Smith proving to be game-ready down the stretch

NEW YORK — Early this season, Justin Smith went by another name.

After catching glimpses of the high-flying athleticism that made Smith a coveted high school prospect in the suburbs of Chicago, his teammates at Indiana objected to not seeing that version of Smith more often. So they coined a nickname born from equal parts tough love and wonder.

“We used to call him a practice dunker because he could always dunk it hard in practice but he never was trying to dunk on anybody in the games,” junior forward Juwan Morgan said.

Oh, how Smith’s approach has changed.

The freshman’s game has taken off across the past two weeks as he’s committed himself to finishing around the rim, giving the Hoosiers an added dimension along the baseline and inside the paint.

Smith’s emergence as a secondary scorer and a willing rebounder has been one of the most encouraging developments for an IU team that has needed the help, and his play off the bench at this week’s Big Ten Tournament at Madison Square Garden could determine just how long the Hoosiers remain in New York City.

“I’m trying to go out there and do whatever is possible to try to win,” Smith said. “I’m going to go out there and play my role and then just look to my teammates for help, just ride this momentum.”

Meanwhile, his teammates no longer call him the practice dunker — not after Smith recently began approaching basketball in a way that is as violent as it is beautiful.

Smith is averaging 15.0 points across his past four games, the highest scoring mark of any non-starter in the conference during that span. Instead of his teammates, now he’s dunking on opposing players, using his liftoff to give Indiana an added presence around the rim, while also showing signs of a developing mid-range game.

Naturally, like so many of his classmates around the country, Smith has required time to learn how to translate his game from high school to college.

A top-100 high school prospect, Smith has learned that he can’t rely strictly on his athleticism at the Big Ten level. Learning how to play tougher, while navigating his way through traffic has been among the focal points for Smith during recent months.

It’s taken time, but he’s getting there.

“He’s such a gifted athlete and things are so easy for him at times that you want him to maximize the explosiveness and finishing power with toughness on his drives,” IU coach Archie Miller said. “It’s just one of those things that you just keep hammering the nail down to get as much out of him.

Although Morgan doesn’t recall the exact moment when he saw things start to click for Smith, he does remember what it looked like — the 6-foot-7 forward curling around defenders to find the basket, while refusing to shy away from contact.

That consistent approach has allowed Smith to score in double figures in each of the past four games, while posting back-to-back 16-point efforts last week against Ohio State and Nebraska.

For the season, Smith is averaging 6.5 points and 3.2 rebounds in 14.9 minutes per game.

“I think that you saw that in the last couple games,” Morgan said, “that he was really getting on the offensive glass, just jumping over guys, putting the ball in the basket easily, and I think that was a testament of translating from practice to the games.”

The offensive boost as been a welcome development for a team that has needed consistent secondary assistance. Just as important to IU has been Smith’s growth as a rebounder and defender — areas that seemed to cost Smith his eight-game run as a starter through the month of January.

Rebounding, in particular, took on a heavy emphasis with Smith during conference play. With IU often — if not always — entering games as an undersized squad against its Big Ten brethren, Miller relied on guards to help rebound at a higher rate than normal.

At the same time, Smith struggled to rebound at an acceptable clip for what the Hoosiers needed from the four position.

Across the eight games he started in January, Smith averaged merely 2.8 boards per game.

But over his past four games alone, Smith is grabbing 4.5 rebounds per contest.

Defensively, too, he’s gaining confidence, while building trust with his coaches. He struggled at times in the regular season finale against Ohio State, finding Buckeyes senior Jae’Sean Tate too much to handle.

Even so, Miller sees a player in Smith who is smoothing out the edges to his game on both ends of the floor.

“As a freshman versus a senior, you hope one day you look down the line and he’s able to do that to somebody,” Miller said. “But he’s building confidence that he should go into the offseason ready and motivated. And I think he can obviously be a game-changer as a sophomore with the amount of experience he’s got.”

But first, there’s at least one more game guaranteed to Indiana this season.

During this transitional year for IU’s program, the Hoosiers have laid a foundation for future seasons under Miller, playing their best defense in years, while also discovering the players able to shoulder greater burdens moving forward.

Smith certainly fits in the latter category, and he’s determined to close this season playing better, harder and tougher than at any other point in his basketball life.

That also means dunking on the opposition whenever possible.

“I’m just trying to come in, do my job, get rebounds, hone in on defense and make the little plays,” Smith said. “Points come if they come. Just trying to get the win, any way possible.”