Mizzou Hoops: Oral Roberts transfer Connor Vanover commits to MU
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Mizzou Hoops: Oral Roberts transfer Connor Vanover commits to MU

Sep 05, 2023

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The stretch big balances the Tigers’ desire for offensive polish with boosting rebounding and rim protection.

Missouri left it late, but the Tigers addressed an issue that had lingered as portal season played out: reinforcing the front court with a veteran post player.

Oral Roberts center Connor Vanover committed to Missouri late Sunday night, using his grad-transfer year to become the Tigers’ fifth transfer addition this spring. The 7-foot-5 big man was the second-leading scorer for the Golden Eagles, averaging 12.7 points to go with 7.2 rebounds and 0.8 assists.

His path to Columbia has been a circuitous one.

As a high school senior, Vanover signed with Memphis but reopened his recruitment when Tubby Smith was fired. He chose Cal, but another coaching change led him to transfer. Vanover opted for Arkansas, which had hired Eric Musselman, and sat out his sophomore season. Early on, that homecoming went well. Vanover logged 27 games in his first season back in Fayetteville and averaged 16 minutes per game. But his role shrunk dramatically as a junior, and he didn't see the floor at all for most of SEC play or during the Hogs’ run to an Elite Eight.

Unsurprisingly, Vanover jumped in the portal, winding up at ORU. In Tulsa, he became a key cog one of the nation's best mid-major rosters and helped coach Paul Mills’ squad earn a No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It also paved the way for Mills to land the gig at Wichita State.

It's also somewhat surprising Vanover, who entered the portal on May 3, didn't follow Mills. Instead, his recruitment unfolded rather quietly. An official visit to Mizzou was the first solid bit of intel to emerge at all.

From MU's seat, though, the timing couldn't be better.

After Kadin Shedrick committed to Texas in late April, the Tigers only became seriously involved with West Virginia transfer Jimmy Bell Jr. While he could clean the glass a bit, Bell would have been a curious fit for MU as a player reliant on post-ups and not particularly mobile on the defensive end. Yet Bell resolved that matter by picking Mississippi State on May 10. So, at least publicly, MU's stood still over the past three weeks as potential options came off the board.

How should we view Vanover?

Look, it's nigh impossible to forget how MU exploited him two years ago with a never-ending run of middle pick-and-rolls with Dru Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon. If that clouds your view, I get it. At the same time, lifting the hood, rooting around play-type data, and going back to film reveals a potentially useful player, especially on the offensive end of the floor.

Based on frame alone, the closest comp is Western Kentucky's Jamarion Sharp, only his game is diametrically opposed to Vanover's. Despite his size, Sharp's agile enough to play in space and recover, but it comes with a major tradeoff offensively. As you’ll see, Vanover offers a unique skillset and could be valuable.

Spending a season with Mills rejuvenated the big man's career. Full stop.

If you’re a scheme wonk, you know Mills’ handiwork. It's also an ideal setup for a big like Vanover, who prefers to step out and face up. As a result, nearly a third of his touches came as a roller, including 75 pick-and-pop opportunities for the Golden Eagles. (But at 0.829 points per possession, they could have been more efficient.)

Playing in various five-out and spread alignments decluttered the paint. It let the sinewy big man make easy catches and convert as a roller. And, if need be, he could space out to a corner for spot-up jumpers.

Dropping down to the Summit League, rated No. 24 in strength by KenPom, made it easier for Vanover to operate around the block. As a result, he quadrupled his post-up opportunities and finished 74th percentile nationally for efficiency, per Synergy Sports. He also improved dramatically at finishing plays on cuts or dump-offs to the dunker spot.

MU's offense isn't a carbon copy of Mills’ attack, but some shared principles exist. Gates’ playbook does tap into the modern ball-screen concepts that benefitted Vanover last season. There are also some snippets of Vanover acting as a conduit around the elbow.

We’ll also need to keep close tabs on the makeup of Vanover's shot portfolio.

While he's fearless pulling from deep, Vanover has only connected on 27 percent of 3-ball attempts against KenPom top-100 teams, including the 34.1 percent clip as a senior. How much stock are you willing to buy based on a half-dozen games?

By contrast, he's made 74.3 percent of shots around the rim in his career, including 80.2 percent at Oral Roberts. Assuming MU's retrofitted backcourt does its job, Vanover might be able to skew his shot preferences toward those point-blank looks.

As you can see in the table above, Vanover's playing time and output against quality opponents closely resemble a role player. His efficiency on the offensive end (0.890 PPP) and defensive (0.859 PPP) also hews closely to the median for Division I.

Defensively, Vanover's block rate (11.4%) and defensive rebound percentages (21.2) glitter, but there are inevitable questions about how he can hold up in space. Also, he's not the most agile side to side, and no one will marvel at his foot speed.

As a sophomore in Fayetteville, when he saw his heaviest action, Vanover ranked in the 38th percentile guarding rollers, per Synergy data. That same season, he was in the 29th percentile when jostling in post-ups. That was two years ago, but it's also our most significant and salient evidence of Vanover's performance against SEC competition. Defensive analytics are also squishier.

Inevitably, opponents will hunt Vanover in switches. How MU's staff accounts for that reality will determine whether this addition pans out.

For Mills’ part, he defaulted to deep drop coverage and shading some extra help toward a gap. That would go against type for Gates. Instead, his twist was a shapeshifting 1-3-1 zone, which might be preferable given MU will also have more length with Aidan Shaw, Trent Pierce, and John Tonje. Vanover's also at ease roaming a triangular from one dunker spot to the top of the restricted arc and back down to the opposite side of the lane.

Vanover's success guarding post-ups hinges on personnel. If facing a skilled big, one reliant on footwork and counters, he understands positioning and how to use his length to wall up. But bulkier bigs can displace him with a power dribble. MU might have to send hard-doubles or have a guard dig from the wing in those matchups.

I won't pretend to have inside information on his time at Arkansas, but I suspect a couple factors were at play for him riding the pine. For one, Muss keeps the rotation tight, and once he's optimized the mix, he won't deviate. Arkansas’ formula for back-to-back Elite Eight runs came by using Justin Smith and Jaylin Williams as undersized fives. Hard to argue against it, too.

Unfortunately, that worked against Vanover.

That's not the case in Columbia. Last season, Noah Carter only averaged 20 minutes per game in the post. Diarra logged around 12 minutes per night. And Kobe Brown spent eight or so minutes in small-ball groups. And as we’ve seen, MU's offense is a bit more of a collective effort and places a premium on bigs that can step out, play at the elbows and serve as a connector.

Here's what we know: Vanover's demonstrated he can be a helpful role player at higher levels, possesses the offensive skill Gates covets, and supplies rebounding and rim protection. This partnership can work — if the staff and Vanover are willing to compromise.

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