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Mizzou Hoops Player Preview: John Tonje

Mizzou’s first transfer commitment of the spring projects to be an impactful player in his new surroundings.

Syndication: The Coloradoan Lucas Boland/The Coloradoan / USA TODAY NETWORK

In the weeks leading up to the season, this series will dive deep into the players we see making a push for time in the rotation for the 2022-2023 Missouri basketball squad. Some installments might be more in-depth than others, if only because of the data and film available. In addition, evaluating players with multiple years of experience is more straightforward than younger peers.

The pieces read like a birds-eye scouting report. They skew more toward the offensive end of the court for two reasons. First, a player’s offensive metrics are more reliable than defensive data and less team-dependent. Second, it’s considerably easier to describe a player’s qualities with more well-known offensive statistics. As always, we encourage interaction from our readers. Please drop us a comment or find me on Twitter @DataMizzou.

The Player

On March 27, 2023, just nine days after Mizzou was eliminated from postseason play, John Tonje announced he would be playing his senior season in Columbia. Aside from the now common tweets about programs showing interest in a transfer, there was no news that Mizzou had even secured a visit, much less a commitment until it happened. A stealth landing. Call it a proper foreshadowing for how I see his role panning out.

A native of Omaha, Nebraska, Tonje spent his four prior seasons in Fort Collins playing for the Colorado State Rams. Over four seasons he tallied 1,051 points for a resurgent program under the leadership of Niko Medved. The 2022 Rams played their way into the NCAA tournament as a 6-seed, in fact. Prior to his arrival in the Centennial State, John played at Omaha Central High School where he became the leading scorer in the state during his senior season and eventually amassed 1,050 career points.

Tonje will be one of four fifth year seniors that join the Tiger program through the spring transfer portal. Like each of the others, he will figure prominently in how the season plays out.

Syndication: The Coloradoan Tanya B. Fabian/For The Coloradoan / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Numbers

John Tonje | 6’6” | Combo Guard

John Tonje Team Min % Ortg Usage eFG% or% dr% ast% stl% to% ftr% ft% 2pt% 3pt%
John Tonje Team Min % Ortg Usage eFG% or% dr% ast% stl% to% ftr% ft% 2pt% 3pt%
2023 CSU 77.3 106.1 23.5 54.9 2.7 15.5 8.6 1.4 15.5 40.1 81.5 54.7 36.8
2022 CSU 61 109.5 18.3 54 2.9 11.1 6.1 1 14 40.4 81.6 53.9 36
2021 CSU 50.9 103 18.1 48.2 4.4 11.7 7.9 1.2 16.8 38 85.2 49.2 31.6
2020 CSU 19.8 108.8 19.1 59 2.4 12.4 7.8 1.1 16.8 40.3 69 48.3 44.2
Career All - 106.7 20.4 53.8 3.1 13.1 7.6 1.2 15.5 39.8 81 53 36.4

Tonje’s numbers show something of a fairly linear progression. Often taken for granted, players who improve — and produce — year over year are a coveted find. That’s John Tonje.

His overall PPP as a senior was a sterling 1.058. That’s even more so when you consider the 22-23 Rams team suffered from the departure of the playmaking prowess of David Roddy — a personal favorite — and limited contributions from an injured Isaiah Stevens. The Rams stumbled from a tournament bid Tonje’s junior year and limped to a 15-18 finish, but that should not diminish Tonje’s contributions.

Interestingly enough, Tonje’s 1.058 PPP in 2023 was crafted by scoring 475 points in 449 possessions used. Noah Carter’s junior year PPP was 1.055 at Northern Iowa, scoring 479 points on 454 possessions. Eerily similar, no?

While Tonje had the benefit an additional year of experience over Carter, he also was doing it in a league that was just a half step below — if any — a high major league. Furthermore, Tonje’s size is much more in line for a guard/wing position in the SEC than Carter’s is as a frontcourt player. And this shouldn’t be taken as a knock against Noah, who I personally believe could be a contender for postseason honors in the league. Rather, it’s to show you how well Tonje projects as a contributor, mathematically speaking.

Tonje’s offensive game is strong. His usage blossomed from that of a role player his first three seasons to a bona fide focal point. What’s more, despite that increase in usage Tonje still crafted a 54.9% eFG and 106.1 offensive rating — both good numbers for a perimeter player — and bumped his assist rate to 8.6% while coming in at his career average in turnover rate. Tonje’s two-point field goal percentage rose from a career average of 53% to 54.7% and his three-point percentage also inflated to 36.8%. Always a threat from the line, Tonje has averaged 81% at the charity stripe and got there with a 40.1% free throw rate, both of which are elite numbers.

The name of John’s offense is this: Well-Rounded. He does a lot of things well. In his career he’s used 17.7% of possessions via transition, 32% on spot-ups, 12.5% as the ballhandler in pick and rolls, 8.2% running off of screens, 9% on cuts, 4.7% on handoffs and 4% on post-ups. His career efficiency in all of these categories range from above average to elite. He hasn’t proven to be much of a threat on the offensive glass or in isolation looks, but there’s an opportunity cost to doing so many things well.

Defensively, there are a few question marks. Colorado State’s teams bear some resemblance to the 22-23 Tiger team offensively but do so defensively as well. Tonje has the build and athleticism to be high major ready. He’s hit the defensive glass pretty well for a perimeter player — he averaged a 15.5% rate in 2023 — but hasn’t been much of a threat on the offensive end. His steal rates are relatively low, as are his block rates. How well he adapts to the new climate — and how much the defense as a whole improves — will be an open question.

NCAA Basketball: Boise State at Colorado State Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Role

John Tonje’s versatility, experience and efficiency will assuredly have him playing a significant role in the upcoming season. Mizzou’s desire to push the pace and attack the rim at all times will likely provide a boost to his game. Tonje’s ability to float anywhere on the court between running ball screen actions to using his size and length to defend bigger players cannot be undersold.

Having seen a fair amount of film and volumes of data, the thing that strikes me about him is this versatility. He’s not just a spot-up shooter. His handle isn’t elite, but it’s good enough to get him where he needs to be. His size allows him to body opponents to spots on the floor. He shows a good knack for finding seams away from the ball in dangerous spots. Nowhere was this as apparent as his three games last season against the elite defense of National Runner-Up San Diego State, where he averaged 16 points a contest with a 65% eFG.

I see Tonje earning starting minutes, likely in the 60-70% of minutes played range. I think his game is such that his usage rate can maintain in the 23% range, with little drop-off from a year ago. Should his efficiency not suffer a significant hit, I would not be surprised to see him challenging for the team scoring title and averaging around 13 points a game.

What started as a surprise commitment may just end with a surprise performance.

The Film

Call it a case of bad timing, but Tonje’s addition in late March might have been undersold. It’s not merely the fact he’s shown more than four years of steady development, moving from a reliable role player to a key cog last season. The setting is also critical.

If you watched Colorado State, the Rams might look eerily similar to coach Dennis Gates’ crew in Columbia. That’s because Niko Medved built his offense off a similar blueprint to Gates. The overlap should smooth Tonje’s transition to his new habitat in Columbia.

Once you sift his metrics and the tape, it’s easy to be bullish about what he might offer this season.

The pinch series might be the best Venn diagram for CSU and Mizzou’s schematic approach. It’s triggered by an entry pass to the elbow – or pinch post – with five-out spacing. At MU, that passer sprints into split action or a down screen, while CSU might flow into a shuffle cut.

I imagine the installation period for these concepts amounted to a modest iOS update for Tonje. As you can see, his versatility is an asset. He operates off the ball to the weak side as a spot-up threat or duck to the block and post-up on a switch. Sometimes he’s stationed at the elbow and will pop after he flips the ball back to the guard. Or he’ll wind up as a late-clock option on the side of the floor where the Rams run a zipper action, including putting the ball on the deck.

Regardless of the lineup, Tonje can be helpful in sets that are staples of MU’s attack.

Another staple of the Princeton offense, the lead guard kicks off the set with a pass to the wing and sprints into a chin cut toward the rim. If that option isn’t there, the ball reverses out, a pass that can open many possibilities.

Here, you’ll see it change sides a second time, allowing Tonje to get a slot ball screen for a drive. There’s a stationary handoff from the big he uses for a pull-up at the elbow. Or Tonje gets an isolated defender on the wing and dips into his bag for a runner off the dribble.

By now, you can see what we keep hitting on Tonje’s versatility. He’s at ease spotting up, reading out ball screens, and exploiting favorable switches in isolation.

Finally, we come to the delay series, where a post player makes reads from the top of the key. In these sets, the primary read guarding darting from the slot to the rim. It might be a shuffle cut or an angle cut after the guard sees his defender overplaying a potential ball reversal.

Tonje didn’t feast as a cutter — he only logged 31 possessions — but could be opportunistic when the moment arose. It also happens to be a set where Noah Carter tended to operate as a facilitator for the Tigers last season.

By now, you know Gates allocates the first seven seconds of each possession for his team to be assertive. Last season, the Tigers used those early-clock chances to hit the ball ahead to shooters running the channels for spot-ups. They might punch the ball inside to exploit a mismatch. Players with sturdy frames – DeAndre Gholston or Kobe Brown – might grab a board, push the ball, and attack. Or a player trailing the play might punish the defense by pulling from long range.

Well, Tonje’s capable of filling all those roles for MU.

While Medved and Gates draw from the same source material, there’s a fundamental difference: Isaiah Stevens. The Rams’ point guard amassed enough equity with Medved to break plays off and freelance. So, there might be possessions where the flow of actions might generate a shot for Tonje, but Stevens enacts a last-second script change.

That’s not the case in Columbia. Mizzou’s lead guards bring the ball up and initiate actions. They rarely take an ad hoc approach. Once a set is triggered, the offense generates quality shots.

Why does that matter? Some nights, Stevens’ freedom and a reliance on PNRs rendered Tonje a bystander – one reliant on lifting or drifting on the weak side for kick outs. Now, that’s not all bad. Tonje’s made 38.1 percent of catch-and-shoot 3s in his career. But why box him in?

Tonje’s chief appeal is that he can make things happen as a screener, whether popping or slipping. Princeton-inspired sets also unlock his keen ability to read defenders and make savvy cuts. Or they create advantageous switches where his frame and strength let him operate on the low block. And none of this demands Tonje learn and internalize a new system.

He just needs to be who he is.

We also don’t have to squint to see how it might translate. Over four years, Tonje averaged 0.956 points per possession when playing teams rated in the top 100 of KenPom, including 0.996 PPP last season. Once we account for his volume of touches, Tonje’s efficiency against quality opponents in 2022-23 was roughly equivalent to Kentucky’s Antonio Reeves, the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year.

As a defender, Tonje’s duties weren’t expansive. There are stretches in games where you might forget he’s on the floor because his job is to mind a guard simply holding a corner. Yet, Tonje’s attention rarely slipped, and he understood how far he could go in rotating toward the midline while leaving enough cushion for a controlled closeout.

Players he tracked only knocked down 32.0 percent of catch-and-shoots last, per Synergy data. And while Tonje ceded some open looks, that shot volume ranked in the 65th percentile nationally, which is more than respectable.

None of these clips make highlight reels, but we shouldn’t undersell their importance given that nearly 57 percent of the catch-and-shoots MU gave up last season were uncontested, and the Tigers’ efficiency ranked 278th in the country. Tonje can help boost that woeful performance.

That said, Tonje’s overall defensive efficiency (0.927 PPP) slipped last season. The dip is partially explained by Tonje spending more time as a traditional wing instead of an undersized four in the Rams rotation. With that positional shift, he found himself in matchups that didn’t quite play to his strengths.

Like screen navigation. Tonje doesn’t exactly get skinny when trying to get over the top, allowing slippery guards to shed him on curls to the rim. Or they can run him into a wall screen, put him in a poor trail position, and reach their desired spot. The issue isn’t new, but last season saw Tonje in that situation twice as often and giving up 1.571 PPP on 61.7 percent shooting, per Synergy.

Opponents could also pick on him in isolations, and what’s potentially worrisome is that these clips don’t feature elite slashers. Even when providing some cushion, Tonje watches a couple of these dribblers cruise right past him. And in another pair of clips, a slower-footed big can bully his way toward the rim.

Toss in PNR defense that grades out as below average, and you can see why Medved might have assigned Tonje to mind lower-usage floor spacers.

Now that Tonje’s migrated to the SEC, I’m unsure how tenable that approach might be. His new league is one that’s defined by the term downhill. Athletic guards want to get north-south, apply rim pressure, and see if they prevail against shot blockers. How will Tonje acclimate to that? There’s also the fact MU switches heavily, and it’s not unimaginable to think scouting reports call for hunting Tonje.

PPP: Points Per Possession
Min %: This is simply the percentage of minutes played by a given player.
Usage %: A measure of personal possessions used while player is on the court. This includes making a shot, missing a shot coupled with a defensive rebound and a turnover.
eFG%: Same as traditional FG% with the added bonus of 3-point shots given 50% more weight to account for additional point.
OR%: The percentage of possible offensive rebounds a player gets.
DR%: The percentage of possible defensive rebounds a player gets.
AST%: Assists divided by field goals made by player’s teammates while on the court.
TO%: The percentage of personal possessions a player uses on turnovers.
FTR%: A rate which measures a player’s ability to get to the free throw line.
FT%: Free Throw shooting percentage.
2PT%: 2-point field goal percentage.
3PT% 3-point field goal percentage.