The first time Xavier Pinson threw Kevin Puryear a no-look pass, during a summer workout session, the veteran forward didn’t put much stock into the play.
Pinson, a freshman, could be trying to impress him, Puryear figured, but it was just one play. The next attempt could wind up in the stands, or the 6-foot-2 point guard from Chicago could just be a bit reckless.
But as more and more of Pinson’s no-look passes have set up his Missouri basketball teammates for scores this season, Puryear has a different opinion. Entering Missouri’s game at South Carolina on Saturday, the Tigers have learned that Pinson has been a more than a capable backup to fellow senior Jordan Geist.
“I’ve played with a lot of people that the no-look passes and they end up out of bounds, but Xavier, his no-look passes are ending up in your hands,” Puryear said. “I think Coach Martin has done a good job of not putting a lid on his game and letting Xavier be Xavier.”
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Pinson’s passes were a part of Missouri’s early-season problems, as turnovers played a large factor in MU’s three nonconference losses. But now the team has started to adjust to his style of play, and the Tigers know to be ready for the ball whenever Pinson is on the court. Even when Pinson is shooting well, like he was in his 14-point performance against Tennessee on Tuesday, passing will remain the signature part of the freshman’s game.
Pinson remembers throwing no-look passes in middle school without hurting his team and stuck with the tricks when he got to high school. Michael Bailey, Pinson’s high school coach at St. Patrick’s in Chicago for three years, likes to joke that as a freshman, his point guard was a triple-double machine — just not in the manner most coaches hope.
“He would have games here as a freshman where he had 15 points, 12 assists and 10 turnovers,” Bailey said. “He gets credit for the turnover, but it was kids not ready for the pass, kids moving to the wrong spot, not knowing how to play with his instincts.”
At MU, it was more of the same early on. In Missouri’s loss Nov. 9 at Iowa State, Pinson had four turnovers in just 16 minutes, with a few coming on passes that his teammates weren’t ready for. He had another four turnovers in just 14 minutes in Missouri’s two-point loss to Temple a few weeks later.
Pinson said it’s tough to decide when to play with such flair. The scoreboard, the defense and how each teammate is playing all go into his decision-making. If a teammate is shooting the ball well, he’ll try to create space to or draw their defender onto him. A lot of his playmaking stems from trial and error. If his creativity got MU a bucket, he’ll stick with it, or tweak it to keep a defense honest. If it ends in a turnover, it’s scrapped.
“Xavier almost has a sixth sense with the ball,” said Brian Houston, Pinson’s AAU coach With Mac Irvin Fire. “He always sees the next play. His IQ is off the charts. He knows where you’re supposed to be and he anticipates the play.
“As a coach, I look at it as I can get 10 points off Xavier Pinson’s passing ability alone.”
When Pinson sees a favorable matchup, his first step never changes. Like a quarterback trying to look off a safety, Pinson said he always tries to assess which defenders are looking at him and where they anticipate he might go. After deciding on a direction, he usually sees how the floor spacing changes around him and what defenders he takes with him while driving. Then he figures out which teammate he will zip the ball to.
“Even though I’m not looking at that person, they know that I’m really looking at them,” Pinson said.
Some of Missouri’s problems with Pinson have stemmed from players changing spots while he drives with the ball.
Like Puryear, Illinois transfer Mark Smith said he’s never played with a passer like Pinson and figuring out his tendencies takes time. Smith said he used to move when Pinson moved with the ball, but now stays put.
“You’re always ready for the ball,” Smith said. “You have to be ready to play off of him. He has that flash to his game. You have to be ready to make a play when he does. If you’re open, anything in space (Pinson) can get it to you. He threads the needle a lot.”
Tigers assistant coach Cornell Mann, Pinson’s lead recruiter, said over the summer that he’s never seen a passer like him in over 20 years of coaching. But he added that Pinson sometimes tries too hard to find the home-run pass instead of the logical pass.
In Missouri’s blowout win over Xavier on Dec. 18, Pinson drove through the paint and fed Jeremiah Tilmon a no-look bounce pass for a dunk. When Pinson looked away from Tilmon, he stared at fellow freshman Torrence Watson, who was wide open on the wing. While Pinson fit his pass to Tilmon past three defenders, finding Watson was the easier play.
In MU’s next game, against Illinois, Pinson shoveled an underhanded, no-look pass through four defenders to a streaking Mitchell Smith. Smith converted the layup, but Mark Smith was wide open for a corner three-pointer, which was a safer play.
Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin had a quick hook for Pinson earlier in the season, benching him for long stretches of time after a series of turnovers, but has given him the benefit of the doubt recently. After having 14 turnovers in his first six games, Pinson has only had eight in his last seven.
Martin echoes Mann’s assessment that he’s never had a player like Pinson in his 11 years as a head coach. Despite being 6-foot-2, Pinson weighs just 170 pounds and has a skinny frame. Once he adds more muscle, Martin expects Pinson to show off more of his athleticism in addition to his passing.
“I just think with his ability to pass, you haven’t seen his level of athleticism because of the lack of strength going against guys, but he’s a guy that can get above the rim and dunk,” Martin said. “As he continues to get strong, you’ll see that part of his game.”
And if he dunks like he passes, don’t be surprised if he looks away from the rim on his way up