University of Missouri

‘We would have been crazy:’ Mizzou hoops transfers talk about if had they stayed

After a knee injury made Michael Porter Jr. a late scratch for the NBA Summer League, Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett became Missouri’s lone representatives in Las Vegas.

But the players with previous ties to the program made MU’s presence look much bigger.

Three players who transferred from MU before graduating took the court in Vegas in Johnathan Williams III (Rockets), Tramaine Isabell (Clippers) and Jakeenan Gant (Pacers). Which caused Barnett, who knew or crossed paths with all three players, to repeat a conversation with them that he’s had many times.

“I always tell them, ‘I wish they didn’t leave Mizzou,’” Barnett told The Star. “It is what it is, but it worked out for them.”

All three players left for different reasons, with Williams seeking a better playing style, Gant wanting to be closer to his home state of Georgia, and Isabell not getting along with the coaching staff. But all of Kim Anderson’s former players said they regularly keep in touch with one another and have kept tabs on MU since leaving Columbia.

No player made out better at their next stop than Williams, who went to Gonzaga and helped lead it to the national title game in 2017. Williams spent last season on a two-way contract with the Lakers and played in 24 games. He averaged 6.4 points per game and became a complementary piece to LeBron James because of his rebounding.

Williams admitted he’s “a Gonzaga guy now,” after the success he enjoyed his final two years, but was extremely proud of MU when it hired Cuonzo Martin in 2017. The 6-foot-9 forward from Memphis nearly committed to Martin out of high school, when the coach was at Tennessee, but ultimately chose Frank Haith and MU over the Vols and Georgetown.

“Missouri is back on the (right) path with Cuonzo Martin,” Williams said. “He’s a great coach.”

Gant transferred to Louisiana for his final two years and had a strong season for Ragin’ Cajuns. He averaged 20.5 points and 8.6 rebounds per game and was chosen the Sun Belt Conference’s defensive player of the year for the second straight season. Of all of Anderson’s departures, Gant might be the player fans miss the most, as MU has struggled to get production from the power forward position in its first two years under Martin. It didn’t hurt that Gant scored 18 points against Kansas this past season, and his defense-first mindset would have been perfect given Martin’s coaching philosophies.

At MU, Gant tried to play as a stretch four-man who shot threes instead of serving as a presence down low. In Vegas, Gant looked like the player Haith envisioned when he signed, as he scored most of his points in the paint but occasionally shot a corner three when he had a look. Gant said he decided to get closer to the rim after shooting 26% from three as a sophomore at MU.

“I had to go inside and get my confidence back,” Gant said.

In Lafayette, Gant learned when and where to shoot from deep and made a respectable 35% of his three-point attempts in his final two years. He regularly keeps in touch with former MU guard Namon Wright, who was in his signing class and recently finished his career at Colorado. Barnett, Gant and Isabell all expressed surprise that Wright didn’t get a summer league invite himself.

When Missouri hired Martin and got both Michael Porter Jr. and Jontay Porter to commit shortly after, Gant said he and Wright were speechless when discussing it over the phone.

Gant has pondered what MU would have looked like had he stayed in Columbia.

“We would have been crazy,” he said.

Of the trio in Vegas, no one had a closer seat to MU’s rebuild than Isabell. After transferring to Drexel, he averaged 21 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game as a redshirt junior. Isabell then transferred to Saint Louis as a fifth-year player this past season and helped lead the Billikens to the NCAA Tournament.

Isabell claims MU’s revival left him the least surprised of his former teammates because as a Seattle native, he knew there were rumblings of a possible Porter return when the family moved to his home city for a year.

While Missouri didn’t have the most success when they were all teammates, Isabell said it still says a lot about the program that Anderson’s teams produced four players that made it to Vegas. While Mizzou won no more than 10 games a season under Anderson, Williams, Isabell and Gant all went on to have at least one 20-win season after MU.

“Some things didn’t work out,” he said. “I think it shows something that we have a few ex-Mizzou players in the NBA Summer League. I’m rooting for them all the time.”

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Alex Schiffer has been covering the Missouri Tigers for The Star since October 2017. He came in second place for magazine-length feature writing by the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association in 2018 and graduated from Mizzou in 2017.