Editor’s picks: Time to start thinking about basketball

Here are four way-too-early observations from MU’s open practice on Sept. 26.
Sophomore forward Jontay Porter talks with members of the media before a practice on Tuesday, Sept. 26 at Mizzou Arena.

Look, I’m not saying the first four weeks of Missouri football haven’t been entertaining, not by any means. They’ve been as jam-packed with twists and turns as that smoke-cloaked extra point fiasco at Faurot Field.

But this is the bye week. And bye weeks mean basketball.

Missouri men’s hoops tipped off its first official practice ahead of the 2018-19 season on Tuesday. Local media were permitted to watch the first half hour of practice the next day after hearing from coach Cuonzo Martin and several players.

Any and all observations from said half hour are unapologetically arbitrary, because again, it’s a half hour – a half hour that’s still over a month away from the Nov. 6 season opener against Central Arkansas.

So with that being said, here are four way-too-early, potentially meaningless, unapologetically arbitrary observations.

1. Make no mistakes: this is Jontay Porter’s team

It’s hard to make out much over the cacophony inside the echo chamber that is Mizzou Arena’s auxiliary gym during an MU practice. But one line repeatedly emerged above the noise.

“It’s too easy, ‘Tay!”

Jontay Porter may not be one of Missouri’s two scholarship seniors, but the sophomore is rightfully the face of the program for what may be his last year of college ball. He withdrew from the NBA draft at the end of May to come back to MU. He may be a lottery draft pick by next June.

“I think the addition of having the chance to play with profesional guys when he's training just to feel it different, how hard a level you have to play at,” Martin said, citing Porter’s summer training with professionals and competing in the draft combine. “Though he didn't get off to a bad start last year, I think he would’ve been even better if he had the summer months.”

Indeed, Porter didn’t have a summer in the weight room with his Missouri teammates last year. It was just a couple of weeks before his senior year of high school in Seattle was supposed to start when he reclassified to graduate and come to MU a year early.

“I hardly knew the guys on my own team,” Porter said before practice Wednesday.

He's the guy everybody wants to know now. That was clear just as he proceeded to take the floor and warm up with layup lines and a close-out drill. The 6-foot-11 stretch forward got from the baseline to the perimeter in fewer strides than anyone to get a hand in a team manager’s face. His teammates were his enthusiastic fans.

“It’s too easy, ‘Tay!”

Big men then split up with guards for position-based drills. Porter was fed in the post, defended by an assistant coach walloping the sophomore with a yellow pad comparable to a twice-as-thick umpire’s shield. Porter power-dribbled, spun and scored.

“It’s too easy, ‘Tay!”

Porter then rotated with other forwards in a rebounding drill, setting up at the elbow and pouncing as each outside shot was released. This time there were three assistants boxing out, three of the giant pads attempting to pinball Porter through the lane. He maneuvered through the maze with ease.

“It’s too easy, ‘Tay!”

Porter’s traditional post presence might have ironically been the weakest area of his game last season. That’s a facet that was scrutinized at the combine, and one Martin now says is a “lot better. Lot better.”

“He takes full advantage of switches with smaller guys on him,” Martin said, “and now he's posting up bigger guys.”

Positionless basketball is an idea Martin has prioritized since Missouri’s 2017-18 season ended in March. A unique distributor who often plays around the perimeter despite his size, Porter thinks he is a perfect fit for that mold of basketball.

“I do have supreme confidence that if I see a dude that I don’t think can guard me, I’m gonna take him,” Porter said. “I think that's part of the freedom that Coach Martin’s given me this year. He's not trying to restrict my shots or make me play passively all the time, although I will still pass.”

2. K.J. Santos “week-to-week”

Sophomore guard K.J. Santos was inactive at practice and wearing a protective boot as he recovers from an injury described by Martin as a “foot or a toe or something.”

Martin said Santos’ current status is week-to-week.

That means one of Missouri’s most mysterious potential threats remains just that for the time being. The 6-foot-8 University of Illinois-Chicago transfer has a shooter-with-size appeal that has caused some to speculate that he could even start this season, health permitting.

At the very least, Santos seems poised to be a dynamic sixth man if senior Kevin Puryear and freshman Torrence Watson both start. For now though, he is resigned to watching practice from the sideline seats. His status will be a storyline to watch closer to the season’s tip-off.

Redshirt sophomore Mitchell Smith is also still suspended after being arrested for DWI last Sunday. He missed the full week of practice, and could miss more. Martin had no update when asked about Smith’s status.

3. Pinson can fit in small spaces

Missouri has one old guard and a lot of young ones. One youngling in particular stood out from the rest Tuesday.

Not Javon Pickett, a scorer whose work ethic Martin has been impressed enough with to bring it up to local media. Not Christian Guess, a recent addition lauded by Martin for his fearlessness in communicating on the floor. Not Watson, the standout talent-wise among the young group who Martin says will be instant-impact.

As a matter of fact, Watson was the guy getting beaten up on in one-on-one sets for a few minutes against Xavier Pinson, a three-star point guard out of Chicago who figures to backup Jordan Geist on occasion.

Pinson looked slippery to defend, sleuthing under and around Watson for a reverse layup. He found spaces that seemed difficult to exploit even with an empty court in one-on-one. He wasn’t flashy with his ball-handling, but he knew how to use his space.

He also knew how to use his size, which is important for someone so small. The 6-foot-2 guard doesn’t have a ton of meat on him, looking miniature even next to Watson. That’ll be a problem that needs fixing down the road, but in the meantime, he stood out at one end of the floor as a pleasant surprise in athleticism and awareness.

“[Pinson’s] a smart kid, smart player,” Geist said. “He caught on pretty easily. He knows how to play the game. He’s watched a lot. He’s got a lot of buddies who know how to play the game. He’s right there.”

4. Old man Geist guiding young backcourt

As for the one old guard? That’s Geist, who will likely start at the point for the Tigers. Never the most athletic but always a tough on-ball defender, Martin was especially proud of how the senior has grown into a screen-heavy offense.

“He’s really been good in the ball-screen offense,” Martin said. “He’s picking guys apart. I just think the way he operates in ball screens now, he’s fun to watch. He forces you to make decisions, because he’s stronger, he reads it better … Because he’s older.”

Leadership was a hot topic when Martin talked with media, and later, Geist himself showed that he has the gathered nature of a leader. He wasn’t the loudest on the floor during the half hour of drills (that mantle goes emphatically to Jeremiah Tilmon), but he was always present.

Especially when the guards split apart from forwards, he was frequently teaching and talking to each younger teammate one-on-one.

“He trusts his teammates,” Martin said. “They respect his ability because he puts time into it. But he’s also been more vocal as a leader. He’s always been a guy who leads by his actions, but it’s fun to watch him out there. He plays hard and plays with a level of toughness. It normally works out for guys like that.”

Geist was part of an offense that struggled to handle the full court press at times last season, especially at the latter part of games when protecting precarious leads was priority. Now he’s the veteran in a group that’s starting over on learning how to solve that puzzle.

“Oh, he looks forward to it,” Martin said of the full court press.

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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