Smith, IU ready for latest leap

When he jumped, Justin Smith left the floor blind to where he was going.

By the time he landed, the sophomore had gone where no Hoosier had traveled before.

A summer workout inside Cook Hall illustrated the kind of leaps Smith hopes to make this season, both literally and metaphorically. The bouncy forward recorded a program-record max vertical of 48 inches during a training session on July 20, shattering the previous mark of 42 inches held by former IU All-American Victor Oladipo.

“I had no idea I could do that,” Smith said.

Indeed, it was quite the feat, one that Indiana strength and conditioning coach Clif Marshall says tied the NBA Combine’s all-time record. Smith has always had intriguing athleticism packed into his 6-foot-7, 227-pound frame, enough that made him the top-ranked member of IU’s 2017 signing class. Complementing that physical package with a more refined and assertive basketball skill set has been his mission since matriculating to Indiana last year.

This season, Smith feels poised to make that jump.

“I’m a lot more comfortable in the system,” Smith said. “Just being here and having a year under your belt, it really makes a difference.”

Juwan Morgan is the face of this year’s IU team, and Romeo Langford is the name to know. With the right approach, Smith could join their company as one of Indiana’s most valuable assets.

In doing so, that might make IU arguably the Big Ten’s most dangerous team.

By the end of last season, Smith fed hope that he’d be positioned for a developmental leap as a sophomore. He averaged 15 points and 4.5 rebounds across the final four regular season games, emerging as a secondary scorer on a team that craved such a punch.

Still, there was more he could have done. Too often, IU coach Archie Miller saw Smith miss opportunities around the basket, both in terms of scoring and rebounding.

So Miller challenged Smith to take more pride in using his size and athleticism to finish at the rim. During the course of the off-season, Smith has aimed to meet his coach’s demand.

“The biggest thing for Justin, in my mind, is to obviously use that great talent and athleticism and get points on the board,” Miller said. “So many times a year ago, you saw the explosive jump but you didn’t see the two points get on the board, or you didn’t get the and-one. … I think that’s something we’ve really hammered home with him in terms of his concentration level because he could probably put four to five more points on the board for us this season with the amount of repetitions he’s going to get, the amount of minutes that he’ll get.”

Smith, who averaged 6.5 points and 3.2 rebounds as a freshman, projects as a starter when Indiana’s season opens on Nov. 6 against Chicago State. To earn those minutes — and take the leap he and the Hoosiers hope he will make — Smith has to do more than just finish at the rim.

Providing a reliable defensive footprint at multiple positions is one things. Adding a consistent outside shot is another.

Taking and making open looks has been a focus for Smith, who went 3-for-10 from 3-point range last year. Miller wants Smith to develop more skill on the perimeter, which is where he’s spent a considerable amount of time practicing since March.

“We’ve been working on that in the off-season,” Smith said. “I look forward to showcasing it when the time comes, just doing whatever is needed.”

Although long-range shooting would be a welcome dimension to Smith’s game, his ability to take the next step will come down to how he asserts himself around the basket, both as a scorer and as a rebounder.

Playing through contact, drawing more fouls and using his athleticism more effectively on both ends are all areas that will allow Smith to complete his next jump.

When he does, Miller expects to see a player ready to rise to the top of the Big Ten.

“Justin has a chance to really be one of the best finishers in our league,” Miller said. “He has a chance to put more points on the board for us, and for him in general, I think (finishing is) the difference between averaging six or seven and maybe 11 or 12, maybe 13 on a deep team.”

3 comments

  1. It sounds as if this IU team, each player has a varied individual talent. We seem to always have 2 or 3 guys carry the load. Hard to imagine the ceiling of this team. Coach Miller and his staff have the opportunity to make this a special year for IU. This is his chance to step into the Brad Stevens level of Basketball.

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