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COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri’s Xavier Pinson and Jeremiah Tilmon hoped to test their stock in the NBA draft this offseason even though neither player was ever projected as a likely selection, much less a first-rounder who’d nab a guaranteed contract. If nothing else, they could work out for NBA scouts, maybe attend the draft combine and receive some valuable feedback before returning to Columbia.

The coronavirus pandemic complicated the NBA’s runway to the draft — the draft won’t take place until Nov. 18 — and both players found themselves back at Mizzou this summer, back in Cuonzo Martin’s program, bound and determined to build on last season.

This year, Martin’s fourth on the bench, the Tigers could go as far as Pinson and Tilmon take them.

When asked this week about his first impressions of his team in preseason workouts, Martin mentioned two players first: Pinson, the explosive junior guard, and Tilmon, the enigmatic center back for his senior year.

“Tilly has gotten better,” Martin said. “Tilly, it’s really just the conditioning piece and his energy and his focus. He looks like a guy that’s a senior in a college program. When I played in college you knew that guy was a senior by the way he looks, the way he talks, the way he moves. That says a lot about the wisdom and knowledge that he’s gained over time.”

“X is one of those guys that that plays all the time,” he added. “He’s going to find a gym to play and work on his game all the time. You can see improvements in his game.”

Pinson was Martin’s breakout player last year as he secured a consistent role in the backcourt playing alongside transfer guard Dru Smith. Pinson lifted his scoring average from 6.6 points per game as a freshman to 11.1 last year despite a frigid start from 3-point range. During a late eight-game stretch he averaged 20.1 points and three times set his career-high mark with 24 points against Arkansas, then 28 against Auburn and 32 against Mississippi — all three victories.

The arrival of Hawaii graduate transfer point guard Drew Buggs will take some of the ball-handling duties off Pinson’s plate and allow him to focus more on scoring, his specialty.

“I got the same mentality,” Pinson said. “I just want to win. I put even more work in as possible, so I can get better than everybody.”

Tilmon, the 6-foot-10 center from East St. Louis, has fully recovered from the foot injury that sidelined him for 13 games last year, including most of the conference schedule. The setback derailed a season of subtle progress for Tilmon, who cut down on his fouls from 3.6 per game as a sophomore to 2.6 last year. As his minutes fell off his scoring average (8.2) and rebound production (4.4) dropped some, too.

The NCAA ruled last week all winter sport athletes can be eligible for another year of eligibility, meaning Tilmon and MU’s other seniors could play an additional year of college, but Tilmon is approaching this season as his last at MU. Tilmon said his health and mental focus have never been stronger.

“I’ve been here for a while now and Coach has preached it enough,” he said. “I just feel like things have happened in my life that’s taken me to a different role. I have a different vision. I’ve just been way more locked in, just staying focused. It’s my fourth year now. It’s my job to lead and set examples.”

Tilmon has almost exclusively played the role of a traditional post player in Mizzou’s half-court sets, but based on feedback from the NBA, he’ll have to expand his game in other areas to have a chance at the next level. The NBA’s advice for Tilmon was a three-part message.

“They really just told me that I need to run the floor. I need to be able to hit that trail 3 and get rebounds,” said Tilmon, who’s made just 1 of 4 3-pointers in his Mizzou career.

Rebounds will be a primary focus this season. Martin and Tilmon have both talked about the center’s potential to grab 10 per game — more than double his career average of 4.9.

“I just need to lead and lead by example and be a dog in the paint, be really strong on rebounds and not let anybody tip the ball out of my hands,” he said.

Martin envisions perimeter-heavy rotations this season — he’ll tinker with lineups featuring Pinson, Buggs and Smith on the floor together — but that doesn’t change Tilmon’s role as an inside threat, enforcer in the paint and, for the first time in his career, a leader. Tilmon’s value to the program isn’t lost on his teammates.

“I see work. I see growth. I see him running the floor, setting screens, making smart plays,” Pinson said. “If he sees anything going wrong or if he sees an opening for anything he corrects it and lets the guards know. I just see his communication is way better. He creates a lot of opportunities for other people. He knows the way he plays is going to open up a lot of stuff for other people.

“So I feel like him just growing and maturing and knowing that he’s a leader and a senior he has to do all the small things for us to win big like we want to.”

Dave Matter

@dave_Matter on Twitter

dmatter@post-dispatch.com

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.

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