Trayce Jackson-Davis had a choice to make.
He could either continue with the NBA Draft process — despite being excluded from the NBA Combine after a positive COVID-19 test — or return to Bloomington for his senior season with the Hoosiers. Jackson-Davis chose the latter.
That was May 2022, and eight months later, all signs point to Jackson-Davis having made the right decision — for his college career, for his NBA potential and for the glory of Indiana men’s basketball.
Jackson-Davis accomplished plenty in three years from an individual standpoint. He earned a handful of conference and national honors, recorded over 1,500 career points and nearly 800 career rebounds and led the Hoosiers to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2016.
But he wasn’t satisfied.
Since returning, he’s been vocal about his goals for the program, eager to leave a long-lasting legacy in Bloomington that stems beyond statistics.
"I set my standards high,” the captain said on May 23, just three days after he announced his return.
"I think the ceiling for our team is anywhere from a Big Ten championship to a national championship."
Fast forward to Jan. 11, 2023.
The Hoosiers had dropped their third straight game — this time in an uninspired 66-85 outing at Penn State — and were 1-4 in conference play. After sitting out of two nonconference winter break wins with a sore back, Jackson-Davis had then been a part of five consecutive losses dating back to blowouts against then-No. 8 University of Kansas and then-No. 10 University of Arizona.
A Big Ten championship was nowhere in sight, and a trip to the NCAA Tournament was far from guaranteed.
But apparently, it only takes one spark, one solid performance and one confidence boost to get back on track, and a Jackson-Davis-led Hoosier squad did just that. After defeating then-No. 18 Wisconsin 63-45 at home Jan. 14, Indiana has been nearly unstoppable.
Now on a four-game winning streak, the Hoosiers have risen back to the top-half of conference standings, and the fabled Big Ten championship is back within Indiana’s contention if positive trends continue.
Jackson-Davis has carried the Hoosiers on his injury-ridden back all season long, and now that the cortisone and confidence have set in, he’s easily the most dominant and talented player every time he steps on the floor.
He’s hitting milestones left and right, setting new career bests, joining the same statistical groups as NBA Hall of Famers and etching his name in Hoosier history. In Wednesday’s win at Minnesota, Jackson-Davis broke the program’s all-time blocks record and he isn’t far off from doing more damage to the record books.
Not to mention the handful of accolades Jackson-Davis seems to rack up on a monthly basis. On Monday, he was awarded Player of the Week honors by four different publications — the Big Ten, ESPN.com, the Naismith Trophy and NCAA March Madness — and has a total of 18 preseason and midseason awards for his senior campaign thus far.
Dunk after dunk, block after block, unbelievably difficult lay-in after unbelievably difficult lay-in, Jackson-Davis has been objectively insane; he’s a walking double-double, a certified Swiss Army knife and a human highlight reel.
He’s made Indiana men’s basketball must-see TV and, more importantly for his future, has raised his professional stock through an astounding increase in versatility.
“If you can find 25-30 people better than him in this NBA Draft, hey, I’ll kiss your ass.”
Bold words — especially when spoken by first-time acting head coach Yasir Rosemond in lieu of a COVID-19-afflicted Mike Woodson. But an unreasonable claim? Not anymore.
If he had chosen to stay in the 2022 NBA Draft, Jackson-Davis would have likely been a fringe second-round selection. A G-League career would have quickly approached him and you’d have been lucky to see Jackson-Davis' name on Twitter or national news once or twice the following season.
Now, he’s made a major jump in athleticism, ball handling, and both mental and physical toughness. And as Rosemond implied, Jackson-Davis' improvement could very well land him as a late first-round pick.
The big man has been dunking, distributing and defending at an elite level in 2023, elevating himself — literally and numerically — over the country’s best.
The scariest part of Jackson-Davis' mind-boggling performances? According to him, it’s nothing special.
“I’m just playing basketball.”
A 25-point, 21-rebound double-double, including the go-ahead bucket in the Hoosiers’ most recent win. Four straight conference victories with two coming in hostile road environments. Career-high numbers in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, field goal percentage and free throw percentage.
And he makes it look easy.
Maybe it’s Jackson-Davis' high standards or freakish natural talent speaking, but his elementary claim is definitely misleading — what he’s doing right now is far from ordinary.
It might just be basketball to him, but to the rest of Indiana, Jackson-Davis is history in the making.