Hoosiers’ Durham playing with confidence

It was simple advice from father to son, the kind Al Durham needed to hear during a season of crests and troughs.

Durham’s freshman season at Indiana was a mixture of emotions, careening between highly-efficient outings and a series of slumps. In other words, standard fare for most any newcomer to college basketball.

Through years of coaching and guiding his son through his basketball journey, Al Durham Sr. had developed a keen eye for what the younger Al needed. Sometimes it was tough love. Other times, reassurance.

Durham Sr. delivered the latter last February, just as Al was navigating the latest patch of turbulence.

“I told him, ‘Listen man, just play basketball,” Durham Sr. said. “Throw everything else out the window. You know how to play. You’ve played against everyone in the country. You know what to do. You know how to play. Just stop overthinking and play basketball.”

The words served as a reminder to the IU freshman. Durham, who held several high-major offers when he committed to Indiana as a high school junior in 2015, was clearly capable of playing at the Big Ten level. He just needed to believe it, remember it and play like it.

It’s a lesson Durham is putting to good use as a sophomore.

Indiana is getting a more confident version of the rangy, versatile guard this season. And it’s showing on the court.

Durham is playing — and defending — multiple positions, he’s serving as IU’s most consistent shooter both at the line and from beyond the arc, and he’s making good on his vow to be a better, more assertive player than he was a year ago.

“I just tried to amp my game up completely from last year, bring certain things to the table that I just wasn’t comfortable with last year, just making sure I was expanding my game all around,” Durham said.

Durham’s freshman season was good, just maybe not good enough for himself.

He appeared in all 31 games, starting nine while authoring a highly-efficient first few weeks of his college career. Last November, he went four consecutive games without a turnover while playing starter’s minutes, dishing 13 assists in that span.

Durham also displayed a knack for secondary scoring early in last season’s campaign, going 8-for-21 from 3-point range across his first nine games. His free throw rate — which measures his ability to get to the line — was also the highest among IU’s guards.

But Durham’s consistency and efficiency tailed off as the season progressed. That was no more apparent than along the perimeter, where he made only six of his final 28 3-point attempts of the year.

As his minutes dwindled, Durham’s confidence took a dive, too.

Shortly before IU’s 78-68 win over Illinois on Feb. 14, Durham’s father called with advice. The two talk often, if not most nights. This time, the advice seemed to resonate.

Just play basketball, Durham Sr. said. Play your game. The rest will take care of itself.

Durham responded with 14 points in 24 minutes off the bench against the Illini.

“Excuse my French,” Durham Sr. said. “He just had the mindset of, ‘I don’t give a (expletive).’ He said, ‘Just let me play basketball. Whatever happens, happens. I know how to play. Let me just play. That was it. I think right after that, he went into the summer like, ‘Listen, there’s no way I’m going to have the same year coming back. That’s not me. I don’t play like that. I’m way better than that.’ He worked hard.”

He worked out three times a day, in fact, dedicating his summer months in Atlanta to improving his shooting consistency, steadying his ball-handling and feeding his inner drive to compete with a loaded backcourt back in Bloomington.

It’s paying off now.

Aside from his scoreless performance against Louisville on Saturday, Durham has been one of IU’s steadiest players through the first 10 games.

He’s Indiana’s fourth-leading scorer at 8.3 points per game and his 42.9 shooting percentage from beyond the arc ranks second on the team behind Evan Fitzner (45 percent). Durham has also been one of IU’s top free throw shooters, making 13 of 17 attempts on the year.

On the other end, Durham has also been one of IU’s most consistent perimeter defenders, a quality that gave him value as a freshman even as his offensive outputs ebbed and flowed.

“Al has been good,” IU coach Archie Miller said. “He’s been good, working hard on both ends of the floor. He gives us an added weapon, a 3-point shooter. He’s shooting the ball really well. He’s an attacking guy off the bounce, can make plays.

“Need him to be on the floor more defensively where he’s not getting beat or reaching or fouling. He had a couple unnecessary ones, I think, (on Dec. 1) against Northwestern that limited his minutes. But he’s a big piece. He can play both guard spots for us, he can defend both guard spots for us. He knows what he’s doing. He’s our best communicator. He’s one of our loudest talkers. He’s a very valuable part to what we’re doing.”

Durham, who’s listed at 6-foot-4 and 181 pounds, has put on 20 pounds since he arrived on campus during the summer of 2017.

That’s about the only thing that’s changed with him.

That, and his confidence.

“It’s the same old Al,’ Durham Sr. said. “… It’s confidence, just not being afraid to make a mistake and not being afraid to play your game. He always could shoot. He’s doing things he always could do. Confidence was the biggest thing for him.”

Miller hesitates to call the sophomore guard a veteran, but that’s what Durham is playing like. He’s scoring on all three levels, he’s often defending the opponent’s top guard and he’s in lockstep with what Miller wants out of his backcourt.

His teammates notice, too.

“I just think it goes to confidence,” senior forward Juwan Morgan said. “He played a lot of games last year, a lot of minutes, and I think this year he’s just one of those guys that’s been through it. He’s been through the fire.”

Now, Durham seems to be better for it.

“I would say my teammates and coaches having confidence in me (has helped),” Durham said. “The multiple reps we had over the summer and during our year of practice, I feel like over the time, of course, it was just basically confidence and multiple reps (that have made the difference).”