FORT WAYNE — James Blackmon Jr. couldn’t stand being forced to watch the games from the sidelines, and yet he kept doing it.
The 6-foot-2 guard and Indiana 2014 commitment watched from the sidelines during each of Fort Wayne Bishop Luers’ remaining games in the 2011-2012 season after he suffered an ACL tear on Feb. 5 and he went to a number of his summer travel squad Spiece Indy Heat’s games in the spring and summer.
That, his father said, is what fueled him. That’s why he was able to come back from the injury stronger than he was before, why he exploded for 33.3 points per game as a junior at Bishop Luers and why the No. 47 rated player in the Class of 2014 now appears even more valuable for Indiana’s future.
“When you play, you take a lot for granted,” said James Blackmon Sr., who coached his son at Bishop Luers and will now do the same at Marion where the family is moving for the next school year. “James got hurt with probably five games left in our season. He was able to sit on the sideline and watch what he was missing out on. I really feel like that motivated him for the summer.”
After the injury, he needed a lot of motivation, because the injury was severe. He not only tore his ACL but also his meniscus when he went up to block a shot in a game against Tech and close friend Trey Lyles.
“My knee, it didn’t even feel like a knee,” Blackmon said Saturday during the Bill Hensley Memorial Run-N-Slam tournament at Spiece Fieldhouse. “It just hurt, so bad.”
But so did the pain of not playing, and that he could eventually work through. As soon as he could, he started intense cross-training for physical therapy, incorporating swimming and weight-lifting with running once his body allowed it. Blackmon, still skinny at 6-foot-2, 170 pounds, already needed to get stronger, and the intense therapy sessions helped him get back all of the strength he lost and more.
“He worked harder than he has before, harder than I’ve ever seen anyone work,” said Blackmon’s teammate and brother Vijay, a Class of 2016 recruit who also has a scholarship offer from Indiana. “Doing cross training and stuff like that. It really helped him get back to where he is. He took no days off.”
And while he was rehabbing, he was also focusing on improving some of his fundamental skills, something that actually became easier because he wasn’t playing summer travel ball, and also because he’d already finished his recruiting process.
Blackmon committed to Indiana in 2010, before he’d even played a high school game. The wisdom of that decision was openly questioned at the time for obvious reasons, but it took a significant amount of pressure off Blackmon during his rehab, because he didn’t have to worry about exposure. He could also have more frank and direct discussions with the Indiana staff about advice for rehab and for building on his game.
“When you think about making that commitment, he thought about his future being secure going to college,” said Blackmon Sr., a former Kentucky star and NBA draft pick. “You turn around and you get hurt, but that takes the pressure off of it. When you look at these kids, and the coaches when they have the period to evaluate players, it puts a lot of pressure because they’re trying to get to that level. I think making that commitment took a lot of pressure off of him. He could just get better and get stronger.”
Blackmon’s feathery jumper was already his strong suit, but time in the gym working on form and repetition just made it better.
More importantly, Blackmon worked on his ball-handling at length, and the progress there was evident this weekend at Run-N-Slam. Blackmon plays as a true shooting guard with Spiece with teammates Jaquan Lyle and P.J. Thompson running the point, but he showed that he can take the ball to the rim and finish and that he’s become increasingly good at getting his shot off the dribble.
“He knows how to handle it,” Spiece coach Reynardo Bluiett said. “He’s on a team in the summer where he doesn’t have to handle it as much. When we get him the ball, we want him to score or make a play for somebody else. But he can handle it. He can step on someone else’s campus and run some point.”
That campus will be Indiana coach Tom Crean’s and that’s actually what he wants Blackmon to do. IU point guard Yogi Ferrell will be a junior when Blackmon arrives, so it’s unlikely he’ll start there immediately, and Blackmon will certainly play plenty of shooting guard, but Crean has told Blackmon already that he will occasionally run the offense.
“I feel like I was strictly a two, but now coming from high school season and handing to handle the ball a lot, I feel like I can I can play the one and two, whatever coach wants me to play,” Blackmon said. “He thinks he sees me as a point guard. My size is bigger than most point guards, and I can handle it. He wants me to keep working on both.”