As Missouri basketball wrapped up a 15-17 season with a loss to Auburn in the second round of the SEC Tournament, the postgame locker room vibe revolved around what players they’ll bring back. Here’s a grade for each rotation player from this past season and something each returning player needs to improve.
Torrence Watson, freshman guard: B+
Watson was invisible at the start of the season, but averaged 14.5 points in his last six games. He had 20 points in the loss to Auburn and set a program record for three-pointers made by a freshman with 53. Towards the end of the season, Watson, four-star recruit out of Whitfield in St. Louis, looked like a complete scorer. Watson could very well be MU’s leading scorer in a year.
Needs to improve: Consistency. Watson’s final stretch was what MU needed him to be all season, someone to help Jordan Geist help on offense. He can’t disappear like did early in the season.
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Xavier Pinson, freshman guard: B-
Pinson was a pleasant surprise for MU after flipping to the Tigers from Kent State. The 6-foot-2 guard wasn’t afraid of anyone and dazzled fans with his no-look passes and court vision. Pinson scored 40 points in his final three games of the year, which showed he can do a lot more than just pass. With Geist graduating, Pinson will be MU’s primary point guard alongside Evansville transfer Dru Smith. Look for coach Cuonzo Martin to go with a lot of four-guard lineups next season.
Needs to improve: Reducing turnovers, strength, defense. Pinson had eight turnovers against Auburn and ball security issues all season. Pinson, who missed part of summer workouts becaue of a family situation, will need to continue to get stronger this offseason. Martin is a defensive-minded coach and occasionally benched Pinson as he struggled to stay in front of his assignment at times.
K.J. Santos, sophomore forward: D-
Considered to be a possible pro prospect down the line, Santos missed almost the entire nonconference schedule because of a foot injury and his single-game season high was only seven points. The 6-foot-8 forward barely played towards the end of the season and looked passive on offense. Martin runs a lot of offense through the power forward position and got little out of it from Santos after losing Jontay Porter for the season.
Needs to improve: Health? It’s tough to gauge what Santos most needs to work on because Martin never gave a specific reason for his struggles. Did the foot injury derail his season and make it hard for him to adjust to Power Five play? Was it a confidence issue? It’s tough to put his season struggles on just one issue.
Ronnie Suggs, junior guard: B
Suggs became the envy of walk-ons around the country as he got put on scholarship for the spring semester and played a lot of minutes for MU. After transferring from Bradley and sitting out last season, Suggs was a defensive specialist for Martin, subbing in to guard a particular player and occasionally shooting a corner three. Martin thinks Suggs can have a larger role on offense going forward.
Needs to improve: Shooting. With MU adding Dru Smith and Mario McKinney next season, there’s a chance Suggs plays less. Suggs only shot 30 percent from three and 59 percent from the charity stripe. Both of those numbers can increase.
Javon Pickett, freshman guard: B+
A starter all year, Pickett may have been the biggest surprise of the freshman trio. He is Martin’s type of player, emphasizing his defense and getting in the gym as early as 6 a.m. He wasn’t healthy the last few games of the season because of back spasms but played through it. He averaged 7.7 points and 3.3 rebounds.
Needs to improve: Shooting. Like Suggs, Pickett struggled from three and the free-throw line and got a lot of his points on putbacks and layups.
Mitchell Smith, sophomore forward: B-
Grading Smith is hard. Kim Anderson recruited Smith to be a traditional center. But after tearing his ACL halfway through his freshman season, Martin scrapped that when he took the job and made the 6-foot-10 Smith more of a stretch four. He played great in the SEC Tournament and had a career-high 11 rebounds at Georgia on March 6, while guarding star Nic Claxton.
Needs to improve: Strength and rebounding. Under strength coach Nicodemus Christopher, Smith has added 30 pounds of muscle since March 2017. But he’s still a thin guy for his position. Smith’s performance on the boards against Georgia was impressive, but given his size, it should be more routine.
Mark Smith, sophomore guard: A-
After struggling to shoot as a freshman at Illinois, Smith had one of the best seasons from three-point range in program history, and was leading the SEC, before a season-ending ankle injury in mid-February. He kept Missouri in a lot games because of his long-range shooting and was one of MU’s best rebounders, averaging 5.2 per game.
Needs to improve: Offensive game. He had no problem scoring from three but didn’t drive to the basket when given a chance. Martin said he thought the 6-foot-4 guard needs to expand his offensive game now that teams are aware he can shoot the three.
Reed Nikko, junior forward: B
Nikko led MU in field-goal percentage at 60 percent and served as a reliable backup to Jeremiah Tilmon when the sophomore center was in foul trouble. Nikko was strong around the rim and drew praise from Martin for his effort.
Needs to improve: Ball handling. Missouri plans to add a frontcourt player in the spring recruiting period so it’s tough to gauge Nikko’s role on next year’s team. But he struggled to take care of the ball at times and got it stripped from him, which played a role in MU’s turnover issues as a team.
Jeremiah Tilmon, sophomore center: C+
Tilmon’s role drastically changed, along with the power forwards, when Porter went down. Instead of running offense through Porter, Tilmon became the focal point of the offense. In December, he had a career-high 23 points against Xavier and a had a stretch in January in which he seemed to have figured out his foul issues. But they returned in late January and lingered throughout the rest of the season. MU’s depth behind Tilmon didn’t help its offensive struggles. His free-throw shooting and rebounding improved but he wasn’t consistent.
Needs to improve: Avoiding fouls. As of Saturday, Tilmon is No. 14 in the NCAA in fouls per game at 3.58. He had 10 fewer personal fouls than he did as a freshman, but that doesn’t account for the numerous ones he committed when MU needed him to stay on the floor. Tilmon is an NBA prospect whenever he figures out his foul issues.
Jordan Geist, senior guard: A+
When Porter went down for the year, nobody stepped up more than Geist. He averaged 14 points per game and was a major reason why MU won as many games as it did without the likely NBA Draft pick. Geist’s buzzer-beater three against Central Florida sent the game into overtime and helped him win back the fanbase after being the scapegoat for a few late-game situations as a junior. The 6-foot-2 guard was a team leader and Martin favorite for his gritty play and defense. Martin said whenever MU wins a title, Geist will deserve credit for it.
Kevin Puryear, senior forward: C
Puryear will be the first person to tell you he didn’t have the senior year he wanted to. Asked to be more of a scorer in Porter’s absence, the Blue Springs South graduate struggled to get shots to fall in conference play and be a consistent offensive threat alongside Geist. He had flashes, such as an 18-point performance in a win against South Carolina. Puryear leaves MU as a 1,000-point scorer and excellent representative of the program.