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The junior combo forward carved out a meaningful role as a bench contributor. What did he bring to the table, and how can he improve in his final year?
As we do every year, we’re wrapping up the Mizzou basketball season with Q&As on every one of Missouri’s major contributors. To catch up on our first two posts in this series, see the link below:
Today, we’re focusing our gaze upon Mitchell Smith, the lanky combo forward who found himself to be a key bench player in his junior season.
After three years in black and gold, Mitchell Smith finally carved out a pretty meaningful role in this year’s rotation. What value did he bring to the Tigers?
Sam Snelling, Site Manager: It’s often difficult to determine when the light bulb will go on for any player within any given system. I think Mitchell bought into Cuonzo Martin and the program last year, but it wasn’t until the Bragging Rights game this year where I felt the switch was on. He got it. Mitch learned to play with a ferocity required to be a good defender and rebounder. He made the decision to be the guy every team needs. One who doesn’t care about the kinds of stat columns most players care about; instead he’s bought into doing what it takes to get the win. I think it’s for those reasons why Mitchell became such an important guy in the lineup of the course of this past season.
Matt Harris, Lead Basketball Writer: Missouri’s defensive approach relies on a guy like Mitchell Smith. The Tigers’ scheme rests on timely rotations, clean switches, contested shots and securing misses. Its meat-and-potatoes. By and large, Smith is capable of guarding four positions, and his defensive rebounding percentage (19.1) ranked 10th in the SEC. While I wouldn’t want Smith isolated on an top-shelf creator, he’s better than some might expect at closing down shooters without giving up a gap to drive. And while he can be muscled in the post, he’s sturdy enough to hang with most combo forwards. Malleability is his best asset.
Josh Matejka, Deputy Manager: Much like Reed Nikko, Mitchell Smith is a guy who knows his role and makes the most of it. And despite the desperate need for high-end talent, there’s value in those types of guys. Smith could qualify as an “energy” guy off the bench, but he’s also made strides in other areas of his game. He won’t hurt you on defense like he used to, he continues to be a strong presence on the defensive glass and he’s turned into quite a threat at the charity stripe. His frame and athleticism also give Cuonzo Martin some switch-ability on defense
Ryan Herrera, Lead Basketball Beat Writer: Is there a way to quantify energy? If so, Mitchell Smith tops Missouri’s leaderboard in that category. He has his faults, sure. He’s not a go-to scorer. His 3-point shooting is still a work in progress, and the volume might be a little too high at times. He really can’t do much in the post offensively, which pretty much keeps him glued to the perimeter. But that consistent energy is the most important thing he brings to the court. Whether it’s fighting for every board, diving after every loose ball or letting out a roar after essentially every score, Smith’s energy was more than welcome for a Missouri team looking for any boost in could get.
Despite the potential match up problems he creates, Smith still struggled at times adapting to his role — specifically when it came to jump shooting and defending down low. What’s holding him back?
Sam Snelling: Smith’s mechanics are problematic in that he has a long load time. He cocks the ball back behind his head and the longer shot motion can lead to a wider range of outcomes. He finishes his shot softly enough that it gives him a chance, so with more reps he could and likely will shoot better. But the gains are likely to be marginal. Smith’s body type is also slender, and there’s nothing he can change about that. It’s going to hurt him in out-toughing more naturally strong players. But Mizzou doesn’t need Mitch to take the next step offensively, they really just need him to be not awful, as long as they’re getting contributions from at least three other positions on the floor.
Matt Harris: To me, Smith’s not as putrid a shooter as portrayed. In a small sample size as a sophomore, he knocked down 41.7 percent of his 3-point attempts. Even as you scale up, his percentage shouldn’t have cratered by 12 points. Is he an elite shooter? No. A 34-percent shooter, which is around the NCAA average? More likely. That’s sufficient. Keep in mind, too, that he canned 36 percent of his attempts during SEC play.
I don’t he’ll ever have the bulk to jostle on the block, unless it’s exploiting a switch against a guard. That’s another way of saying post-ups should be a smaller share of his touches. Instead, Smith might thrive picking-and-popping, cutting along the baseline when a defense rotates, and going to the glass for putbacks.
To a degree, he tried to do that this season, but his finishing at the rim, especially as a cutter, was poor. Like a lot of the players on the roster, the Smith didn’t capitalize on the shots the offense created for him, and it kept him from emerging as a low-usage, high-efficiency option.
Josh Matejka: What you have right here is a sort of Catch-22 situation. Smith’s frame — tall, sinewy — is what allows him that versatility, especially on defense. He’s quick enough to stay on bigger wings and tall enough to stick on smaller bigs. However, those matchups aren’t always available, and that’s where Smith’s contributions tend to take on a more one-dimensional form. In theory, his jump-shooting has improved (he shot 36.8 percent from three in SEC play), but he’s also become much less efficient. And he’s still not big enough to stick with bigs like Nick Richards or Reggie Perry, who may have required a more athletic presence to contain on defense. Smith, for what he brings to the table, still isn’t sound enough one way or the other.
Ryan Herrera: It really is his frame that affects what he’s able to do. He’s tall and long, which helps him defend positions 1-4 well, but makes it tough when he’s got a bigger body to defend in the paint. He knows how to throw his body around, but it doesn’t always work when the other player’s body is even bigger. It’s too late to expect him to add a good amount of weight to his body, so that might be an area he’ll be hard-pressed to improve upon. And because of his lack of a post-offense, his offensive game relies on putbacks and mostly 3-pointers. He took almost 50% of his shots from deep last season, knocking them down at a 29.4% clip. He’s not an elite shooter, and the extended 3-point line probably affected him in the same way it affected most of the rest of the team, but he could be a guy who shoots in the 33-35% range.
Headed into his senior year, Smith may have topped out in his development. But imagine he’s able to take another step forward — what does that Mitchell Smith look like this fall?
Sam Snelling: I’d be happy with a guy who was a little better around the rim, and is capable of making more shots through contact. His biggest issue isn’t outside shooting, it’s being able to convert around the rim. Mitchell isn’t going to be a guy who is likely to give you 10 points and 8 boards a night, but converting dump offs at a higher clip would boost and improve the offense immensely.
Matt Harris: I’d like Smith to be a little sturdier, if only to hold up as a small-ball five asked to guard an opposing big. Gaining some strength, should help him finish through contact. At the same time, Smith might be what he is physically. So, I wouldn’t bank all my hopes there. The niche he’s created defensively is fine, but he needs to become a replacement-level shooter from deep or a hyper-efficient at the rim. Squeeze out a little more offensive production, and Cuonzo Martin could run out lineups with Kobe Brown playing wing, Smith at the four and Jeremiah Tilmon down low — a trio with a ton of length.
Josh Matejka: In the first two posts of this series, I’ve used the term, “incremental progress,” and I’d be more than happy to see some of it from Smith. If he’s able to shoot about 35 percent from deep and up his efficiency numbers (eFG% or TS%) closer to 50 percent, that would be a welcome development.
However, if we’re allowed to dream a little bigger… the ideal version of senior year Smith is the above plus some added size. Smith is a very good free throw shooter, and should take more advantage of it by moving toward the bucket. His handle isn’t to the point where he’ll be able to get there himself, but if Smith is able to make shooting improvements and get to a place where his free throw rate is close to 40 percent? Watch out, that’s a dangerous bench player.
Ryan Herrera: I would really like to see Smith up his efficiency both from deep and around the rim. He’s not a player that’ll be able to create his own shot, so he’s got to rely on guys like Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson to create them for him. Whether that be on pick and pops, pick and rolls, dumpoffs or putbacks around the rim, if Smith could shoot over 40% from the field and 35% from 3 (a challenge, yes, but not unthinkable), he’ll open up the offense even more for the rest of the squad.