It took just more than two minutes at the start of IU’s game at No. 2 Michigan last Sunday for sophomore forward Justin Smith to rattle the rim with a second-chance dunk.
After senior forward Juwan Morgan missed a 3-pointer, Smith soared from the right side of the basket, gathered and slammed the ball through the net in one fell swoop.
It was a glimpse of the potential Smith has flashed so often during his promising, yet still inconsistent, IU career.
The second-year player from Buffalo Grove, Illinois entered the 2018-19 season as the default response to the question of who would be the breakout player for IU Coach Archie Miller’s team.
“So many times I think a year ago you saw the explosive jump but you didn’t see the two points get on the board,” Miller said at IU’s media day on Sept. 26, 2018. “He did show signs last year where he really belonged, and I think now it’s more consistency.”
But results have been a mixed bag for Smith this season.
He has scored in double-digits six times this season, but has scored seven points or fewer five times. His rebounding numbers have also fluctuated, from a season high of nine against each of Penn State, the University of Louisville and Michigan, to 0 against the University of Arkansas and Jacksonville University.
This is to say Smith hasn’t distinguished himself as either IU’s third scoring option or as a tertiary defensive presence for the Hoosiers behind Morgan and freshman guard Romeo Langford.
While Smith’s varying sophomore campaign is reflected in his statistics, his last four games have shown an increase in box score production. He’s averaging 4.25 rebounds, 9.25 points and more than a block per game in his last four outings, two of which have been a part of conference play.
“I think you watch Justin and Juwan and their ability to cover and do some things,” Miller said after Smith recorded three blocks during IU’s Jan. 3 win against Illinois. “It’s really nice to see and our guys are playing hard.”
Regardless of his sporadic performances, Smith has maintained his starting place in the IU lineup this season, even during a particularly rough three-game span in November 2018. During those games, Smith averaged more than four turnovers per contest.
It was the worst game of this stretch, a five-turnover showing during IU’s blowout loss Nov. 27 at Duke University that stimulated more consistent play from Smith.
In the eight games since the loss, Smith has either recorded at least seven points or at least nine rebounds in each game. He also hasn’t had a game with more than three turnovers since Duke.
“I think if he takes care of the ball he’s going to be fine,” Miller said after IU’s Dec. 1 home win against Northwestern. “He’s a driver. He’s obviously over the rim. The more we can get him in transition, the better.”
Smith’s availability this season has also proven a crucial asset given the laundry list of injured IU players around him. The injury bug has hit IU at all positions this season, but particularly in the front court, with freshman forwards Jake Forrester, Jerome Hunter and Race Thompson, along with junior forward De’Ron Davis, among those sidelined with injuries this season.
The most recent of these injuries, an ankle problem suffered by Davis which kept him out of the Michigan game, places even more emphasis on Smith’s play for the Hoosiers as Big Ten play continues Friday night at Maryland.
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