While IU continues to evaluate the landscape for a potential late backcourt addition, things appear to be settled on the frontline after the addition of class of 2023 5-star Mackenzie Mgbako.
Five of the seven players from the 2022-23 team who won’t be back next season were forwards or centers, including all three starters. So it’s been a complete overhaul for coach Mike Woodson and his staff.
What does it look like next season if the roster is set? Below we take a look at the 2023-24 frontcourt as things currently stand.
An elite rebounding trio?
If Indiana’s starting frontcourt turns out to be Kel’el Ware (7-foot), Malik Reneau (6-foot-9) and Mackenzie Mgbako (6-foot-8), few teams in the country will be putting more length on the floor than the Hoosiers in 2023-24.
But will that size translate on the glass?
On paper it certainly seems like IU could be one of the best rebounding teams in the country next year.
Based on his freshman season numbers, Reneau has the potential to step in and provide an immediate upgrade on the glass for Indiana at the four. His offensive (9.4 percent) and defensive (18.8 percent) rebounding rates were both second on the team last year behind only first-team All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis. On a per-40 minute basis, Reneau averaged exactly 10 boards per game last season for the Hoosiers.
Ware should be Indiana’s first starting 7-footer since Cody Zeller, and he arrives in Bloomington with the potential to be a force on the glass. Ware’s offensive/defensive rebound rates of 7.3/21.9 percent last season with Oregon aren’t far off from Jackson-Davis’ 10.1/24.8 as a senior. Ware averaged 10.3 rebounds per-40 minutes as a freshman.
Rebounding might be Mgbako’s greatest strength coming into college. Tough-minded and aggressive, Mgbako averaged 9.2 rebounds per game as a senior at Roselle Catholic, and 7.4 per contest in 2022 on the Nike EYBL AAU circuit. It’s no secret rebounding was not Miller Kopp’s best attribute, so the Hoosiers should see a meaningful uptick in production on the boards from the three spot.
Pairing that group with above average rebounding guards like Xavier Johnson and Trey Galloway could lead to Indiana being one of the best teams in America on the boards.
Can they make threes?
We already know what you’re thinking. Indiana better be a good rebounding team — to grab all of those misses from the beyond the arc. Right?
If Indiana is finally going to leave behind inside-out, high-low, buddy-ball and all the other two-big descriptors you’ve grown tired of over the last few years, then at least two of its starting frontcourt trio need to be able to take and make a reasonable volume of threes next season.
Indiana fans still have night sweats from a 2019-20 starting lineup that included Trayce Jackson-Davis, Joey Brunk and Justin Smith, none which posed a legit scoring threat outside of 10 feet that year. This Ware-Reneau-Mgbako group isn’t that. All three of them, to varying degrees, have shown an ability to make perimeter shots. But none have proven it at a consistent rate on the high major stage.
Ware made 27.3 percent from three (on 55 attempts) at Oregon last year, and 44.8 percent of his 2-point jumpers. He’s got good shot mechanics, and has been respectable from the mid-range and the free throw line. IU is counting on him to pull opposing big men out of the paint and add a pick-and-pop component to their offense next season.
Reneau only attempted eight threes as a freshman, with the last coming against Ohio State in January. He made two on the season. Although most in the program believe Reneau can make threes, he’s likely a step behind Ware in terms of expectations from long range for next season. Nevertheless, perimeter shooting is a major focus area for Reneau this offseason. His 71.4 percent free throw make rate suggests he can achieve respectability.
Mgbako is interesting. If you read just about any analysis of game, you’ll come away with the idea that he’s a a 3-point assassin. But he made just 25.9 percent of his 3-pointers on 6.8 attempts per game on the Nike EYBL circuit in 2022. Mgbako has a good-looking stroke, but for now the best description might be capable but inconsistent from three.
Utilizing Reneau and Ware together
Indiana has the opportunity to be creative with how they utilize the skillsets of Ware and Reneau on the floor together.
If it turns out that Ware is the more significant shooting threat from long-range, don’t be surprised if he plays more of a stretch-four role on the offensive end. Indiana really likes what Reneau brings as a passer, and he has impressive footwork on the low-block, so playing him at the center of the offense might just be a better fit.
Ware’s block rate was 8.9 percent a year ago, in-line with Jackson-Davis’ 9.0. So when the Hoosiers are on defense, he and Reneau could flip roles to allow Ware the chance to provide the back-end rim protection they’ve enjoyed the last couple years under Woodson.
What’s reasonable from Mgbako?
Landing a 5-star recruit who already projects as a first-rounder in the NBA Draft almost always brings unrealistic expectations from the fan base. Any mention of Romeo Langford to this day will bring out the fans who call him a bust despite the fact that he was the top freshman scorer in the Big Ten and IU leader at 16.5 points per game despite playing with a dislocated thumb.
What Mgbako ultimately delivers for IU next season might just depend on whether they add another scoring guard to the roster. Without another addition IU will lean on him heavily for production from the wing. In any event, it won’t be surprising if he produces a double-digit scoring average next season and at least puts himself in the conversation for Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
The forgotten men
With all the buzz surrounding Ware and Mgbako, and the return of a high-profile player like Reneau, it’s easy to lose sight of the rest of Indiana’s 2023-24 frontcourt options. The Hoosiers have some intriguing pieces to work with. Collectively this group should be a real strength of the team.
It isn’t clear when 6-foot-7 Kaleb Banks will break out at the high major level, but he showed enough last season to lead you to believe he can be a key contributor at some point. A modern, versatile combo-forward, Banks is no doubt highly motivated this offseason after the addition of a similar player in Mgbako.
Few teams will be able to claim a second-team All-MAC player as their backup-center, but that’s what IU has in 6-foot-9 Ball State transfer Payton Sparks, and they get the added luxury of a guy who is thrilled to be in Bloomington.
Miami transfer forward 6-foot-9 Anthony Walker fills a real need for IU, with length and athleticism to guard multiple types at the forward position. There will likely come a time next year when the Miami transfer plays a key role on the defensive end against a versatile play-making forward.
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