the Tigers’ offense, which relies more on Euro Flow ball screens and pistol action, to express themselves. Sean East II has obliged. Bates’ job description within that structure is terse: make shots and keep gaps open. Since MU ventured to Kansas City to face Seton Hall, Bates has averaged 1.286 PPS and made 9 of 21 spot-up 3s, and almost three-quarters of those shots come from the corners.

There are some snippets of Bates lifting to the wing or firing off a ball reversal, but the bulk of his catch-and-shoots are the byproduct of overloads. MU’s system will sometimes have Bates make a through cut, trotting from the strong-side slot to nestle himself in the weak-side corner. Because modern defenses tend to load up toward the ball, help defenders can wind up on the mid-line – and vulnerable to skip passes.

However, Bates is far from stagnant. He’s the most active cutter on MU’s roster and, once you can account for possession volume, the best at it in the SEC. And as the chart shows, he’s proficient with any scalpel he uses.

Tamar’s Touches | Cutting Type | Since Dec. 9, 2023

Type Poss Points PPP
Type Poss Points PPP
45 Cut 3 4 1.333
Baseline Cut 3 6 2.000
Back Cut 3 4 1.333
Curl 2 4 2.000
Dive Cut 2 4 2.000
Flash Middle 2 4 2.000
All 15 26 1.733
Note: These possessions are taken from MU’s games against high-majors and exclude a win over Central Arkansas. Data Source: Synergy Sports

Once East or Jesus Carralero meanders with the rock, Bates has a knack for drifting between spaces or slinking his way to the short corner. Making eye contact with Honor can trigger a back door cut from the slot if a defender is too far up the line. If the defense flattens out, he’ll angle cut from the slot. Sometimes, a down screen in delay action or a bluff handoff lets Bates curl toward the rack. And more recently, he’s flashed to the nail when opponents sag off and try to clog gaps.

Add up those early-clock touches, spot-ups, and diverse cuts, and you’ll find that more than half of Bates’ shots in recent weeks have only asked him to finish a play. Tack on trips to the foul line, and he’s averaging 1.492 PPP – or 11 points per game.

That operational mode can sometimes play tricks on us as the action unfolds. We’re so accustomed to scorers serving as a protagonist within a set that Bates’ willingness to function as a beta leads us to perceive him as inert. To me, though, his progression has unfolded somewhat naturally.

IU never truly empowered Bates in any meaningful way within its system. Spending two years as a floor spacer can dull your instincts. Moreover, Bates’ developmental history hinted at a player who would elbow or bully his way into the rotation.

He didn’t do it as a freshman reserve at Piper High, deferring to an older core — one that included his brother — that reached the state quarterfinals. He didn’t grouse at IMG Academy, which imported Bates — a DiRenna Award winner for the best player in Kansas City — to add toughness and on-ball tenacity. And through all of his struggles with the Hoosiers, he didn’t betray any frustration publicly.

But at various points this season, Gates has used his bully pulpit in front of local media to underscore that he wanted Bates to be more selfish. For his part, Bates has heeded that call. But what it looks like runs counter to what we expect from a prime mover in an offense.

However, Bates is starting to resemble an archetype we know well.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Missouri
Tamar Bates looks the drive the ball from the corner against as Georgiaguard Jabri Abdur-Rahim during the second half at Mizzou Arena.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Bates’ Budding Creativity?

Sometimes, we see a player’s role expand slowly, but in Bates’ case, it escalated quickly.

Before Mizzou met Florida, Bates had never used more than PNR touches to generate a scoring opportunity. Against the Gators, he blew past that total in just 19 minutes of floor time. Toss in isolation possessions, and Bates racked up almost as many creative opportunities in one night (11) as he had in the four SEC games (13) before his outburst.

And at the current rate, it might not be long until touches come to define his offensive portfolio.

Tamar’s Touches | On-Ball Creation | Since Dec. 9, 2023

Play Type Poss+AST Points PPP+A FG FGA FG% AST TOV FTr
Play Type Poss+AST Points PPP+A FG FGA FG% AST TOV FTr
Pick and Roll 17 23 1.353 7 11 0.636 0 2 0.818
Isolation 17 16 0.941 6 13 0.462 1 3 0.000
Post Up 5 4 0.800 1 4 0.250 0 0 0.500
Handoff 3 4 1.333 1 2 0.500 0 0 0.333
All 42 47 1.119 15 30 0.500 1 5 0.400
Note: These possessions are taken from MU’s games against high-majors and exclude a win over Central Arkansas. Data Source: Synergy Sports

It’s worth noting that our sample of Bates as an on-ball whiz is a paltry two games. There’s always the possibility it’s a blip borne out of matchups. Florida’s game plan mostly kept East under wraps, limiting the havoc he could cause in empty-side ball screens. Inside, Carter’s hit familiar gridlock in the lane against one of the nation’s largest teams.

Earlier this week, Texas A&M’s schematic decision to only extend its defense when trapping side ball-screens bogged down MU in the half court. During the opening 10 minutes, the Tigers turned to Bates as an escape hatch in late-clock situations, which only netted a skimpy 0.833 PPP on the night.

That said, we should put in the types of actions and settings Bates is using to add new shades and hues to his scoring palette. Quite honestly, I don’t think you’ll be too surprised at what the clips put on display.

For a start, Bates interchanges nicely with Sean East in empty-side ball screens. He’s the only tweak in the action. The Tigers’ off-ball alignment remains the same, with guys stashed in the corner, wing, and slot. As for the screener, they rarely roll toward the rim. Connor Vanover and Jesus Carralero are more prone to pop out for a potential 3-ball on a throwback.

What’s different is that Bates flashed a handle tight enough to sliver through a tight space, used the rim as a shield, and completed a tricky finish. And in the other clip, he’s hunting a pull-up instead of collapsing help along the baseline.

Again, the structure of these sets matters less than the assertiveness Bates brings to them. Take the second clip, for example. Florida’s drop coverage thwarts Bates’ first foray, and the retreat dribble isn’t clean. Earlier this season, he would have whipped a reversal to Carralero to get the ball to the second side of the floor. Instead, he waits for a rescreen from Zeus and cruises into a pull-up.

And since we’ve come this far, we should be complete and see Bates dabbling in spread ball screens — even if the outcomes are mundane.

What stuck out, though, were a couple of possessions that unfolded with the game drifting out of reach against Florida. Occasionally, an MU big will set up at the top of the key and set a wide screen for a guard to cut toward the ball handler dribbling up the floor. Usually, it’s a prelude to MU running a delay and pinch set. Other times, the Tigers use a stagger screen to let a guard peel off a defender as they sprint into the catch.

Rather than trot through the motions, Bates used them to get a little head of steam into a catch at the top of the arc and flow into high pick-and-rolls. And rather than pop, Carter slid toward the paint, taking a nominal guard (Richard) or a big like Tyrese Samuel out of the play and letting Bates operate one-on-one.

Perhaps Gates was doing what good coaches do and mercilessly targeting Richard and Samuel. Yet, we haven’t seen East or Honor deployed similarly.

Meanwhile, Bates isn’t immune to breaking things off and going his own way.

A ghost screen from East can hold two Illinois defenders long enough for Gates to attack the middle gap. Instead of swinging the ball to East on a vacant side of the floor, Bates decides to go at Georgia’s Jabri Abdur-Rahim. After slicing by Honor, Bates takes a feed in the corner and tries to blow by South Carolina’s Myles Stute. Or he draws Samuel in an early cross-match and can’t resist.

Do these plans always work out? No. Yet Bates’ recent efficiency (0.941 PPP) in those isolation opportunities would rank respectably in the 67th percentile among Division-I players, according to Synergy Sports Data.

We should also note what’s absent: facilitating for others. Bates’ assist rate during this heater is a modest 6.8 percent, but I wouldn’t be fair to knock him as greedy, considering it’s not far off the number (9.2%) he’s posted for his career. Meanwhile, Bates is doing all this while coughing the ball up a mere 10.7 percent of the time.

Asking Bates to take up a side gig as a secondary creator would probably be a mistake, too.

The better query might be whether he has much capacity left. Let me remind you, he’s recently averaging around 16.3 possessions once you add in assists. Per Synergy, that volume would rank sixth among heavy-usage wings in the SEC. The chart below suggests that – at most – Bates is only a couple of touches away from bumping against a ceiling.

How Does Tamar Bates work load compare to other SEC wings?

Player Team Poss+Ast PP(P+A) Poss Ast
Player Team Poss+Ast PP(P+A) Poss Ast
Dalton Knecht Tennessee 18.9 1.221 17.2 1.7
Jordan Wright LSU 19.1 1.152 16.5 2.5
Antonio Reeves Kentucky 17.5 1.302 16 1.5
Matthew Murrell Ole Miss 18.6 1.24 15.9 2.7
Tyrin Lawrence Vanderbilt 17.7 1.044 15.9 1.9
RIley Kugel Florida 15.2 0.942 13.8 1.4
Jabri Abdur-Rahim Georgia 12.2 1.199 11.7 0.4
Will Richard Florida 12.8 1.119 11.6 1.3
Tamar Bates Missouri 11.7 1.338 10.6 1.1
Rylan Griffen Alabama 11.7 1.274 10.1 1.7
Data Source: Synergy Sports

What the Tigers desperately need is scoring punch. For now, Bates is supplying that output and, for the most part, ginning it up without having to freelance. Perhaps that reliance eases once Grill is cleared for action, but he’s only started conditioning work. If another two weeks elapsed, the Iowa State transfer would only be available for six or seven games.

Like any fanbase, Mizzou’s contains several currents of opinion rushing together. But this season has dredged up familiar anxiety about whether Gates has veered off course. Some are among a faction already drawing parallels to a second-season swoon under Cuonzo Martin. Some are heartened by the genuine gains in recruiting. Some think there’s no reason for regression in an era of the transfer portal.

Yet all might nod in agreement around this notion: Bates’s play is another signpost of what is yet to come and how this staff can achieve it through developmental prowess. If they can extract these gains from Bates, imagine what they can do when a top-five recruiting class arrives in early June.

Sure, it’s been evident that the brightest aspirations for this season dimmed a few weeks ago.

But perhaps the Tigers have found — and helped fashion — a player that can renew them next year.