Column: Porter can play the point, or pave way for Pinson at same position

Jontay Porter’s versatility will bring about challenges in how and when Cuonzo Martin uses his assets in 2018-19 — Case study, Xavier Pinson.
Jontay Porter boxes out Kansas guard Lagerald Vick on Oct. 22 during the Showdown for Relief.

For the second offseason in a row, Missouri men’s basketball is building an offense around a potential lottery pick whose last name is Porter.

Jontay Porter, the 6-foot-11 centerpiece of coach Cuonzo Martin’s sophomore effort at Missouri, opted out of the NBA Draft at the end of May to return for his own sophomore season in a Tiger uniform. Since Porter announced his return, Martin has relayed his plan to utilize Porter’s versatility and ability to take on a wide range of roles this year. That even included the prospect of bringing the ball up the floor.

And when assistant coach Cornell Mann filled in for Martin on Thursday morning’s SEC basketball teleconference, he discussed another point guard whose presence and performance may impact which assignment best fits Porter — and whose own presence may transversely be impacted by Porter — in the shifting matrix that Missouri’s offense is shaping up to be.

“[Freshman Xavier] Pinson is a lot better than people think,” Mann said. “His ability to pass the ball … he’s as good as I’ve ever seen.”

While senior Jordan Geist will likely lay claim to the starting point guard position, Pinson in his first season will be an option off the bench for Missouri.

“I do think he’ll play a lot this year,” Mann said. “We’ll call on him a lot. I think Coach feels very comfortable with him out there with the ball.”

Mann does too, and his beaming review of Pinson’s passing isn’t empty praise; it echoes the Chicago product’s own sentiment. After signing with Missouri in April, the three-star recruit said in a phone interview that he’s best suited as a distributor. His slick assists for Simeon Academy in high school made highlight reels.

“I see things that a lot of people can’t see,” Pinson said. “Although Mizzou struggled with the point guard this year, next year you’ll see more people like Jontay and Jeremiah [Tilmon] able to get the ball a lot more because of the facilitating that I can do.”

That’s where Porter’s ambiguous role comes in. Mann said the SEC co-sixth man of the year will have the ball in his hands more this season and be encouraged to act as an assertive playmaker.

“I don't know if it’s as much running things more for him or him just having the opportunity to be more aggressive,” Mann said, again touching on the likelihood of Porter bringing the ball up on occasion. “Coach has put him everywhere on the floor.”

A week prior, Martin had said on another media teleconference: “I’m not saying he’s a point guard, but depending on who the other team has on him, he’ll bring the ball up for us.”

Martin’s comments might suggest that Porter merely initiate possessions then slide into the frontcourt and return to his usual stretch forward, but the 18-year-old has already shown himself to be an elite passer — it earned him praise from NBA scouts this month. Missouri would be remiss not to let its best player be a play-maker, so giving Porter the “opportunity to be more aggressive” may mean trying him out up top for longer stints.

Pinson’s own crafty passing may be one of the Tigers’ most efficient assets in the quest to get Porter the ball more, but the big man’s versatility may also take playing time away from the freshman; Porter and Pinson could end up splitting backup for Geist in bringing the ball up.

Missouri’s early stages of the 2018-19 campaign will undoubtedly be experimental, and that will include learning if, when and how often Porter is a fitting candidate for that role. He’ll presumably start games in his natural habitat — the paint — and end up stuck there several times throughout contests, especially if fellow post man Tilmon gets into foul trouble.

The fresh legs of Pinson, which won’t be playing “everywhere on the floor,” will certainly be needed with Porter occupied. They may too become a more compelling option deeper in games to help Geist handle an Achilles heel of last season’s Tigers: the full court press. But if that’s the case, the freshman will need to work on his own Achilles heel, one often provoked by the full court press.

“I think his skill level is extremely high, especially passing … that being said, he’s also a guy that can get carried away with some of those passes,” Mann said. “He tries to make the home run pass from time to time. He’ll have to get rid of the home run.”

Matchups may ultimately be the most important factor in determining which initiates Missouri’s offense in certain cases. Porter and Pinson are as opposite as opposites come by size — Porter, a powerful but lumbery 6-11, whose body fat percentage was the highest at the NBA draft combine; Pinson, 6-2, a nimble but frangible frame whose goal at the outset of summer was to add 12 pounds to his 158. With both ends of the spectrum covered, Martin will be able to tailor to the situation.

“Xavier, he’s putting in the work, but he has to continue getting his body to a certain level,” Mann said. “He’s going to have a period in which he has to play through physicality, and he works really hard, so I think it’s going to be awesome. I think he’ll have a great year.”

For Pinson to have that great year, he’ll have to pave the way for more minutes. As for the way to do that, he put it best in April: See things a lot of people can’t see. And then?

“You’ll see more people like Jontay able to get the ball a lot more.”

Missouri’s priority is its centerpiece, Porter; to make him a better player is to make oneself a better player.

Porter’s versatility inevitably triggers moving pieces, and managing their complexity will be a tricky task for Missouri. Pinson’s situation shows that. But versatility in this game is a virtue that can only exist hand in hand with experimentality, and Martin has the mentality to make that a good problem.

Edited by Adam Cole |

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