A hunger bubbled inside James Blackmon Jr. while he sat, watched and waited.
During the months that followed his January surgery to correct a torn ACL in his right knee, Blackmon’s hunger to return to the court and prove himself as one of the Big Ten’s better players grew and grew. Then it grew some more.
After receiving medical clearance last week that allows him to participate fully in Indiana’s upcoming preseason camp, which begins on the final weekend of the month, Blackmon is another step closer to satisfying that hunger.
“This is what I do,” Blackmon said. “When it’s taken away from me for awhile, you get hungry.”
The feeling is all too familiar to Blackmon, who has required three significant knee procedures since his sophomore year of high school. He has torn the ACL in both of his knees, and also required surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee last summer.
The latest ACL injury, which occurred during a team practice days prior to IU’s Big Ten opener at Rutgers last December, prevented Blackmon from making the necessary gains he wanted to see. He wanted a transformative type of season, but was robbed of the opportunity to complete it.
Although he was Indiana’s second-leading scorer at 15.8 points per game at the end of the non-conference season, he was not where he needed to be defensively.
Now, he says, Blackmon is carrying a heavy chip as he seeks to unlock his potential as a junior.
“I think when the season comes, a lot of people will see the chip,” Blackmon said.
People may also see a player more in tune with different qualities, ones that stretch beyond the court and into the locker room.
Last season, former IU point guard Yogi Ferrell pushed Blackmon in an effort to force his leadership traits to surface. Ferrell challenged Blackmon to assert himself vocally, to lead film sessions and uphold the extra-hour work ethic that permeates through the program’s Cook Hall practice facility.
The way Blackmon carried himself during his latest round of rehabilitation and recovery speaks to a belief that the former McDonald’s All-American is on the verge of authoring the transformative season he has sought.
“I learned a lot watching James,” IU assistant Tim Buckley said. “I think that, physically, he did all the things he needed to do to recover from that type of injury, but I don’t think you can discount his mental attitude and how he carried himself and kept persevering and never felt sorry for himself.”
Blackmon took advice from Indiana coach Tom Crean early in his recovery and entered the NBA Draft in late April. The move was made with feedback in mind. He was still months away from completing the necessary on-court drills and workouts that NBA teams host, so Blackmon instead used the process to hear NBA decision makers evaluate his game directly.
He met with four teams, including the Indiana Pacers, who all relayed similar thoughts. If Blackmon is serious about one day making a career in the league, he needs to stay healthy and keep working to develop his game.
“He was really excited for our team to do as well as we did because he knows full well — and we do also — that if James would have played, we would’ve even been better than we were,” Buckley said. “I think that’s gonna make us a better team this season, having watched him go through something that was very tough and see how he’s come out.”
He’ll be expected to hit the big shots this season, while rounding off the rough edges on the opposite end of the floor.
Blackmon is counting down the days until he can.
“I’m just feeling ready to go,” he said.