Find out why Mississippi State’s Iverson Molinar is the name to know in SEC basketball this season.
Not often will you find the SEC’s leading scorer hailing from Mississippi State, a title more traditionally held by a star from Kentucky, Tennessee or Florida.
In what is an incredible stable of current SEC coaches, MSU’s Ben Howland — the 2002 national coach of the year — can sometimes be a forgotten man. He sits fourth among SEC coaches in career wins behind only John Calipari, Rick Barnes and Bruce Pearl, and has a revamped roster for the 2021-22 season.
Even with several high-major transfers joining the fold, a returning piece stands above the rest. Meet Iverson Molinar, a 6-3 junior shooting guard and Panama City, Panama native who left for the United States at age 15 in pursuit of a basketball career.
Not only was Molinar the Bulldogs’ leading scorer last season, his 16.7 points per game was good for fourth in the entire conference. With a lofty scoring average and impressive advanced numbers to boot, there are plenty of reasons why Molinar could take home the ’21-22 SEC scoring title.
Let’s check out Iverson Molinar’s unique path to the top of the SEC basketball mountain.
Iverson Molinar was overlooked by recruiting analysts
Iverson Molinar graduated from Calabasas (Calif.) Veritas Prep as part of the 2019 class. While unranked in the 2019 Rivals150, Molinar was a commodity on the recruiting trails as he carried over 15 offers, including the likes of Arizona, Arizona State, Georgia, Kansas State and VCU before choosing Mississippi State.
While Molinar attended four high schools in the United States, he played travel ball with Team Why Not (Calif.) EYBL, a program sponsored by Russell Westbrook. Molinar showcased his skills — and talent — while playing on the Nike EYBL circuit as he averaged 12.2 points per game on 55-percent shooting. With international experience playing for his home country of Panama, Molinar appears to have been overlooked by national recruiting analysts. There is no denying his talent, though.
Mississippi State isn’t known for producing elite players
When discussing SEC basketball, the traditional cities of interest are places like Lexington, Ky. or Gainesville, Fla. Recently, Alabama’s Nate Oats has it rolling in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Arkansas’ Eric Musselman can say the same over at Fayetteville, Ark. However, Starkville, Miss. just hasn’t received the same red-carpet attention.
Mississippi State’s basketball program began in 1908. In their 113-year history, the Bulldogs have had only 21 former players reach the NBA. Of those 21 NBA players, only eight were first-round draft picks and zero were all-stars.
Since the 1985-86 season, no Mississippi State player has led the SEC in scoring. In that same time frame, players from LSU have led the SEC in scoring eight times, Tennessee seven times, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt four times, and South Carolina and Georgia three times.
This should serve as a surprise. Mississippi State has had talent and won plenty of games during this stretch, highlighted by Lawrence Roberts being named 2004 SEC Player of the Year on a 26-win Bulldogs squad. Though he took home the league’s precious hardware, Roberts’ 16.9 points per game tied him for sixth in the conference scoring list that season.
Baseball, sure. But basketball … in Panama?
Molinar’s home country of Panama, which has 4.3 million people and borders Costa Rica and Colombia, is far from a basketball hotbed. Only four Panama natives have played in the NBA, most notably four-time all-star Rolando Blackman as well as Ruben Garces, Gary Forbes, and Stuart Gray.
Molinar had a unique talent, one that was discovered at an early age. He made the 2017 Panama National Team for the FIBA Americup and the Americas World Cup Qualifier. While not not known for producing talent, Blackman — who scored over 17,600 points in the NBA — helped put Panama on the map with his excellent pro career.
While Molinar may not pan out quite like Blackman, there is plenty to like about Molinar’s confidence and efficiency with the basketball.
Why Molinar will lead the SEC in scoring
Last season, Molinar averaged 16.7 points on 43.6-percent shooting from three with a .573 True Shooting Percentage. As a result, Molinar joined the likes of Luka Garza, Corey Kispert, and Max Abmas among the seven Div. 1 players who shot the ball at such an elite clip. Between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Molinar improved his scoring average by 10.8 points per game, the seventh-largest jump in the SEC over the last ten seasons.
Molinar’s scoring totals bumped up to 17.8 points as he led the Bulldogs to the NIT finals. Mississippi State lost four of its top six scorers from last year’s team, but Ben Howland went out this offseason with the intention to build around Molinar.
With forwards Tolu Smith and Derek Fountain returning, Howland brought in several transfers in point guard Rocket Watts (Michigan State), combo guard Shakeel Moore (NC State), post Garrison Brooks (North Carolina) and forward D.J. Jeffries (Memphis). The Bulldogs also signed 3-star guard Camryn Carter, wing Alden Applewhite and forward Keshawn Murphy.
With this roster flip, it tells us two things: There will be talent surrounding Molinar, but Molinar will still remain the featured wing scorer.
Molinar finished in the 79th percentile, per Synergy, scoring .986 points per possession with 80.6 percent of his possessions coming in the half court. In his half-court possessions, Molinar scored .96 points per possession, which placed in the 77th percentile nationally. He joined Garza and Jaden Springer as three of the nine players in Div. 1 who had a usage percentage over 25, a player efficiency rating at or over 20, and a three-point percentage over 43 percent.
Breaking down Molinar’s scoring opportunities even further, 30.8 percent (154) of his possessions came as the primary ball handler in the pick and roll. In these actions, he finished in the 82nd percentile at .909 points per possession. Molinar played off the ball, as a spot-up shooter, or coming off screens in 30.4 percent (152) of his possessions. In these actions, he scored 1.039 points per possession.
The eye test and looking ahead
Iverson Molinar has a basketball frame, standing 6-3 and around 190 pounds. His game is also conducive to the NBA as he excels in the half court with the ability to create for himself and play out of the pick and roll.
As one of the premier shooters in Div. 1 basketball, Molinar has a crafty hesitation dribble with an explosive first step. He can finish above the rim and in traffic, but also the wherewithal to pull up in the mid-range and take what the defense gives.
With his jump shot, Molinar has a high release point and a soft release. He knows how to play balanced and moves well off the ball. He also possesses a lethal pull-up jumper, in which he can elevate above the defense and knock down with regularity. His entire scoring repertoire is efficient with very few low-percentage shot attempts. But despite his natural ability to score the ball, there are looming questions about how well Molinar sees the floor and can create for others.
Defensively, Molinar has the tools. He is a wiry-strong, quick-twitch athlete with lengthy arms, and he plays with a great motor. His length plays well in the passing lanes, and he has a gritty and tough mentality. Molinar’s ability to guard both backcourt spots shouldn’t be much of a concern either.
While he is set to turn 22 prior to the night of the 2022 NBA Draft, Molinar’s skillset and talent are worth a deep dive for NBA front offices. He is a massive name to monitor in the SEC this season.
Header image courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics.