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Missouri has an immediate need for ball handlers next season

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While Mizzou waits on Courtney Ramey, the Tigers’ list of potential transfer targets has evolved over the past two weeks.

NCAA Basketball: Evansville at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday morning, my phone buzzed, and a Twitter notification popped up: point guard CJ Walker, who had left Florida State, announced he was committing Ohio State. There was even a slickly edited graphic, too.

That little tidbit torpedoed my entire effort to read the paper triggered the basketball equivalent of Kremlinology.

If Ohio State was willing to take on Walker and stash him for a year, it might be a sign that the Buckeyes are bailing on the sweepstakes for Webster Groves point guard Courtney Ramey. But Chris Holtmann still needs some punch on the wing, so the Buckeyes might still sit down with grad transfers to find immediate help. And if what if Mizzou is also eying that player? Will the Tigers swoop in and set a visit? Or will they wait for Ramey to play out the string?

It’s not uncommon to puzzle over scraps and snippets of intelligence about prospects. This spring, though, the exercise only underscores the sense that I’m a member of the Circus, standing around and staring at a picture of Soviet apparatchiks assembled at a May Day parade or divining clues from front page stories published by Pravda.

Why?

Because Mizzou’s primary recruiting targets aren’t spilling details. Decoding MU’s recruiting board requires paying myopic attention to events that don’t directly involve the staff and then extrapolating what it all could mean. It’s how you wind up tracking who assistant coaches follow on Twitter, strike up DM conversations and — as we did late last week — parse the arrangement of logos in an Instagram post.

We’ve certainly gained some insights by proxy, but to a degree, we still don’t have a clear view of what Mizzou’s plan is this spring.

Sometimes it’s best to step back and ask a simple question: What are we certain about?

Well, MU has three scholarships available. The Tigers need a point guard, outside shooting and — most elusive at the moment — a skilled combo forward.

Entering last weekend, eight players were linked with coach Cuonzo Martin’s program. It is a diverse pool, splitting among prep prospects, traditional transfers, and graduate transfers.

  • Courtney Ramey, PG, Webster Groves (Mo.)
  • Mark Smith, CG, Illinois
  • Dru Smith, PG, Evansville
  • Matt Mooney, CG, South Dakota
  • David Nichols, PG, Albany
  • Aaron Calixte, PG, Maine
  • Ryan Taylor, Wing, Evansville
  • Blake Hinson, CF, Sunrise Christian Academy (Kan.)

The list didn’t remain static for long, and it seems best to start out with the options that are no longer in play.

Who’s out of the running?

NCAA Basketball: Albany at Memphis
David Nichols
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The last three days really pared down MU’s list of options, especially among prospects who would be immediately eligible next season.

On Monday, Taylor, whose recruitment had been leak-proof, pledged his services to Northwestern. The fit in Evanston makes sense: the Wildcats needed immediate help on the wing, and Taylor’s hometown of Crown Point, Ind., is just east of the Chicagoland area. Plus, he can pursue a master’s in sports management at an elite academic institution.

Two days earlier, Nichols also went off the board, committing to Florida State on his first official visit. Usually, grad transfers move swiftly in trimming lists and setting visits, but Nichols’ courtship was fast even by those standards, taking just a week. Nichols told us last week MU coaches had an introductory chat with his father, but that’s as far as Mizzou went in gauging his interest.

Meanwhile, Calixte took an official visit to Grand Canyon over the weekend and only remarked on the nice weather in Phoenix. He’s slated for a trip to Norman and Oklahoma this coming weekend, and the Sooners had been considered the favorite to land his services.

Mizzou has made his list of finalists, but the Tigers still haven’t set a visit. And while the Sooners took a commitment from Pacific grad-transfer Miles Reynolds this weekend, coach Lon Kruger is needy when it comes to replenishing his backcourt rotation — Trae Young declared for the NBA draft, and two more wings (Kameron McGusty and Jordan Shepherd) transferred.

So, when the dust settles, you can likely strike three names from the list above. That leaves Mark Smith, Matt Mooney, and Dru Smith.

What options does Mizzou have now?

Dru Smith, Evansville, PG, 6-3, 190 pounds

PPG RPG APG %Min ORtg %Poss %Shots eFG% TS% OR% DR% ARate TORate Blk% Stl% FC/40 FD/40 FTRate FTM-FTA Pct 2PM-2PA Pct 3PM-3PA Pct
PPG RPG APG %Min ORtg %Poss %Shots eFG% TS% OR% DR% ARate TORate Blk% Stl% FC/40 FD/40 FTRate FTM-FTA Pct 2PM-2PA Pct 3PM-3PA Pct
13.7 3.5 4.6 53.1 115.5 24.4 20.5 66.4 71.3 1.6 11.7 37.5 26 2.1 4 3.6 4.9 50.6 74-85 0.871 71-113 0.628 27-55 0.491
KenPom.com

We’re waiting for puffs of smoke to rise from Southwest Indiana.

Much like his now-former Evansville running mate Ryan Taylor, Dru Smith’s kept his courtship hush-hush, but the Courier-Press reported last week that had MU formally offered the Evansville native. The paper noted on Monday that Virginia Tech, Xavier, Purdue and Nebraska convened in-home visits with Smith over the weekend. Brian Snow, who covers recruiting for 247Sports, reported that Mizzou has dropped in to see Smith.

With a stocky build and choppy steps, Smith doesn’t jump off the screen. However, watch how he uses his dribble. The sophomore almost always finds a way to get to his desired spot and the right angle to make a catchable pass. Smith’s crossover and shoulder fakes don’t break ankles, but they’re go-to tools in his kit.

What does stand out is Smith’s gaudy 71.3 true-shooting percentage, which is as much a testament shot selection as it is accuracy. In pick-and-rolls, he’s averaging 1.58 points per possession, leaning on a nifty floater at the rim and using footwork to in tight spaces to generate a quality bank look.

If there’s one benefit to playing for Evansville, it’s spending two seasons playing in Marty Simmons’ motion system, a scheme that still draws heavily from the one Bobby Knight used at Indiana. Coaches who use the motion will typically say they may not know what their team will do each time down the floor. Certain reads and matchups are emphasized, but there’s no script. The motion also uses a more diverse portfolio of cuts and screens, especially flares and curls.

Why does this matter? Well, Smith is a phenomenal jump shooter and can knock in shots off pindowns, fades, curls, and flares. He’s also a stellar catch-and-shoot option (1.44 PPP) on kickouts.

As a distributor, Smith touts a gaudy 37.5 assist rate, which ranked 12th nationally according to KenPom.com. On film, you can see a knack for making the right pass at the right moment. You don’t see a ton of cutups, however, of pick-and-rolls, an observation back up by the fact Smith tallied up just 57 pass outs — or 2.5 per game — last season. It might explain why his Synergy numbers rate out as below average.

Dru Smith — Pick-and-Roll Passouts

Type % Time Poss Points PPP Rank Rating FGm FGM FGA FG% aFG% %TO %FT %SF %Score
Type % Time Poss Points PPP Rank Rating FGm FGM FGA FG% aFG% %TO %FT %SF %Score
Overall P&R BH - DefenseCommits 16.70% 57 40 0.702 24% Below Average 24 15 39 38.50% 43.60% 24.60% 7.00% 5.30% 33.3
Left Side Pass Outs 19.30% 11 2 0.182 1% Poor 6 1 7 14.30% 14.30% 36.40% 0.00% 0% 9.10%
Right Side Pass Outs 21.10% 12 8 0.667 23% Below Average 4 3 7 42.90% 50.00% 33.30% 8.30% 8.30% 33.30%
High P&R Pass Outs 59.60% 34 30 0.882 57% Good 14 11 25 44.00% 50.00% 17.60% 8.80% 5.90% 41.20%
Synergy Sports

Still, Smith’s proven adaptable. In high school, he played at the top of a zone press that generated offense from takeaways. He had to transition to a half-court motion system that’s a stylistic pivot and still wound up on the Missouri Valley all-freshman team. And this season, he saw his assist rate climb by 46 percentage points and his scoring tick up by 8.4 points per game.

With a year to acclimate to Missouri’s system, it’s not unreasonable to expect Smith to produce at a high level, especially if he has proven high-major weapons filled in around him.

Matt Mooney, South Dakota, CG, 6-3, 210 pounds

PPG RPG APG %Min ORtg %Poss %Shots eFG% TS% OR% DR% ARate TORate Blk% Stl% FC/40 FD/40 FTRate FTM-FTA Pct 2PM-2PA Pct 3PM-3PA Pct
PPG RPG APG %Min ORtg %Poss %Shots eFG% TS% OR% DR% ARate TORate Blk% Stl% FC/40 FD/40 FTRate FTM-FTA Pct 2PM-2PA Pct 3PM-3PA Pct
18.7 4.1 3.1 78.9 109 29.5 32.5 51.8 55.6 2.6 11.7 19.9 15 0.4 3.5 2.7 4.5 26.1 104-126 0.825 140-280 0.5 73-202 0.361
KenPom.com

Around 1 p.m. on Friday, Matt Mooney tweeted that he’d been given his release and was exploring his options as a graduate transfer.

Four days, 30 programs, and six in-home visits later, Mooney has become one of the most highly coveted commodities among high-majors hunting for immediate help on the wing. Missouri coach Chris Hollender was among the first assistant coaches to reach out, and if the Tigers are hunting for a combo guard, there could be an optimal fit with Mooney.

One phase of Mooney’s game stands out, too: dribble-handoffs.

In MU’s offense, which is rooted in Fred Hoiberg’s scheme from his time at Iowa State, the DHO is a staple action in sets for transition, secondary breaks and in the half-court. At times last season, the Tigers would run a hand-off series for Kassisus Robertson, but we didn’t see Martin and Co. dig too deep into that part of the playbook.

Last season, Mooney led the nation in usage (110 possessions) and was ninth (1.04 PPP) among high-usage players for efficiency, according to Synergy Sports data. On film, you can see USD deployed wing-weave actions that mirror how MU would hunt for mismatches.

Synergy Sports

His success in hand-off actions underscores Mooney’s mobility. No, he’s not an end-to-end burner, but his first step has enough burst to get a defender on his hip. And while he’s not an explosive leaper, Mooney has the strength and body control to finish plays at the rim (1.17 PPP) and elevate to shoot over the top of defenders crowding his airspace. It’s what allows Mooney to hunt for pull-up jumpers out of pick-and-rolls, with more than half of them coming from behind the 3-point arc.

Put simply, Mooney isn’t a stationary shooting threat and isn’t one-dimensional by coming off pin-downs or baseline staggers.

You can also use him as a secondary handler. His assist rate is average, but when you dig into his numbers on pick-and-rolls, the data shows he’s more than capable of making smart plays off the bounce.

Mike Mooney — Pick-and-Roll Passouts

Type % Time Poss Points PPP Rank Rating FGm FGM FGA FG% aFG% %TO %FT %SF %Score
Type % Time Poss Points PPP Rank Rating FGm FGM FGA FG% aFG% %TO %FT %SF %Score
Overall P&R BH - DefenseCommits 14.50% 109 97 0.89 61% Good 46 37 83 44.60% 52.40% 18.30% 6.40% 4.60% 38.50%
Left Side Pass Outs 29.40% 32 31 0.969 67% Very Good 11 13 24 54.20% 62.50% 21.90% 3.10% 0% 43.80%
Right Side Pass Outs 29.40% 32 33 1.031 73% Very Good 12 10 22 45.50% 59.10% 18.80% 15.60% 12.50% 40.60%
High P&R Pass Outs 41.30% 45 33 0.733 30% Below Average 23 14 37 37.80% 41.90% 15.60% 2.20% 2.20% 33.30%
Synergy Sports

It would be intriguing to see how Mizzou would pitch Mooney on its system, and whether there’s enough overlap. “I want to put the ball on the floor,” Mooney said. “Looking forward to more ball-screen stuff.” In theory, the Tigers’ offense builds in enough NBA-inspired pace-and-space elements.

Defensively, Mooney also grades out well. He allowed a 29.0 percent eFG% on jumpers, 32.8 percent on pick-and-rolls. Mooney’s 3.5 steal percentage also ranked 50th nationally, per KenPom.com. You can beat him driving right when he attacks closeouts, but on the whole, he’s able to balance risk versus reward on the other end of the floor.

While standing just 6’3, Mooney reportedly owns a 7-foot wingspan, length that would match the physical template Martin seeks in his wings. It would also allow Mooney to switch multiple positions, and pairing him with K.J. Santos — a 6-foot-7 wing — would allow MU to put a pair of sturdy, experienced guards on the floor.

Naturally, Mooney’s drawn plenty of interest. Over the weekend, Creighton, Oregon, TCU, Indiana, Northwestern, Arizona State and Texas Tech paid him a visit. Whether MU goes beyond placing calls and pinging out texts remains unclear. Mooney told us on Monday the Tigers hadn’t discussed setting up a visit.

Mooney hasn't set a deadline for arranging visits but noted he'd like to get them done “asap” in order “to start making visits and narrow this down.” He said an ultimate decision could come by early May, a potential end date that could accommodate Mizzou’s wait for Ramey.