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Who is Christian Guess, and what are the Tigers getting?

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The guard is a ‘tough cover’ and a ‘scorer’ who bided his time before the Tigers obtained an NCAA waiver to add him to the fold. What comes next is sharpening raw tools.

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In early August, gloom had settled over Christian Guess. Across the country, college basketball’s freshmen sweated through predawn conditioning, schlepped from lecture to lecture and settled into evening study halls — a routine the guard of out Cleveland would have killed to make his own.

Instead, worry jolted Guess from his sleep most nights. And the already sinewy guard, who stands 6-foot-5 and checks in at 180 pounds, found it hard to muster an appetite. Sure, he set off from Shaker Heights, an enclave on the city’s east side, for morning workouts and lifting sessions, but to what end?

Calls from recruiters, which had already been spotty, were now non-existent. The 26 points he averaged each night as a senior, the Pogo springs for legs, the straight B average and solid ACT score — all of it seemed to matter little. The cause of his angst? A bureaucratic snafu: a sequence of core courses that didn’t square with the the NCAA’s bylaws.

What Guess saw as an issue that could be cleared up with a waiver, high-major programs saw as a potential gamble. And so Guess waited for a call he figured wouldn’t arrive. “I was in a dark place with things not going as I wanted,” Guess said last Saturday. “I kept thinking anything good that might happen was just going to fall through.”

That changed, however, when Sonny Johnson, a coach at rival Garfield Heights, sent film off to Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin in a last-ditch bid to drum up interest for the guard. After Martin watched the footage and called Johnson, who then relayed a message to Guess, Have your phone on. Coach Martin is going to call.

Thirty minutes later, it rang.

One month and a whirlwind paper-pushing effort later, Guess is settling into Columbia after snatching up the scholarship opened by Cullen VanLeer’s medical retirement last week and shoring up depth on the perimeter. Given the speed of the courtship and the late hour that it broke last Friday night, figuring out what type of player MU added to the mix is being done on the fly.

“From a basketball standpoint, just learning as much as I can and talking to the older guys and coaches,” Guess said when asked how he’ll handled the quick transition. “I just need to be a hard worker and be consistent – consistently work on my game, consistently listen, consistently ask questions. Those guys all know a lot more than I do, and there’s a lot I can learn from them.”

What does Guess do well?

Shaker Heights coach Danny Young used an easy calculus in relaying a high-pressure scheme.

“I wanted to get Christian as many extra possessions as I could to get in the open floor,” Young said. “He plays well above the rim. If you get the game where it’s wide open, and he’s got angles and space, he’s going to get to the rim and really, really hurt you.”

In his two seasons at Shaker Heights, Guess served as a bellwether for Young’s program. When he missed 11 games during his junior campaign, the byproduct academic ineligibility, the Red Raiders scuffled along, buoyed only when Guess returned to spur a run to a district final. While Shaker returned five seniors last season, Guess’ breakout keyed their ascent.

Dropping 57 points in a game last December cemented Guess’ perch atop scouting reports. Less than a week later, he nearly outdueled Alonzo Gaffney, a top-50 talent who is pledged to Ohio State, and rival Garfield Heights — a bid that only ended when Guess went down with a leg injury early in the fourth quarter. (Shaker later toppled the Bulldogs to win a district title this past March.)

“He’s a fierce competitor, high motor, lots of energy loves to compete, plays hard and doesn’t take too many plays off,” Young said.

When you call up montages of Guess’ handiwork, you’ll also see he plays the game with his heart on his sleeve — an intensity that sometimes leads to foul trouble and a two-game suspension for technical fouls. “There were times when I got too caught up in the game and reacting to referees,” Guess said. “I just had to mature. I had to channel it and rub it off on my teammates. I never want to lose that fire or that passion. I just want to use it in a way that helps my guys.”

The ball was in Guess’ hands a ton, but he wasn’t the primary ball handler and initiator once Shaker Heights set up shop in the half court. Operating against a set defense, Young opted to move Guess around the floor to exploit space: spot-ups in the opposite corner, high ball screens at the top of the key, flair screens near the elbow and back screens for lobs.

Having a proven senior point guard who could crack defenses — Shaker would sometimes clear out a side of the floor and let him go to work — granted Young the flexibility to place Guess in sets where he could bolt into gaps and exploit slow rotations or sloppy closeouts.

“Right now, he’s a scorer,” Young said. “But he’s not quite the kid you’re going to run off a down screen or a flair screen for a jump shot.”

Why was Guess still available in August?

NCAA Basketball: West Virginia at Texas Christian
In February 2018, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, right, was looking to make guard Christian Guess the second Shaker Heights product on his roster, along with forward Esa Ahmad.
Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

To put it simply: misplaced advice.

But before we get there, we have to trace Guess’ path back two years, when he transferred to Shaker Heights after his sophomore season and toted a pockmarked transcript along with him from Glenville High School. Suiting up for Shaker is enticing. Under Young, the program has thrived for nearly a decade, headlined by talents like current Boston Celtics guard Terry Rozier and West Virginia forward Esa Ahmad. Yet Young’s initial conversations with Guess and his family barely broached how he’d fit on the floor.

“I don’t talk about basketball,” said Young, whose day job is serving as principal at Shaker Heights Middle School. “I let them know what we can do for a kid academically, and for him at that particular time, he was definitely at-risk and definitely had some academic issues that we had to wrap a lot of support around him.”

After Guess arrived, he took classes at the Innovative Center for Personalized Learning, a program designed for students in Guess’ position and whose curriculum meets NCAA eligibility criteria. “He looked at those requirements, and he just kept chipping at it,” Young said. “Every time we added more classes or increased his workloads, he did exactly what we asked of him.”

By last December, a handful of mid-major programs — Kent State, Toledo, Ohio, Indiana State, and James Madison — were starting to pick up their interest. Yet Guess’ recruitment seemed poised to wrap up quickly once West Virginia became the first high-major suitor to seriously enter the fray, scouting the slasher late in the year and bringing him to Morgantown for a series of unofficial visits, including an upset of then-No. 10 Oklahoma.

Yet Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins held back extending a formal offer. The source of hesitation emanated from the school’s compliance office. And only then did Guess learn he was unlikely to get a clean bill of health from the NCAA Eligibility Center. Two years ago, the association updated its bylaws and mandated prospective athletes needed to complete 10 of 16 core courses, seven of which must be in English, math and natural sciences, before their final semester of high school.

“I wasn’t given the classes that I needed when I got over to Shaker,” Guess said. “I was led to believe that if I did X, Y, and Z, and get As and Bs, I would be OK.”

Unable to meet the cutoff, Guess saw West Virginia’s interest wane. Soon enough, the calendar also worked against him. After the spring signing period wrapped up in May, few high-major programs had a scholarship to dole out, and even if a slot was open, a school would have to navigate an uncertain appeal to add to Guess. Programs that did touch base, including Ohio State and a doubling-back West Virginia, pushed him to explore junior colleges or spend a season at a post-graduate prep program.

“It’s not a bad thing or is it a problem,” Guess said. “I just felt that I worked really hard to get to this type of (high-major) school, so settling for a junior college wasn’t…”

Scrambling as summer arrived, Guess waited for a program to put skin in the game and file a waiver appeal. Along the way, Shaker Heights’ administration remained committed and allowed him to take three courses, lifting his to GPA to 3.05 and pairing with a composite ACT score of 22.

“That’s why he’s a qualifier,” Young said.

Hearing Guess’ description, Martin and MU could have pursued a waiver under a “misadvisement” exception in the NCAA’s guidelines. To do so, MU needed to marshal compelling material that “clearly demonstrates” Guess would have been deemed eligible if it weren’t for mistaken academic advise. The program not only had Guess’ academic records, which demonstrated his steady gains, a letter from the guard and, crucially, a letter from the Shaker Heights administration outlining the situation.

“They were willing to through all the last minute hassles to get me into the school,” Guess said of MU. “I truly appreciate it.”

Where is Guess’ room for growth?

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Every freshman confronts a similar reality once they set foot on a college campus. They can no longer rely on talent and athleticism alone to mask mistakes or lapses in concentration. The margin for error, however, narrows even more for a player like Guess, whose game rests on attacking vertical seams in the defense and making contested shots around the rim.

Without a reliable jumper, defenses will just drop back and further negate any advantage his athleticism affords.

While Guess could space to the wing and sink catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, he understands there’s ample room for growth. “It’s about consistency,” he said. “I can make jumpers, but fixing my mechanics will help me do it more.”

His athleticism makes it easy for him to explode off the floor into his shot motion, but there are some mechanics when he reaches the apex of his jumper need to be tweaked. When Guess loads up, his guide hand and thumb get on top of the ball, while the elbow on his shooting arm kicks out — all of which are correctable but require thousands of shots alone in a practice gym to imprint in muscle memory

“I always told him that he’ll make some because he’s a ballplayer,” Young said. “You get in the gym a lot. But if you want to make a lot, you have to focus on the mechanics.”

While Guess thrives playing downhill, he’s not as comfortable operating as a primary ball handler running the show or facing heavy pressure as he brings the ball up the floor. “I just want to be tighter,” he said.

On the defensive end of the floor, the transition will be typical. Guess was engaged on that end of the floor. He cared. He competed.

“But he’s like any high school kid,” Young said. “He’s going to take a few plays off. But at the college level, the difference in taking those few plays off is being up eight or down eight. With the expectations he’s going to face at Missouri, he’ll lock in. And the way Cuonzo structures and teaches his defensive philosophy, it’s going to come back down to Christian making sure he’s doing his job each and every time.”