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K.J. Santos hasn’t played in nearly two years, so how has he stayed ready?

With Jordan Barnett out of the fold, the UIC transfer is a natural option as a 3-and-D wing for the Tigers.

UIC Athletics

A common tactic for a basketball skills trainer is to create stakes and induce stress. Otherwise, working on footwork or absorbing simulated contact on the way to the rim just becomes bland mimicry. As a practical matter, the environment tends to be dull: a quiet high school gym.

Chris Conrad, though, has a setting that oozes authenticity. Players meeting him for a session might cock their head when they pull up to the a farm in St. Charles, Ill., which sits on the western edge of Chicagoland. Before them stands an ancient barn. In their head, a host of questions crop up.

A step inside, though, gives away a secret tucked neatly away in the relic: a hardwood floor shoehorned to fit the given dimensions. It might be a little shorter than 94 feet, and the narrow confines rule out corner 3-pointers, but if you’re trying to give off a blue-collar vibe, a building with stuffy air and only two exits certainly does the trick.

“The kid’s love it,” Conrad said. “It’s very old school. But we’ve embraced it and made it part of the culture and work ethic we try to create. It builds a lot of character.”

Under The Barn’s arched ceiling, Missouri guard K.J. Santos toiled in relative anonymity during a self-imposed gap year that will be folded into a 20-month layoff from live action. At this juncture, you likely know of Santos’ sojourn that began by transferring from Illinois-Chicago, bypassing a one-year layover at a Florida junior college and returning home for a unique redshirt year.

What results did he reap? Truthfully, no one knows. Conrad, though, put Santos through his paces four days a week and then watched him decamp for Columbia in early June.

Setting expectations is the same as educated guesswork, but with Santos the entire exercise feels even more opaque. While he had a productive freshman season for the Flames, his past is littered with injuries, stops at eight schools since his freshman year of high school and a transition to high-major basketball after two-year hiatus.

Which takes us back to The Barn, where Conrad did his level best to make sure his pupil showed up in fighting shape. Still, it’s reasonable to wonder about what role Santos can carve out and whether Columbia is the place he’ll find seemingly elusive stability.

Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin and his staff are betting the wing’s versatility can fill a pressing need in their perimeter rotation. And they just might have a job that suits Santos perfectly.

What does Mizzou need?

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Three words: reliable perimeter shooting.

MU lost 61.1 percent of its 3-point shooting when Jordan Barnett and Kassius Robertson exited the program. Holding on to Jontay Porter allowed MU to fend off the worst possible outcome, but coach Martin’s ongoing offensive evolution hinges on identifying wings with reliable enough shooting strokes to backfill the hole, ease pressure on Porter and maintain the tension created by Mizzou’s floor spacing.

The roster’s unplanned mutations also appeared to bequeath Barnett with the role of slasher who could attack gaps and stress a defense. Instead of diversifying his attack, however, Barnett adopted the role many bestowed on Robertson: a catch-and-shoot threat who bombed away from deep.

Sifting through possession data only underscores how complete the conversion was. Almost 43 percent of Barnett’s shots were catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, according to Synergy Sports. And he didn’t use his jumper to set up defenders, attempting just 44 layups and dunks (1.3 per game) when MU faced a set defense — half of which were the result of cuts or offensive rebounds.

Jordan Barnett

Play Type Possessions Points PPP
Play Type Possessions Points PPP
Spot-Up - Jumpers 136 160 1.176
Basket Cut 30 36 1.2
Transition - Left Wing 19 28 1.474
Transition - Right Wing 17 29 1.706
Offensive Rebound - Short 20 23 1.15
Synergy Sports

Even in transition, Barnett’s preferences didn’t change drastically. He was just as keen to sprint to a wing to launch a 3-ball (33 FGAs) as he was to push toward the tin (22 FGAs) against scrambling opponents.

Barnett offset any droughts offensively by evolving into a reliable defender, allowing just 0.765 points per possession and 32.9 percent shooting. In particular, Barnett was adept when called upon to guard pick-and-rolls (0.808 PPP) and tracking shooters coming off screens, letting them shot just 29.4 percent from the floor. Toss in his 14.0 defensive rebounding percentage, and it’s easy to see why Martin invested trust in the Texas transfer.

While it’s not unreasonable to critique Barnett’s slight passivity as a driver, his shotmaking, defensive flexibility and rebounding ticked off more the boxes the Missouri staff wanted in a wing — and they’re a good starting place for evaluating potential replacements and how Santos could carve out a role early on.

Shunning stability to maximize opportunity

By now, you know the story of Santos’ former life as a basketball vagabond.

His experience underscores a central theme: The 6-foot-8 prospect couldn’t catch a break. For all his versatility, staffs at high-major programs had only been able to see Santos sporadically. Even if his skillset piqued their interest, there was the matter of whether his body would betray him again.

“All those offers went away for various reasons,” Conrad said. “It was never because of K.J. He’s a great kid. But he’s a kid who’s had it all and had it taken away. This isn’t a kid who had everything handed to him.”

Signing with UIC, though, meant opting into a youth movement launched by coach Steve McClain. Coming a 5-25 debut season, McClain, a former assistant for Tom Crean at Indiana, leaned heavily on young guards in Santos, Tarkus Ferguson, Dominique Matthews and Marcus Ottey – a quartet where each member logged north of 300 possessions.

Investing in youth reaped dividends, too. Ferguson and Matthews landed spots on the Horizon’s All-Freshman team, while the Flames compiled a 17-19 mark – a 12-win improvement – and managed to reach the semifinals of the College Basketball Invitational.

Young Hands | Horizon League Freshmen (2016-2017)

Name School %Time Poss Points PPP FG% eFG%
Name School %Time Poss Points PPP FG% eFG%
Tarkus Ferguson* UIC 16.2 489 391 0.800 40.2 47.4
Corey Allen* Detroit 16.3 429 423 0.986 43.5 54.9
Dominique Matthews * UIC 13.0 391 360 0.921 40.1 49.3
Marcus Ottey UIC 12.1 365 310 0.849 44.1 47.6
Carson Williams* Northern Kentucky 11.9 335 375 1.119 59.8 59.8
K.J. Santos UIC 10.4 313 234 0.776 38.3 46.6
Braun Hartfield Youngstown State 10.6 306 285 0.931 44.9 48.5
Godwin Boahen UIC 9.8 295 278 0.942 46.9 54.4
Kasheem Thomas Cleveland State 11.7 289 236 0.817 36.9 44.1
August Haas Milwaukee 10.7 278 176 0.633 38.4 44.2
* All-Freshman selection in the Horizon League Synergy Sports

For all the tumult Santos has endured, UIC offered a chance to find a safe haven. After starting 30 games, the wing, who averaged 7.1 points and 4.2 rebounds, could have become a key cog for an ascendant program in the Horizon. Instead, he opted to bet on himself and decided to transfer, picking Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College for another crack at drumming high-major interest.

As far as sample sizes go, Santos’ freshman season – and its 313 possessions — is ideal in assessing the kind of player MU added to the fold. Any analysis, though, relies heavily on parsing data from Synergy Sports, given the limited availability of UIC film. Even if we’re reliant on spreadsheets, the numbers easily cast Santos as a 3-and-D wing.

K.J. Santos | Offensive Profile

Play Type Possessions Points PPP Rank Rating
Play Type Possessions Points PPP Rank Rating
Spot-Up Jumper 81 96 1.185 70% Very Good
Short Offensive Rebound 24 28 1.167 56% Good
Basket Cut 23 20 0.87 7% Poor
Transition Left Wing 19 16 0.847 24% Below Average
Spot-Up Drives Right to Basket 18 17 0.944 38% Average

Roughly a quarter of Santos’ possessions ended with a spot-up jumper, and it’s hard to nitpick his decision to catch, rise and fire. While he didn’t lean as heavily on perimeter shooting as Barnett, Santos’ efficiency metrics (59.3 eFG% and 1.185 PPP) track closely to those posted by his predecessor last season for the Tigers. Breaking down shot charts also reveals Santos drained 44.4 percent (24 of 54) of catch-and-shoot 3-pointers during his freshman season, including 40.4 percent against teams who finished in the top 150 of KenPom’s index.

Matters got dicey when Santos put the ball on the deck.

In 35 games, Santos only attempted 51 shots at the rim, excluding putback opportunities, and only converted 37.1 percent of the time. On plays where Santos would attack a defender closing out, he was just 9 of 24 from the floor, and most of his success (0.9444 PPP) came from driving right. Once you include pull-up jumpers, runners and layups, his efficiency cratered to 0.446 PPP to go with a 24.6 turnover percentage.

Can K.J. Santos finish at the rim?

Play Type FGM FGA FG%
Play Type FGM FGA FG%
Spot-Up 9 24 37.5
Offensive Rebound 12 19 63.2
Cut 7 13 53.8
Pick-and-Roll Ballhandler 0 3 0
Handoff 1 3 33.3
Miscellaneous 1 3 33.3
Isolation 0 2 0
Pick-and-Roll Roll Man 1 2 50
Post Up 0 1 0
Overall 31 70 44.3
Synergy Sports

Yet the issue isn’t whether Santos lacks the instinct to create his own offense. Per Synergy, almost half his shots (45.1) came around the basket during his freshman season. When you consider the fact Barnett only attempted 15.1 percent of his shots at the rim last season, Santos assertiveness shouldn’t be in doubt. Instead, we’re left with a more nuanced question: Can Santos’ efficiency align with his physical tools?

We’ll explore in Part 2.