Crean evaluating options at the point #iubb

Ed. note: This story originally appeared in Friday’s edition of The Herald-Times:

The question has been posed to Tom Crean often during the past two months, but the answer is far from simple.

How are you going to replace Yogi Ferrell next winter? You don’t, Crean will say, at least not with one person.

Tasked with finding a new primary ball-handler for the first time in four years, the IU coach is considering all of his options. In doing so, the point guard position stands to pack a much different flavor in 2017.

“I think you have to let everybody be their own person, and you have to figure out how it’s all going to work out,” Crean said at an alumni event Wednesday in Borden. “That’s exactly what this team is going to be like.”

Robert Johnson and transfer Josh Newkirk are perhaps the most obvious pieces to fill the position, while James Blackmon Jr. also figures to handle the ball with regularity. Freshmen Devonte Green and Curtis Jones may also factor into the conversation after acclimating themselves this fall.

Because of the deep and balanced construction of this year’s roster, IU can afford to mix and match its backcourt based on needs. It could conceivably play Newkirk, Johnson and Blackmon at the same time, or at other times, maybe only one of those three.

While point guard play is a question heading into next season, it doesn’t appear to be a concern. Johnson, Newkirk and Blackmon are all juniors, and while Newkirk’s previous playing experience at Pittsburgh came mostly off the bench, he was afforded valuable practice time with IU during the second half of last season.

That’s well-rounded experience Crean will tap into next season.

“I don’t know if this is going to be a team that’s just going to say, ‘Let’s give the ball to one guy at the end of the clock and let him make the play for everybody else,’” Crean said. “I’m not sure we’re going to be like that.

“It could be a lot more like the team in 2013 where Jordan (Hulls) handled the ball, Yogi handled the ball, but Victor (Oladipo) had the ball in his hands at the end of the shot as much as anybody in middle pick and roll. It just remains to be seen.”

Decision-making is the No. 1 quality Crean is considering in his evaluations, an area where Johnson and Blackmon will need to make strides.

Johnson turned the ball over on 24.7 percent of possessions during his 15 Big Ten games last season, according to college basketball statistics web site KenPom.com. Alarmingly, that was the highest percentage of anyone on the team. But a closer look reveals that while Johnson averaged 2.6 turnovers per game across his first eight conference contests, he averaged 1.4 over his final seven. Progress, however modest.

But if the ball will indeed be in his hands more often, Johnson must make sure his passes and decisions are more crisp like they were late last season. The same goes for Blackmon, who has 78 turnovers against 72 assists across 46 career games.

“We’ve got to have a great summer,” Crean said. “Rob’s got to get better handling the ball. James has got to get better handling the ball — and James was improving in that area, but obviously over the last few months, it’s all been in a very short space.”

On the other hand, it’s not yet clear what IU has in Newkirk, who used his NCAA-mandated redshirt year in 2016 to recover from microfracture surgery in his knee. On paper, Newkirk’s player profile projects a quick and shifty natural point guard, albeit one who may not possess a prominent scoring punch.

His offensive production fell off two years ago as a sophomore, after shooting 46 percent from the field and 43 percent from 3-point range off the bench as a freshman. A year later, Newkirk connected on only 37 percent of his field goal attempts and 30 percent of his 3s during the 2014-15 season.

Johnson seemingly offers more consistent shooting and can spread the floor to open things for Indiana’s big men. With the return of sophomore center Thomas Bryant inside a muscular frontcourt that will also feature improving sophomores Juwan Morgan and OG Anunoby, along with four-star freshman De’Ron Davis, a chunk of IU’s offensive production will have to be filtered through the paint.

Getting the ball down low — and creating those opportunities — will be a priority for IU’s guards.

“The way we try to orchestrate our summer, and the way we try to work with the drills, is to try to put them in as many decision-making, real-time situations as possible,” Crean said. “It’s not just playing five-on-five and four-on-four. It’s trying to throw a lot of different things at them.

“It’s like the video game where something comes out of the trap door that you’ve got to maneuver. That’s what we try to do with the decisions that they have to make and making these quick reads. Ball handling, decision making (and) passing off the drive are really, really important.”

The freshmen could also become factors.

Green could prove to be a natural at that ability to pass off the drive. His highlight reels reveal a player adept at using both hands while cutting and facilitating through the lane.

No matter who’s on the floor, the ball will be spread around. The IU coach believes he has at least a handful of players capable of growing and handling that responsibility.

“The thing that we have, we have a lot of willing passers and we have a lot of guys that you have to guard to the 3-point line,” Crean said. “When you have that, it makes it a lot easier to get the ball-handling better because there’s less traffic.”