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COLUMN: Justin Smith is the secret to IU's success this season


Then-freshman forward Justin Smith follows through after dunking the ball during the Hoosiers' game against the Iowa Hawkeyes on Feb. 17 in Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa. Smith averaged 6.5 points per game last season. Evan De Stefano Buy Photos

Justin Smith had untapped potential that even he didn’t know about until this offseason.

During a summer workout, the sophomore forward maxed out on his vertical jump by unleashing a freakish 48-inch leap. It not only broke the IU program record, owned by Victor Oladipo, by six inches, but he also tied the all-time NBA Combine record as well.

After Smith's jump, IU Strength and Conditioning Coach Clif Marshall and a group of Smith’s teammates excitedly mobbed him, screaming and pushing him into one of the padded walls at Cook Hall.

“When it happened, I really had no idea I could do that,” Smith said. “It was really cool, but it was a lot of work in the weight room working on that kind of stuff, so it’s good to see it pay off.”

If there has been one aspect of Smith’s basketball repertoire that has been well-documented after his lone season in Bloomington, it’s his tremendous athleticism.

Smith said he already boasted a career-best vertical jump of 42.5 inches prior to this offseason, and he exhibited that with a number of electrifying dunks — and dunk attempts — last year.

But that’s exactly the kind of improvement the Hoosiers need out of Smith.

If he can take a similar leap and tap into his sky-high potential, Smith could emerge as a much-needed third scoring option behind senior Juwan Morgan and freshman Romeo Langford.

“He's really, really intelligent,” IU Coach Archie Miller said. “He did show signs last year where he really belonged, and I think now it's more consistency. It's more approach of production, especially finishing.”

Last season, Smith averaged 6.5 points and 3.2 rebounds as a freshman. With the type of intangibles he possesses, there isn’t any reason why he shouldn’t at least double those numbers this season.

Just one glance at Smith as he posed for promotional photos during IU’s media day Wednesday and one can see the kind of attributes Smith brings from a physical standpoint.

He has an impeccable frame at 6-feet 7-inches, and has bulked up closer to 235 pounds this summer. He also has long arms that can disrupt passing lanes and get around the rim with ease when scoring or rebounding.

And if his improved vertical showed anything, it just confirmed the kind of unbelievable athletic talent Smith truly is.

It now comes down to whether Smith can become a more polished and skilled finisher, regardless of if he’s streaking toward the lane or battling inside.

“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 that's the difference between averaging six or seven and maybe 11 or 12, maybe 13 on a deep team.”

If he develops as a finisher inside and can build a consistent jump shot from the outside, Smith could legitimately be the most well-rounded scoring option on IU’s roster.

“We’ve been shooting almost every day,” Smith said. “I’ve really been focusing on that this offseason and just getting up shots and getting up game shots.”

Even though a massive jump in offensive production seems probable, it isn’t nearly as crucial to the Hoosiers’ success as Smith’s potential to be a downright dominating defensive presence is this season.

When then-sophomore De’Ron Davis went out with a season-ending injury last year, it was a blessing in disguise for the Hoosiers because it gave Miller an opportunity to utilize IU’s best defensive strategy.

With no “traditional” back-up big man in place behind Davis, it forced Miller to roll out more small-ball lineups where Morgan would play center and Smith was the power forward.

Both of them can conceivably guard all five positions on the floor, giving those small-ball looks the potential to be extremely versatile.

Assuming Smith can take on a much larger role in that defensive system, it could give IU opportunities to switch screens at a high level and suffocate opposing offenses.

Although that strategy could signal a diminished role for somebody like Davis, who doesn’t necessarily fit that mold, it seems like the logical choice for Miller and his staff.

“It's actually one of the things we talked about a lot in the offseason, is being able to play a smaller lineup and being able to do more complementary switching on the ball,” Miller said. “Not as much off, but definitely on the ball where we're not in rotation as much.” 

That’s where Smith can take IU to the next level.

Yes, somebody needs to step up behind Morgan and Langford, and Smith seems like the obvious choice.

Junior Devonte Green has shown to be far too inconsistent to take on that role. Davis is still recovering from an injury and should probably see a decreased role. Senior Zach McRoberts is valuable defensively, but not an option offensively. Sophomores like Al Durham and Clifton Moore and Langford’s fellow freshmen all need time to develop.

If Smith can duplicate the flashes of unparalleled versatility he showed as a freshman, it could alter the identity of Miller’s team to an elite defensive level.

Smith’s talent isn’t just untapped potential anymore.

It can be transformative.


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