Smith earning trust through defense

In a year’s time, Justin Smith has found his niche.

The bouncy sophomore is not yet the forceful scorer he might one day become. He’s still learning to limit mistakes and cut turnovers, while striving to harness his freakish leaping ability in a way that could make him a tougher Big Ten matchup in the seasons to come.

But as the rest of his game rounds into form, Smith has adapted to an all-important role inside Indiana’s lineup, earning his minutes in a crucial way.

“He’s as improved a defender as there is in our conference,” IU coach Archie Miller said. “(He’s) as improved a defender as I’ve coached in a year and a half.”

That’s high praise for Smith, a 6-foot-7 forward who relishes his assignments against the opposition’s top player. There’s still more ground for Smith’s offensive game to cover, and more development that needs to take hold before he fully enjoys his upside on that end of the floor.

In the meantime, Smith is giving the Hoosiers a valuable presence on the defensive end, earning the trust of his coaches all the while.

“He’s as trusted as we have,” Miller said. “He really is as trusted as we have.”

That’s because Smith has embraced the role he’s been asked to fill, guarding some of the most skilled scorers on IU’s schedule and delivering the results Miller desires.

In Sunday’s game against Michigan, Smith helped the Hoosiers limit Wolverines leading scorer Ignas Brazdeikis to merely 10 points — Brazdeikis’ third-lowest scoring output of the season.

Smith was also asked to challenge Louisville’s Jordan Nwora in the Dec. 8 meeting between the teams, and although Nwora totaled 24 points in the contest, Miller praised Smith for working hard and embracing the details in the matchup.

One of Smith’s finest efforts came while holding Penn State’s top player, Lamar Stevens, to 12 points on 5-for-13 shooting on Dec. 4. It was especially fulfilling work for Smith, who admitted that Stevens’ mid-range game gave him fits in last season’s contest in Bloomington.

But across the past year, Smith has developed a knack for handling such matchups.

“It gives me a challenge, especially when it’s a top-notch offensive player and being able to find different ways to stop them, or just limit their impact on the game,” Smith said. “It’s definitely something that I enjoy.”

Given the priority Miller has placed on defense — the Hoosiers rank 34th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency entering Friday’s game at Maryland — it’s something the IU coach enjoys, too.

“To cover inside out and be able to guard the 3-point line, guard the dribble, guard the post, defending ball screen actions, which is usually very tricky when you’re dealing with guys that he’s guarding because of the way they shoot and drive, I have a lot of trust in him,” Miller said. “Our staff does, as well, over the course of how the season has gone. When Justin is engaged and he competes, he’s a very, very impactful player for us.”

And, make no mistake, Indiana needs that impact to be felt on Friday at Maryland.

Given Maryland’s size — and IU’s fleeting depth — Smith could likely have to match up with Maryland big man Jalen Smith, a rangy, 6-foot-10 freshman who’s averaging 17.3 points per game in three Big Ten contests this month.

As he’s grown into his defensive role during the past year, Justin Smith carries with him a high confidence level that’s allowed him to face each assignment with the toughness and know-how to get the stops IU has required.

“Just having that one year from coming up my freshman year defensively, you know where you want to be in the right spots defensively, then I’m just combining that with my athleticism,” Smith said. “I’ve really been able to combine the two and get some good results on the defensive end. It’s been a point of emphasis that I’ve been working on this season, just trying to make a difference on the floor when I am in the game and just trying to build some sort of rhythm that way.”

At the same time, Smith has made strides with his ball security — a major cause for concern early this season.

During a six-game stretch beginning with IU’s Nov. 18 trip to Arkansas and ending with Indiana’s Dec. 4 trip to Penn State, Smith averaged 3.1 turnovers per game. His season-long turnover rate of 23.7 percent is still quite high, but Smith has been better lately.

In the Hoosiers’ past four games, he’s committed only four errors.

“He’s playing a lot smarter,” Miller said. “I think just in general, he’s learned where he can be successful. He’s also really, really concentrating on a couple things we’ve emphasized.”

Smith has also been a productive rebounder. He grabbed six offensive boards against Illinois and finished with nine total rebounds at Michigan.

At the same time, a jump in offensive production would go a long way for Smith and the Hoosiers.

He’s scored in double figures only twice in the past month and a half — a span of nine games — while going scoreless against Penn State and averaging only seven points in IU’s two games last week.

But Smith is doing enough to earn his keep.

He’s embraced the defensive expectations Miller has placed upon him, turning himself into a key piece inside IU’s lineup as the rest of his game comes into shape.

“Hopefully we can continue to keep him evolving as the season goes along,” Miller said. “But without question, he gives us a guy out there that I think really understands what we’re trying to do.”

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