Smith steps up in 2nd start

When his starting center went down with a lower leg injury in Thursday’s practice, Archie Miller asked his players to do something difficult.

“With every negative,” Miller told the team, “you have to look at the positive.”

It was a message geared particularly toward his younger players. With De’Ron Davis set to sit for an indefinite period of time while he recovers from his leg injury, there are now opportunities for roles to change faster than they otherwise would have.

It was a message Justin Smith took to heart.

The freshman forward made his second start of the season in Saturday’s 75-71 win at Minnesota, pouring in a career-high 20 points and providing the Hoosiers with an active presence on the defensive end. Through the first two months of his rookie season, Smith has shown glimpses of the versatile impact player he may one day become.

During a weekend road trip to Williams Arena, Smith took a big step toward tapping into his potential, while also helping the Hoosiers fill a production void as their bench shortened with injuries to Davis and Collin Hartman (shoulder).

“I’ve been on a thousand teams,” Miller said. “I’ve been around teams that lost guys and the next thing you know a guy changes his career. There was a freshman out there today who played huge minutes. Maybe that changes the course of his season. Next thing you know, he goes into an offseason and says, ‘Wow.’ It happens. You just have to stay ready.”

That has been Smith’s mission during the past month, as his minutes waned. The Illinois native was one of the early bright spots of Indiana’s rotation, averaging 18 minutes, 7.0 points and 4.8 rebounds through IU’s first six games. He even received a start in the Hoosiers’ first road game on Nov. 15 at Seton Hall.

But his playing time decreased beginning with the Nov. 29 loss to Duke, a night that began a nine-game stretch that saw him average merely five minutes per contest.

As players reconvened following a brief Christmas break, Smith stood out to his coaches. He was re-energized from the layoff, eager to get back to work. In the days leading into the Dec. 29 non-conference finale against Youngstown State, Miller lauded Smith as one of the team’s best practice players.

On Saturday, he put his skills to good use.

“He was huge today, knocking down big shots, getting big boards,” teammate Juwan Morgan said Saturday of Smith, who pulled down three rebounds, shot 7-for-10 from the field and sank two 3-pointers. “… He didn’t play like a freshman today.”

That was, perhaps, most evident by the way he handled his defensive assignment.

Jordan Murphy, one of the premier bigs in the Big Ten, did his usual work on the boards (10 rebounds) and was able to get to the line. But Murphy, a 54 percent shooter entering the IU game, finished only 5-for-14 from the field.

“Make him uncomfortable,” Smith said of his approach to guarding Murphy. “Front the post and do what you can to keep him from rebounding. He’s gonna get his rebounds, but we’ve got to do what we can to keep him off the glass, and keep him from getting easy buckets.”

Having the confidence to handle such an assignment, Smith says, is arguably the area where he has grown the most.

“When I was playing a lot earlier, some of the switches and rotations were pretty difficult, and I was still trying to grasp those,” he said. “Now I have a better grasp of those, and I’m playing much better.”

Stringing together another quality performance, continuing with Tuesday’s home game with Penn State, will be Smith’s next challenge.

Given Saturday’s results, it’s one that Smith, his teammates and his coach expect him to meet.

“He just played great,” Morgan said. “He really just was comfortable out there. I think he really fit his role well. He didn’t try to do anything he can’t do. Everything we do in practice, he was just doing out there in the game.”

3 comments

  1. I would bet that someone who has that young man’s ear whispered some sage words of advice to him. Good for them.

    I’m a firm believer in the power of the right advice at the right time from the right person. It can change lives.

    I don’t claim to be the brightest or the fastest. I’m likely the best looking but that’s a story for a different day. But taking advantages of opportunities presented to me has been a strong suit.

    I hope the same is true for this young man.

    1. Chet I’m on board with your thoughts completely. Many many many Americans don’t recognize opportunity or if they do let it pass by. I don’t know how it is a trait that occurs to some people but not in others.

  2. Hope this is an indicator of more good things to come both with this young man and maybe with some as of yet unseen developments in others on this year’s roster. If so, many of our dire forebodings regarding this season might just be unfounded. One can always hope.

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