Newkirk finding range for Indiana

Josh Newkirk wouldn’t leave on a missed shot.

The Indiana junior lingered on the Kohl Center court while the rest of his teammates jogged into the visitor’s locker room for their final pregame meeting minutes prior to Sunday’s game at Wisconsin. A 3-point attempt from the wing missed. So, too, did another from approximately the same spot.

Newkirk wasn’t accepting of such failure, so he motioned to the student manager chasing the stray ball and requested another try. He called for the ball above the key and drained one final 3-point attempt before flashing a smile and dashing from the floor to join the rest of the Hoosiers in the bowels of the arena.

In James Blackmon Jr.’s absence, Newkirk has committed himself to scoring the basketball. With Blackmon moving closer to a return — perhaps as soon as Thursday’s rivalry showdown with Purdue — Newkirk’s newfound scoring mindset could well serve this IU team down the stretch.

Newkirk’s ability to force opponents to respect his scoring ability, particularly as a shooter, has been a critically missing component to IU’s point guard play this season. This is an era where a point guard’s ability to shoot is just as important as his ability to create. For much of this year, Newkirk hasn’t featured that as part of his game.

Now he is coming off a run of two games that have seen him produce a combined 49 points, while shooting 8-for-14 from 3-point range during that stretch. That opens things up for others, which has been a point of emphasis as IU’s looked for additional options in Blackmon’s absence.

Of course, it’s up to Newkirk to defer to teammates at times. But he also needs to assert himself as a natural part of Indiana’s offense.

Of late, he has.

“You never want to hunt 3s,” IU coach Tom Crean said. “You want to be ready when the ball is being rotated and reversed and be ready to step in. He was much better when he settled in on that. Really, it’s footwork, it’s follow through. That’s really what it is. Then, it’s mindset.”

Newkirk can keep improving. He can still stand to make better decisions with the ball, and he needs to finish better around the rim.

He can also use an approach utilized Sunday by Robert Johnson as an example of how some of the most effective penetration does not always require a full lane to the rim.

Johnson assisted on three of Newkirk’s four 3-pointers against Wisconsin. On two of those, Johnson created short, but impactful penetration by pushing as far as the free throw line, where he drew help and opened Newkirk for uncontested shots on the perimeter.

Newkirk’s predecessor, Yogi Ferrell, serves as another example he can strive to emulate. It took Ferrell a couple years to realize that being over-aggressive can lead to trouble. By last season, Ferrell figured things out more completely and now his offensive profile has led to a multi-year contract with the Dallas Mavericks.

Further practice can hone Newkirk’s profile. It’s the extra work he’s put in with IU assistant Tim Buckley that’s fostered his recent scoring surge.

“I think I’ve just been taking the open shot, making the game easier for myself,” Newkirk said. “My teammates have been helping me, believing in me and just having confidence in me.”

Production from Newkirk’s position goes a long way. Just look at Thursday’s opponent.

Beyond having player of the year candidate Caleb Swanigan, the Boilermakers have seen more production from their backcourt this season — especially from the perimeter.

After shooting 32 percent from 3-point range in 2015 and 36 percent from beyond the arc last season, Purdue leads the Big Ten with a 3-point field goal percentage of 42 percent.

Point guard P.J. Thompson has shown marked improvement as a shooter. After hitting 3s at a 28 percent clip as a freshman, Thompson is now shooting 42 percent from the perimeter. Dakota Mathias, Carsen Edwards and Ryan Cline have added further scoring punch.

Like Thompson, Newkirk has recently shown a determination to grow his game — just as Indiana has needed it most.

“He’s definitely improved,” Crean said.

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