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K.J Santos has stayed ready and Mizzou might have the perfect role for him

Jordan Barnett specialized in deep bombs a year ago, can K.J. Santos fill that role this season?

Over the past year, Missouri guard K.J. Santos and basketball trainer Chris Conrad worked to keep the wing in shape.
Chris Conrad

We already laid out what Mizzou might need at one of its wing positions and took a statistical look at how guard K.J. Santos might fit the blueprint. Next, we’ll review how he spent the past year staying in shape and how the Tigers could deploy him this season.

Now checking in at 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds, K.J. Santos, who is also 21 years old, has the length, strength and physical maturity to absorb contact and finish in traffic. Those traits help, but Santos still has a learning curve to ascend as far as understanding what to do once he gets moving toward the paint.

“He’s so tall and big that it’s easy for him to take contact,” trainer Chris Conrad said. “He doesn’t need to fall away. So you just make sure he’s able to take those bumps and knocks and gets to the basket.”

Developing into a consistent finisher is the key that might unlock Santos’ potential. Over the last two months of his freshman season, he shot almost 49 percent from behind the 3-point arc, lifting his scoring average to nearly 9.6 points per game. However, Santos only sank 33.3 percent of his attempts around the bucket — or roughly 23 percentage points below the median for NCAA Division I players.

Where one can lodge a critique, another can see opportunity. Once Santos hit the open market last spring, it’s easy to see why Mizzou assistant Cornell Mann, who scouted the wing while working on staff at Oakland, touched base.

At a minimum, the Tigers could nab a proven shotmaker to space the floor on one end and the frame to lend them flexibility defensively. Even better, they could stash him for a year at proven JUCO program, importing Santos to transition into the slot vacated by Barnett seamlessly.

Or at least that was the idea.

‘You just want him to be ready’

Chris Conrad

The logic makes a certain sense.

Why pack up your life again and schlep nearly 1,000 miles to the Gulf Coast when you’ve already achieved the goal underlying the trip? For Santos, suiting up at TCC was supposed to renew interest on the part of power conference programs. Once Missouri entered the picture, Santos opted to take a redshirt year, enrolling in Elgin Community College for a semester and workout on his own.

Yet it posed a unique challenge to the skills coach. From the moment Santos returned home, Conrad understood his job amounted to system maintenance.

“We knew we couldn’t replicate what he’s going to see in the SEC,” he said. “He had a year off, but you want him to compete. The more situations and times you put him in like that, the better off he’ll be. When you get to Mizzou, it’s non-stop. Guys are fighting for minutes. They’re fighting for the ball. It’s a competitive atmosphere. You just want him to be ready.”

During the layoff, Santos logged four to five workouts a week for what amounted to maintenance work. At times, Conrad upped the ante by pitting K.J. Santos against his younger brother Nate, who is already drawing high-major interest after reclassifying into the Class of 2021. Yet Santos’ tool belt didn’t expand. At the collegiate level, Santos’ job won’t require “9,000 dribble combinations” to be effective, Conrad said. He’ll be asked to make shots, be tactical attacking off the dribble and make smart passes.

“Usually, you only get two to three dribbles at most,” Conrad said. “If you can’t score in that many, you’re going to have trouble. On the wing, it’s how you position your body, how you set up your rip and cut, how to set a guy up to take him where you want. It’s all about limited dribbles.”

What will Mizzou ask Santos to do?

A couple of months ago, we delved into the Tigers’ issues last season with attacking the rim and tried to understand how their scheme created those opportunities.

Santos’ arrival in Columbia helps solve part of the problem by simply changing the type of personnel MU puts on the floor. How Martin and the staff deploy him, though, is still opaque. What we can do, though, is to (again) see what the Tigers’ NBA-inspired system prescribes.

A cursory flip through the playbook shows that MU’s offense doesn’t draw up a ton of actions to spring Santos free. Outside of a few elevator screens late in actions designed for secondary fast breaks, Santos, who for convenience sake has been slotted at small forward, spaces him on the floor to be the receive kick outs or ball reversals.

Screening actions for him tend to be staggered, either an AI cut or Zipper cut, set by a pair of big men, and designed to let Santos catch a pass on the move. (You can see one example below.) Ideally, making Santos’ chase him through this gauntlet will create a favorable switch.

Men’s Basketball Hoop Scoop

There are also series that invert personnel, putting Santos on the low block and letting him seal off a smaller guard to catch a high-low feed from the elbow. Finally, Mizzou can exploit his ability as a cutter in its Horns set, where stationing the Tigers’ post players at the elbows lifts the defense off the baseline and gives Santos a void to fill.

Fundamentally, Santos’ role hinges on knocking down open looks. The way Missouri spaces the floor and the unique role of Porter as a point forward should create ample catch-and-shoot opportunities. If Santos’ outside stroke translates, he could provide a modicum of what Barnett offered offensively.

Meanwhile, Conrad said he hasn’t seen any hints that Santos’ prior foot injuries have hampered his explosiveness, a boon if Santos wants to exploit hard closeouts. “Being at Mizzou is only going help that, based on what he tells me about their strength system,” Conrad added. “It’s off the charts.”