When Mike Woodson arrived in Atlanta in 2004, prepared for his first NBA head coaching gig with the Hawks, he overtook a largely young and exuberant, yet inexperienced team.
The organization had selected Georgia high school phenom Josh Smith in the NBA Draft a few months prior, who had initially committed to Indiana University before deciding to enter his name into the draft. In Smith, Woodson had a potential franchise cornerstone — he’d go on to garner NBA All-Rookie Second Team honors and a Slam Dunk Contest title that season.
Yet, Woodson’s Hawks endured immense struggles. Atlanta went a league-worst 13-69 in 2004-05. Woodson said his team, which saw a pair of rookies log significant minutes, was still learning how to adjust to the NBA.
Woodson too, in his first season as the head man of an NBA squad, admitted he was still grappling with the responsibilities of the job.
“I started out with 18, 19, 20-year-old young men that didn’t have a clue in what the NBA was about,” Woodson said Thursday morning. “And I didn’t have a clue as a coach.”
At 2 p.m. Saturday afternoon, Indiana men’s basketball faces off against Auburn University at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta, the home of the Hawks. While Woodson started his stint with a trio of ultimately fruitless campaigns, his fortunes started to turn in his fourth year.
In 2007-08, despite the Hawks’ losing record, Atlanta earned a playoff berth. In what Woodson said came as a shock to the media, Atlanta took the eventual NBA Champion Boston Celtics to seven games in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoff.
With the impressive growth of Smith and the plentiful contributions from Joe Johnson and then-rookie forward Al Horford — who went on to become a bonafide star in Atlanta — Woodson had talented pieces to work with.
But effort and competitiveness, hallmarks of his coaching philosophy, remained at the forefront.
“Everybody kept saying, ‘boy you guys play hard. Boy you competitive,’” Woodson said. “But we just weren’t experienced enough to win games.”
Following two consecutive seasons with losses in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Hawks announced they wouldn’t extend Woodson’s contract. The 2009-10 season marked his sixth and final in Atlanta, and he’d go on to spend time with the New York Knicks and arrive in Bloomington in 2021.
Despite Woodson’s tenure ending somewhat unceremoniously in Atlanta, he holds no ill will toward the organization that gave him his head coaching start. He said Saturday’s game will be a special opportunity for those who have supported him since the outset of his time with the Hawks.
“I still have a home there, a lot of friends, people that supported me when I first started my journey as a head coach in Atlanta,” Woodson said. “It was important that I take a game back there.”
Just over 20 miles south of the State Farm Arena was where Indiana sophomore forward Kaleb Banks transformed into a heralded high school recruit. At Fayette County High School, Banks blossomed into a 4-star recruit in the class of 2022, and the No. 4 overall player in Georgia.
Banks was an enticing member of a recruiting class that featured now Los Angeles Lakers guard Jalen Hood-Schifino and the Hoosiers’ second-leading scorer in sophomore forward Malik Reneau.
And while he played sparingly throughout his freshman campaign — he logged over 14 minutes just once last season — Banks has flashed in an enhanced role this year. Against the University of Louisville on Nov. 20, Banks corralled eight rebounds, dished out three assists, blocked three shots and swiped a trio of steals in 25 minutes.
At 6-foot-8 and roughly 220 pounds, Banks isn’t confined to one position on the floor. He operated primarily on the perimeter in high school, but his athleticism allows him to guard multiple spots.
In his return to Atlanta on Saturday, Banks will likely maintain a similar usage rate he’s had off the bench all season. Still, he expressed considerable excitement for the homecoming.
“Once I first found out we was gonna play back in Atlanta, I was real excited,” Banks said Thursday afternoon. “Never thought that would be a chance or opportunity here at IU to play on the south side of things.”
Banks won’t be the only Hoosier player returning to their home state. Like Banks, freshman guard Jakai Newton grew up playing basketball in Georgia’s AAU scene. Newton played his high school ball at Newton High School in Covington, less than an hour drive from Fayette County.
A 4-star combo guard in last season’s recruiting class, Newton was the first of the group also consisting of freshman forward Mackenzie Mgbako and freshman guard Gabe Cupps to commit to Indiana. Yet, after a meniscus injury sidelined him for a chunk of his senior season, Newton experienced more setbacks in Bloomington.
Newton underwent a knee surgery prior to this season, and his timetable to return is unknown. Still, while he won’t suit up to play against Auburn, Newton’s return to Atlanta is vital, according to Banks.
Banks said the Georgia basketball scene put Indiana on its radar after seeing himself and Newton commit. Now, Banks thinks this game could help increase that pipeline even more.
“Indiana has become way bigger on the south side,” Banks said. “People knowing me and (Newton) took a chance on Indiana, came here to play, that just brings a lot of noise and attention to Indiana.”