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OPINION: The departure of Justin Smith and the room it makes for the future



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Then-junior forward Justin Smith dunks the ball before Minnesota could reach him in the second half March 4 at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. IU won against Minnesota. Anna Tiplick

No one really saw it coming, at least outside of the program. 

Justin Smith’s decision to go through the draft process this spring didn’t appear to be out of the ordinary.

Two seasons ago, Smith, along with then-junior Devonte Green and then-sophomore Al Durham announced they were entering the NBA draft. The purpose was to get feedback from scouts on what they need to work on in order to be selected in the future. Everyone knew all three would be returning. They all did.

So Smith’s entrance into the NBA pre-draft process seemed like nothing more than a routine checkup. Until suddenly it wasn’t.

There was no draft combine or showcase due to the coronavirus pandemic. The only real reason for Smith to explore that option didn’t make sense any more based on the circumstances. It seemed like only a matter of time before he would announce his return to IU. There was no reason that he wouldn’t, right?

The statement came at 11:55 a.m. Friday morning. Justin Smith wouldn’t be leaving for the NBA. He also wouldn’t be coming back to IU. After three years in Bloomington, Smith collected his degree from the Kelley School of Business and was headed elsewhere as a graduate transfer for his final year of eligibility.

The Hoosiers are losing one of their most durable players. Last season, Smith led the team in minutes played per game with just over 30, and started every game.

Smith was a calm presence on the court, never showing too much emotion. He provided experience and arrived as a freshman the same year head coach Archie Miller was hired.

Smith was a trusted figure and put up steady numbers. Last year, the 6-foot-7-inch Smith posted just over 10 points per game and 5.2 rebounds. There was also his elite athleticism. Smith recorded a standing vertical of 40 inches at the beginning of the season. It resulted in a variety of dunks and finishes around the rim.

From an alternative perspective, Smith only led the team in scoring in three games last season. Two of them were early season blowouts against Western Illinois University and Troy University. He only grabbed the most rebounds in a game for the Hoosiers once.

Smith became somewhat of a polarizing figure. Some fans praised him for his stability in the lineup. Others criticized him because they felt he underperformed with his size and physical traits.

With everything that Smith provided, or didn’t, the departure could help the Hoosiers gain experience that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible had he stayed.

More minutes will open up for rising sophomores Armaan Franklin and Jerome Hunter, and rising freshmen Anthony Leal and Trey Galloway. With the early arrival of five-star guard Khristian Lander, Franklin’s time on the court could have decreased, and Leal and Galloway could have been used sparingly. Now, they will be thrown into a larger role.

The game experience of those young guards will further prepare them for when they have to step into even larger roles in the coming seasons.

Furthermore, the heavily scrutinized lineup where Smith played at the small forward position won’t be an option any more. Smith was frequently on the floor with two other big men, usually rising senior forward Joey Brunk and rising sophomore forward Trayce-Jackson Davis.

Brunk and Jackson-Davis would be on the blocks, with Smith on the wing. But as a 25% career 3-point shooter, Smith was a nonfactor from the perimeter and most of his points came within 10 feet of the basket. Defenders could leave Smith and collapse on Jackson-Davis. Overall, the defense was able to be more compact and close driving lanes for guards.

Hunter, a more traditional small forward with a reliable jumpshot, will force defenses to stretch out and provide more room for big men to maneuver near the basketball. It will also allow guards like Durham more space to attack.

After Smith’s decision was public, some fans thanked him on Twitter. Others were happy to see him go.

Smith’s untapped potential didn’t reach its peak at IU, so he did what's best for him. In turn, as time goes by, it’s what’s best for the Hoosiers, too.

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