As junior forward Justin Smith grabbed the loose ball, a low buzz began to build in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
It only took the high-flying junior two dribbles to travel two-thirds of the court before he soared through the air, finishing off with a Michael Jordan-esque one handed slam.
During the first half, Smith seemed to forget he was playing in an actual game as he turned two other fast breaks into a dunk contest, powering home a two-handed slam and an impressive windmill.
It was not just Smith’s athleticism — which has already been well documented during his three years in Bloomington — but his all-around game that shone through in IU’s 98-65 victory over Western Illinois University.
Smith joked during IU’s media day before the season that during the offseason he wanted to get better at “shooting, dribbling, passing and rebounding” but what wasn’t a joke was that his improvement from last season was noticeable.
Even though the Hoosiers were playing one of their many cupcake non-conference games against the Leathernecks, Smith dominated every aspect as he finished the night with 24 points, seven rebounds and three steals in 22 minutes of action.
“I feel like I’m the best in transition,” Smith said. “Being able to create turnovers and really get out and run and use my athleticism to really benefit our team.”
IU head coach Archie Miller has preached that he wants the Hoosiers to use their athleticism and go fast. For a team that wants to be built around speed and athleticism, Smith has the opportunity to be the perfect cornerstone of the IU offense.
At 6’7", 227 pounds, and the ability to jump out of the gym, Smith fits Miller’s archetype of a player perfectly.
Even though it was against Western Illinois, Smith showed how versatile he can be and the mismatches he can create.
Last season, Smith was asked to play down low at the power forward position and exploited his matchups by taking them to the outside. He used his unique combination of size and speed to blow past his defender. So far this season, however, Miller has tasked Smith with playing more of a wing position.
“It was a goal of mine to be able to be more aggressive and consistent on the perimeter,” Smith said. “I’m just lucky it’s coming to fruition.”
With such a rare combination of size, athleticism and skill there are very few players that can guard Smith. As he’s shown against Gannon University in IU’s lone exhibition, and against Western Illinois, no matter where Smith is placed on the court, he will find ways to score.
If he’s forced to play against a larger forward, Smith will gladly take his defender off the dribble or rise up for a three-pointer, which has slowly improved over the past three seasons.
When a smaller wing is tasked with guarding him, Smith has shown the wherewithal to take him into the paint and use his size to get to the rim.
Senior guard Devonte Green — who has yet to play this season for the Hoosiers — was tabbed as the offensive leader for IU during the preseason.
He checks all the boxes: sharpshooter, ability to create plays for himself and willingness to get his teammates involved. That’s still a large burden to shoulder as then-freshman guard Romeo Langford learned last season.
On top of that, it’s a big jump in expectations for a player that averaged only 9.4 points a season ago to suddenly become the go-to guy.
That’s where Smith comes in.
Most nights, Green's matchups will come down to pure skill, and whether he's on or not.
For Smith, he will be a matchup nightmare for most of the teams in the Big Ten and might sneakily be the true heir to the Hoosiers’ offensive throne.
“It’s definitely smart to use your advantage, especially when you have big guys on the wing like me, Jerome (Hunter), Damezi (Anderson),” Smith said. “Just using our strength and also quickness if a big guy comes to us, it’s just kind of pick your poison at that point.”