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Freshman guard Xavier Pinson has flashed potential as his role grows

The freshman’s campaign is also a timely reminder that we shouldn’t inflate expectations during a season of transition for Missouri.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Last May, divining Xavier Pinson’s future was a futile task. Inside the gym at Arsenal Tech, a stately brick building on Indianapolis’ Near Eastside, the lean point guards drifted through the Prep Ball Stars Midwest Challenge, a ragtag all-star game that unfolded before sparsely filled bleachers.

When the horn sounded, the future Missouri guard had quietly racked up 16 points and five assists in a game where defense was optional. Asked afterward about the opportunity to claim minutes on a roster needy for ball-handlers, Pinson wiped his brow, bit his lip and remained coy.

“It’s up to me to show the coaches I deserve them,” Pinson told me.

Nine months later, Pinson’s stirred optimism with creative flourishes in transition, namely sliding no-look feeds to cutters. While he’s endured the usual ups and downs that come with acclimating to the college game, he’s also capitalized on vacant minutes — along with other freshmen — created by the guard Mark Smith’s injured ankle.

On Tuesday, his 11 points and nine rebounds only seemed to affirm the notion that Pinson, who has averaged 9.0 points, 6.9 rebound and 2.5 assists over the past six games, that he’s poised for a late-season surge. Not bad, either, considering Pinson missed a large chunk of offseason conditioning and individual workouts for personal reasons.

During a transition season, one where MU will have to scrap to finish near .500 overall, there’s a natural inclination to hunt for silver linings. (Even MU coach Cuonzo Martin is calling up scribes while sitting in the sauna to sell the idea of an emerging core in Columbia.) Circumstances make it easy to buy into the idea that Pinson, who is averaging 28 minutes since Smith went down, is quickly scaling a learning curve.

So, let me be blunt: Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

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

When Pinson committed a year ago, Pinson’s length, athleticism and preternatural vision were his chief selling points. The consensus held that with a little bit of weight he could become a productive lead guard at the high-major level, one reinforced when assistant coach Cornell Mann said Pinson’s passing ability was as good as any he’d seen nearly in 20 years.

Once Pinson took the floor, it was natural the hype would lead to us putting an emphasis on plays that leave jaws slackened. Yet it’s also worth reviewing the profile he’s put together so far.

Xavier Pinson | Point Guard

MPG Off. Eff. Def. Eff. Net Poss./Gm. ORtg %Shots TS% ARate TORate STL%
MPG Off. Eff. Def. Eff. Net Poss./Gm. ORtg %Shots TS% ARate TORate STL%
17.9 78.7 91.4 -12.7 7.3 98.6 18.9 55.5 24.8 28.1 2
KenPom, Synergy

Of all the numbers that stand out, Pinson’s net rating catches my eye first. Right now, he’s allowing 12.7 more points than he scores over 100 possessions, per Synergy Sports data. That number encapsulates Pinson’s game at the moment, and it ranks 30th among the top-50 point guards in 247Sports’ composite index for the 2018 class.

When you look at the five point guards who play comparable minutes, only Western Kentucky’s Dalano Banton (-16.6) is sporting a lower rating, and Pinson’s well behind Kentucky’s Immanuel Quickley (21.1) and TCU’s Kendric Davis (16.9). And among those point guards playing more than 15 minutes per game, he’s sporting the fourth worst defensive rating and third highest turnover rate.

Zooming out helps us see Pinson for what he is: a point guard who occasionally flashes but still struggling to convert around the rim, make sound decisions as a passer and track his man off the ball.

Yet it’s also worth pointing out what Pinson does well. First off, Pinson’s ability to make plays on the break is critical for an offense that selectively pushes the pace and ranks 269th nationally for transition offense. In fact, his first seven assists in SEC play came on the break, and you can easily envision how it could be a vital asset once Martin further revamps his roster.

Meanwhile, Pinson’s shown an improved knack for punishing teams who deploy drop coverage to hem him in during pick-and-rolls. Pinson’s floater is finding the middle of the net with more regularity, and he’s exploiting defenders who go under the screen by using the airspace to loft 3-pointers. He’s also hitting the occasional catch-and-shoot 3-pointer after a ball reversal.

Yet there’s also an irony in how Pinson’s freshman season played out.

At times, his downhill style hasn’t cleanly translated when MU goes to work against a set defense. While he’s found a smattering of success recently, Pinson’s struggled when the Tigers’ offense asks him to play out of ball screens and score in traffic. During SEC play, he’s only shooting 28 percent within 10 feet of the rim, including just 4 of 12 on shots produced by pick-and-rolls.

During the past five games, opponents haven’t aggressively snuffed out pick-and-rolls. They don’t hard hedge or try to string his dribble out toward the sideline. Instead, Pinson’s defender easily clears the top of the screen with a big hanging back in support.

Often, we pin the blame on the big for setting a mediocre screen, but the onus is Pinson to attack on a tight angle and take his man into the screen. How often do you see his defender getting bumped off course? Once Pinson turns the corner, his acceleration isn’t enough to get separation for a straight-line drive. Finally, you rarely see his penetration force a big to come up the lane or rotate over to give help, creating the chance for Pinson drop the ball off to the short corner.

Pinson’s Prowess, Pt. 1 | Shooting Accuracy by Distance

Distance FGA FG% PPS Avg. Dist. eFG%
Distance FGA FG% PPS Avg. Dist. eFG%
<10 feet 25 28 0.6 3.64 28
10-20 feet 5 60 1.2 15.8 60
>20 feet 25 36 1.04 24.28 52
Total 55 36.3 0.89 14.13 43.6
Synergy Sports

On top of that, high ball-screens — a staple of MU’s offense — haven’t set him up as a creator, either. Of the 19 assists he’s doled out in conference action, only three came out of those actions. It also largely tracks with average efficiency (0.829 points per possession) for the season.

To be clear: Pinson’s potential is still immense, but cracking defenses in the half court might come after he gets a full season with MU’s conditioning staff, packing on a little bulk and adding some strength. The ability to absorb contact in tight quarters would lift his shooting percentages, but his ticking up his assist rate will come with more seasoning.

Feeding more minutes to Pinson should, in theory, shift Jordan Geist off the ball — a move that’s hard to justify considering Geist’s efficiency passing out pick-and-rolls (1.101 PPP) ranks fifth in the SEC among high-usage guards, per Synergy. Yet Pinson’s spot-up shooting — 18.8 percent in conference play — makes him an inelegant solution in a system predicated on shooters spacing the floor.

Pinson’s Prowess, Pt. 2 | Shooting Accuracy by Play Type

Play Type FGA FG% PPS Avg. Dist. eFG%
Play Type FGA FG% PPS Avg. Dist. eFG%
Pick-and-Roll 18 44.4 1 8.38 50
Spot Up 16 18.75 0.5625 21 28.125
Isolation 6 83.3 2.2 10.2 100
Transition 5 40 0.8 1.6 40
None 4 0 0 29.5 0
Hand Off 3 0 0 18 0
Off Screen 2 100 2.5 20.5 125
Cut 1 0 0 8 0

How can Pinson shoot 45.5 percent behind the 3-point arc against SEC foes? Well, it helps when you’re hitting 60 percent (6 of 10) on deep jumpers that aren’t the byproduct of spotting up. Reviewing film from recent, Pinson’s often getting quality looks, whether it’s drifting to a weak-side corner or getting a ball reversal after dribble penetration. It’s just a matter of shots not dropping.

There’s little doubt Pinson owns an excellent starter kit of offensive tools, and if his recent averages held up over the course an entire freshman season, it would be among the better debut campaigns in the SEC. Signs of progress, though, can’t paper over early — and resolvable — blemishes.

What Pinson needs is a game played in transition or a side cleared out in the half court — neither of which fits Martin’s preferred style and pace. Meanwhile, his defense makes him a liability at times in a scheme that puts a premium on positioning and forcing tough shots.

Early in the SEC slate, Pinson banged in enough 3-pointers to paper over the contradiction, but over the past four games his outside shooting has leveled off and has deflated his true-shooting percentage. The new question is whether Pinson’s outing against Arkansas is a harbinger of a more assertive Pinson.

NCAA Basketball: Morehead State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Standing across the floor from Pinson that day in Indianapolis was another lithe guard: Tyrese Haliburton. The 6-foot-5, 172-pound Wisconsin native had stepped up to fill in for a shorthanded Indiana roster. Having already played in one game, Haliburton mostly floated on the periphery, and when it ended, mingled with fellow Iowa State signees George Conditt and Zion Griffin as they chatted up a handful of Cyclones fans in the gym.

The trio broke away just as Pinson finished blowing through my questions, and everyone disappeared into a hallway winding to the visitors’ locker room. Heading to your car, it’s unlikely you would leave with the impression you just laid eyes on a prospect poised for a breakout.

Head of the Class | Top Freshmen Point Guards

Name School Pos Rank Net MPG Off Eff Def Eff ORtg %Shots TS% ARate TORate STL%
Name School Pos Rank Net MPG Off Eff Def Eff ORtg %Shots TS% ARate TORate STL%
Nick Honor Fordham 41 17.7 35.2 89 71.3 103.8 28.4 50 19.3 10.6 1.2
Tyrese Haliburton Iowa State 29 34.7 33.6 120.1 85.4 142.7 9.8 70.9 19.2 14.1 2.8
Devon Dotson Kansas 4 29.7 32.9 98.7 69 110.9 16.6 60.7 19.1 21.5 2.7
Tre Jones Duke 3 26 31.5 85.7 59.7 118.6 15.8 48.7 25.6 13 3.4
Kira Lewis Alabama 9 14 31 95.4 81.4 112.5 23.8 58.4 19 17.8 1.5
247Sports, Synergy Sports, KenPom

Today, Haliburton, who was ranked 173rd in 247’s composite, has emerged as a sinewy catalyst for the Cyclones, drilling open catch-and-shoots behind the arc and disrupting opposing offenses with his length. In fact, his net and offensive ratings are tops among guard prospects in his class, ahead of touted prospects such as Devon Dotson, Tre Jones, Kira Lewis Jr. and Ashton Hagans.

Laying Pinson, who checked in at 242nd in the rankings, next to Haliburton isn’t intended to be a not-so-subtle dig at what the 6-foot-3 guard has provided. Instead, it’s an appropriate reminder that growth isn’t linear. When both showed up on campus, even the most optimistic observers wouldn’t have projected that Haliburton’s immediate impact.

If Pinson puts in the legwork this summer, he may meet the expectations some are already foisted on his slender shoulders. Optimism might be outsized right now, but with a little patience, it might be justified a few years from now.